Do 'Natural' Insect Repellents Work?

Not all products are created equal. Here's what you need to know.

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insect repellant Photo: Consumer Reports

Many consumers love the idea of “natural” products. About 2 out of 3 people surveyed by market research firm Mintel In June 2020 said they prefer to use natural pest control and repellent products whenever possible. 

At the same time, 66 percent of those surveyed also said that the performance or reliability in a pest-control product or bug repellent was more important than it having natural ingredients. 

It’s not always easy to achieve both of those objectives—a high-performing repellent that also uses what people think of as natural ingredients—in one bug spray. In CR’s insect repellent testing, one active ingredient derived from a plant (oil of lemon eucalyptus) and one active ingredient synthesized to mimic a chemical in a plant (picaridin) show up in our recommended repellents.

More on Insect Repellents

But several other plant-based ingredients, including lemongrass and soybean oil, typically end up at the very bottom of our ratings.

The Natural Products Association, a trade group, has defended those low-scoring insect repellents by pointing out that there’s variation in the effectiveness of all repellents, natural and synthetic.

But the discrepancy between what works and what doesn’t is less random than that statement suggests. All of the top-rated repellents in CR’s ratings are registered with the Environmental Protection Agency, while few of our bottom-rated ones are. An EPA registration means that the product has been evaluated by federal regulators to ensure safety and effectiveness. The agency requires this verification for some chemicals, such as deet, picaridin, and oil of lemon eucalyptus, but not for others.

Here’s a quick breakdown of which compounds are EPA-registered, which aren’t, and what our testing has found. (Read more about deet, a synthetic chemical that is EPA-registered.)

Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus (OLE)

What is it? It’s important not to confuse this product with lemon eucalyptus oil. The names are very similar, but the two chemicals are quite different. OLE is an ingredient derived from a tree native to Australia known (among other names) as lemon-scented gum. The actual repellent chemical in OLE is called p-menthane-3,8-diol or, much more simply, PMD. It can be synthesized or extracted directly from the plant and has been shown to have good efficacy as a bug repellent.

Lemon eucalyptus oil, by contrast, is distilled from the leaves and twigs of the lemon eucalyptus tree. The distilled product contains several botanical substances, including citronella and a very low and variable amount of PMD.

Does it work? In our insect repellent testing, four out of the eight products we’ve evaluated that contain 30 percent OLE earned our recommendation.

Is it safe? The EPA classifies PMD as a biopesticide, which means it’s subject to more safety testing than botanicals (see below), including lemon eucalyptus oil, but less testing than synthetic chemicals like deet and picaridin. Both federal regulators and our experts agree that OLE is relatively safe.

OLE isn’t quite as well-studied as some other repellent ingredients. But the research we do have suggests that any adverse reactions are limited to eye and skin irritation. OLE shouldn’t be used on children younger than 3, in part because research is lacking on OLE in young children. (Deet and picaridin are both considered safe to use on children older than 2 months.)

Picaridin

What is it? Strictly speaking, picaridin isn’t a plant-derived ingredient; instead, it’s synthesized chemically. However, its chemical structure mimics that of a compound found in pepper plants. It’s been available as an insect repellent in the U.S. since 2005.

Does it work? Some (though not all) bug sprays containing 20 percent picaridin have performed well in our tests, but one wipe and two lotions made with that concentration scored poorly. It’s unclear from our testing why picaridin appears to perform better as a spray, but skipping the wipe or lotion formulations of this ingredient is probably wise. Although one spray with 10 percent picaridin earned our recommendation, another one didn’t, so we suggest sticking to sprays with a concentration of 20 percent.

Is it safe? Picaridin may cause eye and skin irritation, but this is probably rare. In one analysis of poison control calls related to insect repellents, picaridin caused only a few problems, and almost none of them required a visit to a doctor’s office or emergency room.

Botanicals

What are they? Botanical repellents, which often have "natural" on product labeling, can include any number of plant-based chemicals. Some common ones are lemongrass, citronella, peppermint, geraniol, soybean, and rosemary. Those ingredients can be oils extracted directly from plants or synthetic chemicals that exactly replicate their natural counterparts.

Do they work? These products aren’t registered with the EPA. Because the agency doesn’t consider the chemicals they contain to pose any serious safety risks, it doesn’t bother to evaluate them. As a result, the companies that make botanical products aren’t required to prove to federal regulators that they actually work. And CR’s testing has repeatedly found that they don’t work for long periods of time.

Are they safe? Yes and no. The chemicals in these products are unlikely to cause you any serious harm themselves, though they do contain known allergens, often at much higher concentrations than other natural products. But by using an unregistered botanical repellent, you expose yourself to the risk of serious mosquito- and tick-borne diseases, some of which can be life-threatening.

The Lowdown on Insect Repellents

Bug bites are annoying, and they can also transmit diseases. On the "Consumer 101" TV show, host Jack Rico goes inside Consumer Reports’ labs to find out how CR tests insect repellents to make sure you are getting the most protection.

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated with new information.

Jeneen Interlandi and Catherine Roberts contributed reporting.