I was born in Minnesota, the land of 10,000 lakes, great fishing, muggy summers, and of course, mosquitoes.
(There, the mosquitoes are so large and so thick that I remember joking with friends that mosquitoes should be named the State Bird.)
But what to do to repel these pests when you don't want to expose your children to DEET, a known neurotoxin? ((Evidence for inhibition of cholinesterases in insect and mammalian nervous systems by the insect repellent deet)) , ((Hazardous Substances Database)) , ((The American Academy of Pediatrics begs to differ – their recommendation states that small amounts of DEET are safe even for infants as young as two months.))
One way is to grow your own herbs and plants that act as mosquito repellents. These plants are most effective when their leaves are crushed or broken, but even having them in the garden or around the patio can help minimally. And many of them have other uses as well (culinary, medicinal, decorative, etc).
For the simplest application, merely crush the leaves and rub them on your skin and clothing. With a bit of extra time (but not a lot of work), you can make essential oils that are much more concentrated. And if you decide you don't want to use your own plants, you can purchase a ready-made herbal insect repellent.
Catnip – A relative of mint and usually heralded as a cat's best friend, catnip contains nepetalactone, the oil that gives it its distinctive scent. Nepetalactone has been shown in preliminary research to be 10 times as effective as DEET ((Iowa State University 2010 study)), although my thinking is you'd need to use a fair amount of catnip leaves to equal the isolated nepatalactone oil. Regardless, catnip is certainly aromatic, easy to grow, spreads readily, and very easy to pick. (Plus, if you've got a cat, they'll thank you for growing their favorite treat.)
Citronella – Citronella is one of the most effective mosquito repellent plants that exists, as can be seen in the commercial use of the plant. The bush itself is actually a tall, hardy grass that can grow well anywhere as long as there isn't frost. If you live in an area where frost or freezing occurs like I do, plant the citronella in a planter that can easily be moved so you can haul it inside during the winter months.
Lemon Eucalyptus – Lemon Eucalyptus works so well as a mosquito repellent that its essential oil is actually endorsed by the Center for Disease Control (CDC). ((http://www.webmd.com/allergies/features/are-you-mosquito-magnet?page=2)) , ((http://www.picaridin.info/lemon-eucalyptus.htm)) It's got a lovely scent, too, so it's easy to wear. It's most effective as an essential oil, but crushing its leaves creates a lovely fresh, lemony, menthol-y aroma.
Thyme – This one may not be the most potent, but it's one plant every home should have. Our little bush sees constant use: placing stems under a roasting chicken's skin, tossing leaves in my husband's scrumptious omelettes, or crushing the leaves to use as insect repellent. While all herbal mosquito repellents need to be reapplied more often than chemical-based ones, thyme even more than others needs to be reapplied often in order to have any effect.
Peppermint – This little plant is easy to grow and is incredibly useful. You can pick the leaves to steep fresh for tea, you can munch the leaves as a mouth freshener, and they work as a mosquito repellent. I like to grow peppermint in small pots, as it can spread very very easily and quickly become a nuisance in the garden, but that may or may not be a problem for you. As a repellent, treat it as you would any other botanical: crush the leaves between your fingers and rub it all over your skin and your clothing.
Lavender – There is only preliminary evidence showing that crushed lavender blossoms are effective at repelling mosquitoes, but lavender essential oil is present in more than 10% of herbal insect repellent patent requests. ((Patent literature on mosquito repellent inventions which contain plant essential oils–a review.)) I decided to include lavender in my list here merely because it smells SO. GOOD. Why not smell heavenly while you sit outside enjoying a summer evening?
Bee Balm (Bergamot) – This beautiful blooming plant has many medicinal and culinary uses – mosquito repellent among them. And unlike many of the other plants listed here, bee balm works to repel mosquitoes not only when crushed but while alive and thriving in the garden. There is also a related plant called Rose-scented Monarda that is even more effective at keeping mosquitoes at bay due to its high levels of geraniol, a rose-scented compound that mosquitoes find highly repugnant.
Mosquito Repelling Essential Oils
Essential oils contain concentrated amounts of the various compounds found in the original botanicals, so they are especially effective. Strong woody, floral, and herbal scents tend to be the most effective. You can make your own essential oils if you so desire or purchase them.
What's especially fun about essential oils is that you can make your own blends, according to what you find pleasant and what works for you.
There are two basic recipes for homemade mosquito repellents:
- for oils that you rub into your skin: drop 15-20 drops of each essential oil into a base of 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil. Mix well and dab the oil on as you would perfume, rubbing it into the skin as you go. (suggestion: use clove oil, cinnamon oil, and cedar oil for a festive blend or use lavender oil and vanilla extract for a relaxing scent)
- for a mosquito repellent spray: drop 15-20 drops of each essential oil into a base of 1/4 cup vodka (suggestion: use eucalyptus oil and tea tree oil for a potent, earthy-scented bug spray)
Here are a list of essential oils that are especially recommended for use as an insect repellent (in no particular order, of course):
Clove Oil ((Prevention of Vector Transmitted Diseases With Clove Oil Insect Repellent, Shapiro, R. Journal of Pediatric Nursing, Volume 27, issue 4 (August, 2012), p. 346-349.))
Tea Tree Oil
Tips for Using Natural Mosquito Repellents with Children
We often choose natural products for the sake of our children, yet with any mosquito repellent, natural ones included, use them cautiously with young children. Often they are not recommended merely because young children tend to put everything in their mouths or rub their eyes with their hands. If you do use crushed plants or concentrated oils with your child under three, consider rubbing the plant only where it's unlikely they'll be able to touch it, like the back of the neck, the back of the legs, and shoulders.
Alternatively, dress your child in long-sleeved-but-lightweight clothing and rub the botanicals on the clothes, which will minimize undue exposure.