The 10 Best Natural Insect Repellents and Bug Sprays for Travel

Mosquito

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Natural insect repellents offer a more skin-friendly alternative to DEET bugs sprays that often contain potentially damaging chemicals. Natural ingredients such as citronella, peppermint, and lemongrass can be just as successful at keeping bugs at bay without the use of potentially harmful alternatives.

Whether you are planning on enjoying summer evenings at home or traveling overseas, a good insect repellent is worth its weight in gold to keep those nasty little bugs at bay.

What is Insect Repellent?

In simple terms, an insect repellent is a substance that can help to prevent the unwanted attention of little critters that may like to sting or bite you. They are designed to completely repel the bugs or minimize the effect of any contact by making the skin less attractive to a wide variety of pests.

There are many ways to apply insect repellent to your skin, as well as diffuse it into the air around you to help keep bugs away. The most common types of natural insect repellents include creams, lotions, and roll-ons, as well as lanterns, torches, diffusers, candles, and sprays.

Insect repellents don’t just help to prevent against annoying bites and stings, they can also offer a substantial layer of protection against the more serious side effects of interactions with bugs. These can include severe allergic reactions, including anaphylaxis, and in some countries, they can even spread serious illnesses such as Lyme disease and malaria.

Insect repellents are a useful addition to your household, whether you are sitting at home on the deck on a balmy evening, taking a camping trip, or even just to throw into your children’s school bags. In certain parts of the world, they are an absolute necessity for your travel health.

Bottom Line: If you are planning a trip to Africa, South Asia, parts of Central and South America, the Caribbean, and even the Middle East, you will need a strong and effective repellent to help protect you from mosquitoes. They could be carrying malaria, Zika, and other nasty diseases.

Types of Insect Repellents

Dad and son use mosquito spray
Image Credit: Elizaveta Galitckaia via Shutterstock

While there is no one-size-fits-all solution to keeping bugs from having at you, the most commonly found insect repellents usually contain at least one of the following ingredients.

DEET

First developed by the U.S. Army in 1946, DEET is the common name for N, N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide. It is a chemical compound that deters and repels mosquitoes by interfering with neurons and receptors located on their antennae. It also offers protection against flies, ticks, fleas, chiggers, midges, and gnats.

DEET has also been proven to be one of the most effective insect repellents available and one that is able to maintain its effectiveness for many hours after the initial application. In some parts of the world, it is recommended that you apply a DEET-based repellent with a maximum of 50% concentration to ensure you are well protected from malaria and other tropical diseases.

While DEET is incredibly effective and mostly safe to use, it can be harsh on the skin if used for prolonged periods of time. It is also thought to have a negative effect on the effectiveness of sunscreen, and in some cases, the combination of DEET creams or sprays on the skin can lead to a more than a 30% reduction in SPF.

DEET is also known to be able to stain, break down, or even melt some plastics and other surfaces, which is a worrying trait for something that you would willingly apply directly to your skin.

Permethrin

Permethrin is a topical insecticide that is often used to treat head lice, nits, scabies, and various species of ticks. Available in creams or lotions, it also highly effective when sprayed directly on to clothing, mosquito nets, and other soft-touch surfaces.

In recent years, the U.S. Army has been providing military personnel with permethrin-impregnated clothing in field operations to help protect them against the ill effects of tick and mosquito bites.

While permethrin is an effective repellent against most bugs, especially those with bites and stings that can cause longer-term conditions in the human body, its broad-spectrum compound means it is also toxic to cats, fish, bees, and other animals.

Permethrin also starts to lose its effectiveness if mixed with oils on the skin, meaning it not as suitable for use on exposed areas where sunscreen will also be applied.

Hot Tip: There are 3 types of insect repellents that are marketed as “natural,” but it should be noted that these are, in fact, man-made compounds that resemble naturally-occurring chemicals. 

Picaridin

This synthetic compound resembles the natural active ingredients in piperine, which is found the plants that are used to produce black pepper. It works by repelling insects and making them less likely to bite or sting.

It is often found in sprays, creams, aerosols, and wipes, and although it is very much still a man-made compound, it is considered to be a more natural alternative to DEET.

Picaridin is odorless, non-greasy, and does not dissolve plastics or other synthetics, as well as being particularly effective against ticks, black flies, sand flies, no-see-ums, midges, and other biting insects.

Despite the fact that picaridin is newer to the market than DEET, there is already good evidence suggesting that it can be as effective as DEET without causing any of the best-known side effects.

While it may cause some topical irritation to the skin and occasional eye irritation, it does seem to be a good choice for those not wanting to use a DEET-based product.

Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus (OLE)

OLE is an oil extracted from the eucalyptus tree that contains the chemical PMD. Synthesized lemon eucalyptus oil is a potent repellent and is highly effective against mosquitoes, ticks, and other biting pests.

This natural alternative to DEET and picaridin provide reasonably long-lasting repellent capabilities, without some of the commonly found side effects, including skin irritation and damage to plastic and other surfaces.

While OLE does indeed offer a good layer of protection against the bites of disease-carrying mosquitoes and other insects, it is relatively new to the market.

This means that there has not yet been a great deal of research undertaken to fully access what, if any, side effects may present with ongoing use of the product as an insect repellent.

IR3535

IR3535 ( Ethyl butylacetylaminopropionate) is an effective repellent that works well against midges and other biting insects in European and North American environments.

However, it may not offer a sufficient level of protection to be solely relied upon in tropical countries where insect bites can lead to diseases such as Zika, dengue fever, or malaria.

IR3535 works well against insects that are looking to bite and feed off you, including mosquitoes, midges, sand flies, biting flies, fleas, and ticks, and chiggers. It doesn’t, however, work particularly well on spiders, bees, wasps, and hornets.

Manufactured as an alternative to DEET, and having been in use for more than 30 years, IR3535 is skin-friendly and safe for use in children and pregnant women.

The Different Applications

There are different ways to use and apply insect repellents that can offer varying levels of effectiveness. The most common way to protect yourself against bug bites is by applying a spray, cream, or lotion to your skin. This is usually the best way to ensure that they leave you well alone.

Formulas such as permethrin are also particularly effective when applied to clothes. You can even buy permethrin-impregnated clothing that provides odorless, wearable protection against ticks, mosquitoes, chiggers, biting flies, ants, and spiders. If you do choose to spray your clothing, or buy pre-treated ones, be aware that you will still need to rub a repellent cream onto your exposed skin.

Finally, airborne insect repellents can offer a limited amount of protection from mosquitoes and keep them away. This can be useful in enclosed areas, but these sprays will not work on other pests and may smell bad or damage the surfaces where the droplets land.

The Best Natural Inspect Repellents

Natural Protection Against Diseases

REPEL Plant-Based Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent, Pump Spray

This DEET-free insect repellent takes its protective power from the oil of lemon eucalyptus and has a pleasant, refreshing scent and a light, non-greasy feel. Designed to offer up to 6 hours of protection from 1 application, this plant-based insect repellent comes in an easy-to-apply pump-spray and is perfect for use in the garden or out and about in warmer weather.

Using only natural properties, you and your family can still enjoy protection against the unwanted attention of mosquitoes and the nasty diseases they can carry with them, including Zika, West Nile, dengue, and the chikungunya viruses.

A Great Addition to Your Camping Kit

Cutter Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent, Pump Spray

Perfect protection against bugs when camping, playing in the woods, or simply enjoy spending time in your garden, this natural insect repellent uses oil of lemon eucalyptus to keep the bugs at bay.

With a clean, cool scent and a non-greasy formula, this spray offers up to 6 hours of protection, but should be reapplied if you are planning on staying out all day.

The natural ingredients create an effective barrier against mosquitoes, including those that may be carrying malaria or the West Nile virus. The easy to use pump spray container can even be used upside down for the application.

6 Hours of Protection From a Single Application

Coleman Naturally-Based DEET Free Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent

This DEET-free insect repellent uses oil of lemon eucalyptus to offer natural protection against itchy mosquitoes bites and the more serious diseases they can carry, including Zika, dengue, chikungunya, and the West Nile virus.

Perfect for time spent outdoors, this non-greasy, lemon-scented bug spray comes in a handy travel-sized spray container, and each application will remain protective for up to 6 hours at a time. Unlike products that contain DEET, this insect repellent is gentle enough to not harm your watches, tents, or bedding, while still being effective against insects.

Keep You Garden Bug-Free With Natural Incense Sticks

Murphy’s Naturals Mosquito Repellent Incense Sticks

Keep your outdoor area free from unwanted visitors with these natural mosquito repellent sticks. Using all-natural ingredients including rosemary, peppermint, citronella, lemongrass, cedarwood essential oils, and bamboo, these insect repellent incense sticks are great for keeping your dining table, campsite, or play area bug-free.

The sticks are designed to offer up to 2.5 hours of protection, and they let off a pleasant, refreshing scent while burning. As a great alternative to DEET sprays or creams, these naturally repellent incense sticks can provide up to 12 feet of protection against mosquitoes and the diseases they carry.

Natural Insect Repellent for Your Purse

BUGGINS Natural Insect Repellent 0% DEET

With a light and pleasant vanilla scent, this little spray bottle of DEET-free insect repellent works wonders at keeping a variety of flies, gnats, and no-see-ums away, while also repelling mosquitoes for up to 2 hours.

This repellent uses natural ingredients including geraniol, peppermint, lemongrass, and clove essential oils to keep the bugs at bay. Just as effective whether you are relaxing in your yard or heading out into the wild, this non-greasy, natural insect repellent is perfect for keeping in your purse or backpack.

A Gentle Natural Insect Repellent for Your Little Ones

Babyganics Travel Size Bug Spray

With no nasty ingredients like DEET, parabens, sulfates, phthalates, artificial fragrances, or dyes, this is a natural repellent spray that is gentle enough to keep your little one protected.

Cruelty-free and made using 100% natural essential oils, including citronella, peppermint, rosemary, lemongrass, and geranium, this spray will help keep mosquitoes, gnats, flies, and others unwanted beasties away from your baby.

The non-greasy formula is easy to apply to sensitive skin, and the hypoallergenic, natural ingredients will leave your child’s skin soft, without creating dry patches.

Completely DEET-free, this little bottle is small enough to carry around with you in your purse or diaper bag for easy application when you need it.

Natural Protection for Kids on the Go

All Terrain Kids Herbal Armor Natural DEET-FREE Insect Repellent

Offering an entirely natural, oil-based formula, this DEET-free insect repellent spray is perfect for kids on the go. From camping to schoolyards, and everything in between, this natural formula will repel bugs without damaging clothing or irritating skin.

Using an effective blend of soybean, citronella, peppermint, cedar, lemongrass, and geranium essential oils, parents can feel assured that their children’s delicate skin is protected from mosquitoes, gnats, and other insects, while still using only non-toxic and natural ingredients.

Bottom Line: The Herbal Armor range promises to be environmentally-friendly and cruelty-free.

Contactless Protection for Babies and Children

Dr. Talbot’s Mosquito Repellent Clips for Baby & Toddler with Natural Ingredients

These cute little clip-on buttons can help protect your baby or toddler from the unwanted attention of bugs, gnats, and even mosquitoes. With an active blend of citronella and lemongrass oil, these clips will keep bugs at bay without insect repellent creams or sprays.

They can be clipped to clothing, prams, diaper bags, and much more, and are great for camping, traveling and days in the sun. Being 100% DEET-free, these clever little clips can remain effective for up to 30 days.

A Legendary Wonder Product That Really Works

LOT OF 2 Avon Skin-So-Soft Bug Guard Plus Picaridin With Vitamin-E & Aloe Spray Pump

This legendary Avon product has been used by savvy travelers for many years to help deter unwanted bugs. This particular formula has now been designed with that purpose in mind and contains 10% picaridin, which naturally protects against bites and stings, as well as vitamin E and aloe to keep your skin smooth and soft.

Skin So Soft can repel mosquitoes for up to 5 hours, and deer ticks for up to 7, and the 100% DEET-free pump spray has a pleasant “Gentle Breeze” scent.

Long-Lasting Picaridin Repellent

Sawyer Products 20% Picaridin Insect Repellent

With an increased and incredibly effective 20% picaridin formula, this insect repellent spray is also available in a variety of pump sprays, lotions, and even cute little lotion packets, making it a great choice for those looking for DEET-free protection the go.

The safe and harmless ingredients can remain effective against mosquitoes and ticks for up to 14 hours and up to 8 hours against the annoying bites and stings you can receive from biting flies, gnats, chiggers, and sand flies.

With all-natural ingredients, the Sawyer insect repellent is safe for the whole family and won’t damage your clothing, bags, or travel equipment. With regular applications, you can even protect yourselves against viruses, including Zika and malaria.

Final Thoughts

Bug bites and stings are itchy and annoying at the best of times. Throw into the mix the possibility of contracting a potentially dangerous disease from these teeny tiny unwanted visitors and you can see just how important it is to keep them at bay.

If you don’t want to smother your skin with chemicals, products containing natural alternatives can be just as effective at keeping you and your family safe all day.


All information and content provided by Upgraded Points is intended as general information and for educational purposes only, and should not be interpreted as medical advice or legal advice. For more information, see our Medical & Legal Disclaimers.


Frequently asked questions

What is the best natural insect repellent?

Products that contain oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE) or picaridin are considered to be the best natural insect repellents. They are synthesized, so not wholly natural, but are great alternatives to DEET.

Is DEET harmful to your health?

DEET has been used since the 1940s as an insect repellent and regarded as safe for use by the Environmental Protection Agency. However, there are some notable side effects of DEET use that include irritation, redness, rashes, and swelling. Some studies have also shown that DEET can reduce the effectiveness of sunscreen.

Is 15% DEET enough?

A DEET percentage of 15% would not be adequate enough to provide protection. Doctors recommend products that contain between 20 to 50% DEET concentrations. Alternatively, you could use DEET-free products such as oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE) and picaridin that have been shown to be just as effective.

What scent do mosquitoes hate?

Natural insect repellents offer a more skin-friendly alternative to DEET bugs sprays that often contain potentially damaging chemicals. Natural ingredients such as citronella, peppermint, and lemongrass can be just as successful at keeping bugs at bay without the use of potentially harmful alternatives.

What types of insect repellent are there?

There are many ways to apply insect repellent to your skin, as well as diffuse it into the air around you to help keep bugs away. The most common types of natural insect repellents include creams, lotions, and roll-ons, as well as lanterns, torches, diffusers, candles, and sprays.

Amar Hussain

About Amar Hussain

Amar was born and raised in England, UK, embarked on an 11 country round the world gap year after graduation and then became well and truly hooked. The first gap year inspired a second which ended up being a 23 country down-the-world trip from Canada to Antarctica. Since then Amar has endeavored to turn his gap year into a ‘gap life’ and has spent the last 10 years traveling the 7 continents.

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