Written by Grove Collaborative

We tried it: What are the best natural mosquito repellents?

Last Updated: June 30, 2021

Mosquitoes are disease vectors, and their bites are no fun, even if they’re “clean.” Mosquito protection is a must, and here’s how natural repellents hold up. Grove writer, Kristen Bailey, tested out three natural mosquito repellents in her humid Nebraska back yard. She’s here to report the results.

Female mosquitoes are the blight of the backyard and the bane of many a backwoods camping trip. Your protein-rich blood provides the female’s eggs with the nutrients they need to hatch into strong little mosquitolings, roughly half of whom will grow into big girls who will lay eggs of their own that need your blood to thrive.


Fun fact: Male mosquitoes only drink plant nectar and do not bite for blood.


Only around 200 of the 3,000-plus known species of mosquitoes throughout the world are found in the United States, and just 12 of these are vectors of mosquito-borne diseases that can go into your blood through their saliva — even if you’re not allergic to their bites.


Although mosquito-borne illnesses are pretty rare in general, the most common in the U.S. include dengue, West Nile virus, and Zika virus.

So, which is the most effective mosquito repellent?

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the most effective mosquito repellents are the ones containing any of the five chemicals that are approved and registered with the FDA: DEET, picaridin, oil of lemon eucalyptus (aka OLE or PMD), IR3535, and 2-undecanone.


The CDC especially recommends using one of these repellents when you’re in a place that is heavily populated with mosquitoes.


Although chemical repellents like DEET get a lot of negative attention, most medical and scientific experts — including the Environmental Working Group — agree that when used as directed, these substances are much safer than people assume. They’re much safer than an infected mosquito, anyway.

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Do essential oils like citronella really work for mosquitoes?

Nevertheless, many people — including me — prefer to save the big guns like DEET for a deep-woods camping trip and use natural repellents for everyday protection in the backyard.


Since essential oils are generally regarded as safe (GRAS) by the EPA, the agency hasn’t evaluated their effectiveness against mosquitoes. This leads some people to believe that essential oil repellents aren’t effective — but that simply isn’t true.


According to Colorado State University, some essential oils are just as effective at repelling mosquitoes as picaridin and DEET. The problem is, essential oils are volatile — they evaporate quickly — so you have to reapply them often.


Cornell University lays out the deets on minimum-risk pesticides, including these well-studied essential oils that just happen to be ingredients in the three natural repellents I tried:

Soybean oil and olive oil

Soybean and olive oils slow the evaporation of essential oils once they’re on your skin. A mosquito repellent with two-percent soybean oil offers one to four hours of protection against bites.


Twenty-percent olive oil solutions have a 71 percent repellency rate for up to eight hours.

Citronella oil

Citronella oil is as effective as DEET upon application, but it evaporates super fast. Even if you apply it directly to your skin — but don’t! — it only provides protection from mosquitoes for a paltry 20 minutes.


When it’s combined with soybean oil, it can repel mosquitoes for several hours, depending on the formulation.

Lemongrass oil

According to a 2015 study, lemongrass essential oil exhibited a repellency higher than IR3535 but lower than DEET. Lemongrass oil applied to the skin offered 74 to 95 percent protection against mosquito bites for two and a half hours.


A combination of lemongrass oil and olive oil offered 98.8 percent protection against mosquitoes for three hours.

Rosemary oil

A recent literature review found that a 20 percent oil solution of rosemary oil offered 100 percent protection against a particular mosquito species for eight hours, and a 12.5 percent rosemary oil solution offered 100 percent repellency for 90 minutes.

GROVE FAQ

What smells do mosquitoes hate?

It’s not the scent of a repellent that keeps the mosquitoes away, exactly. Rather, the natural or synthetic chemicals in the repellents jack up the receptors and neurons on the mosquitoes’ antennae so that they can’t smell or otherwise perceive your bounty of blood — it’s all about masking scents, human blood scents, really.

We tried it: Are natural mosquito repellents effective?

Heat and humidity are my glory, but I’m definitely in the minority around these parts, because as soon as the temperature hits 70 degrees fahrenheit, Nebraska cranks up the A/C, and every enclosed structure in the state becomes a walk-in cooler — including my own house.


So this is my office from mid-May to mid-September. It’s situated on the side patio under the dense canopy of the pear tree and just 18 inches away from the giant fire bushes behind me. Mosquitoes love it here, so if I’m not diligent with the repellent, I get plenty bitten up while I work — especially in the evenings, and most notably after it rains.

The products: Three natural mosquito repellents from Grove

The three plant-based mosquito repellents I tried are vegan and cruelty-free. They’re all free of DEET and other synthetic chemicals, and they’re considered safe to use on big kids, little kids, infants older than six months, elders, people with allergies, and the immunocompromised.


But just because essential oil mosquito repellents are considered safe doesn’t mean they’re for everybody — allergic reactions to plant oils are common. If you have any plant allergies, try the repellent on a small patch of skin first. Also, because of pesky biology, not everyone gets the same level of protection using the same oils.


It’s very important to reapply any mosquito repellent after the amount of time stated on the label. But while you should never apply conventional repellents more often than directed, it’s perfectly okay (delightful, even!) to spritz, wipe, or slather yourself as frequently as you wish with natural repellents made with essential oils.

Experience 1: Aunt Fannie’s Mosquito Spray & Wipes

Aunt Fannie’s Mosquito Spray comes in a rectangular, clear plastic bottle that’s compact enough to fit in a small purse or big pocket. Aunt Fannie’s Mosquito Wipes are packaged in a plastic dispensing box, also compact enough for purses and pockets. Both options contain the same ingredients, including citronella, lemongrass, and peppermint essential oils, soybean oil, and vitamin E.


The first thing I noticed about Aunt Fannie’s was the luscious scent. It smells like a citronella candle, but more complex — it’s crisp and citrusy, woodsy and earthy.


The second thing I noticed is that both the insect repellent wipes and the spray are super duper oily. But the soybean oil base improves protection, slows the evaporation of the volatile essential oils, and it makes your skin gloriously soft.


Just don’t touch your clothes after you rub it in unless you want grease stains. (If you do get it on your clothes, read these tips for removing oil stains from clothes — we get you!)


Directions for use: “Apply evenly over exposed skin every four hours.”

For three days, while I worked on the patio, I alternated spraying and wiping Aunt Fannie’s on the front side of my left leg. I left the front side of my right leg fully unprotected.


As you can see, Aunt Fannie’s did a bang-up job of protecting half of me from bites.

Shop Aunt Fannie's mosquito repellents

Get up to four hours of protection from mosquitos and other nasty bugs with Aunt Fannie's Mosquito Repellent Spray. This mosquito spray is sulfate-, triclosan-, paraben-, and DEET-free.


Prefer your insect repellent in a wipe? Try Aunt Fannie's Mosquito Repellent Wipes for up to four hours of protection from nature's most annoying insects.


Who is Aunt Fannie?


Find out the story from the owners of Aunt Fannie’s themselves, and learn about their all-time favorite natural cleaning and pest products.

Shop more mosquito repellents

Pros of Aunt Fannie’s:


  • Smells like heaven
  • Super easy to apply
  • Extra-moisturizing
  • Very effective
  • Wipes are biodegradable

Cons of Aunt Fannie’s:


  • Suuuuuper greasy!
  • The wipes come in a hefty plastic container that seems a little excessive for just 25 wipes.

Verdict:

I really love Aunt Fannie’s Mosquito Spray — and so does my neighbor’s dog, George. (Pardon the blocking out of my embarrassing, overgrown two-month-old pedi.) I’ll for sure add Aunt Fannie’s Mosquito Spray to my arsenal, but I wouldn’t purchase the wipes on account of the massive amount of plastic packaging — and rather steep price — for just 25 applications.

Experience 2: Murphy’s Naturals Mosquito Repellent Balm

My Murphy’s Naturals Mosquito Repellent Balm came in a cute little tin, which makes my heart beat just a little bit faster. It’s small enough to slip in a small pocket and carry along with you, but it’s also small enough to lose, which I did — twice — before I got around to using it.


I struggled mightily with opening the tin. It’s designed like a shoe polish tin, but without the little metal key thingie that pries it open. I finally figured out a hack — just press your thumbnail into the gap until it hurts, and slide it all the way around.


Once I finally got it open, the scent made up for the trouble. It’s wonderfully citrusy and fresh.


Directions for use: “Apply to area of exposed skin to be protected.” Well, yes, we get that — but how often? Murphy doesn’t say.

For those same three days, I slathered the back of my right leg with Murphy’s and left the back of my left leg alone. The balm is pretty solid at first — hi, beeswax! — then as it warms up under the heat of your fingers, it softens up a bit.


Applying it to a large area of skin is kind of tedious. You have to rub your fingers on the balm and rub the balm into your skin — but each two-finger load only covers a couple of square inches, so it takes a while to get full coverage.


Difficulties aside, Murphy’s Naturals Mosquito Repellent Balm did what it was supposed to do, as you can see in the photo opposite.

Pros of Murphy’s Naturals:


  • Smells divine
  • Not as greasy as Aunt Fannie’s
  • Comes in a cute tin
  • Small and transportable

Cons of Murphy’s Naturals:


  • No reapplication directions
  • Hard to open
  • Takes forever to apply
  • Doesn’t go on very smoothly

Verdict:

Love the tin, love the size, love the smell. Don’t love the attention span it takes to apply Murphy’s, but if you only need it on small patches of skin — like your ankles and the backs of your hands — it’s a winner!


Otherwise, I’d definitely choose the stick version of this product.

Shop more of Grove’s selection of all-natural mosquito repellents

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