Do 'Natural' Insect Repellents Work?

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It’s a simple question, one that CR readers frequently ask us: Do natural insect repellents work? 

The answer, however, is a bit complicated. Two of the three active ingredients that have regularly earned recommended status in our insect repellent ratings—picaridin and oil of lemon eucalyptus, or OLE—are derived from plants. But several other plant-based chemicals, including lemon grass 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 none 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.

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 oil extracted from the gum eucalyptus tree (native to Australia); the actual extracted chemical is called PMD and has demonstrated efficacy as an insect 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, we found that one product, Repel Lemon Eucalyptus, 30%, warded off mosquitoes for more than 6.5 hours. Other OLE products in our ratings gave mixed performances. Two products, also with 30 percent OLE, provided between 3.5 and 5 hours of protection against mosquitoes. And two other OLE repellents performed a little worse than that. (Digital and all-access members can see our ratings for full details.)

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.

But it’s important to use OLE repellents carefully and as directed, because when misapplied they can cause temporary eye injury. The product hasn’t been well-tested on children, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Consumer Reports advise against using OLE-based repellents on children younger than 3.

Picaridin

What is it? The picaridin molecule is synthetic, meaning it’s made in a laboratory by chemists. But it was modeled after—and closely resembles—a chemical found naturally in black pepper plants.

Does it work? Research suggests that at concentrations of at least 20 percent, picaridin can provide as much protection from bug bites as deet. Our testing also shows it to be a high performer; two spray repellents that earn our recommendation contain picaridin. But we also found that concentration and formulation matters. Concentrations lower than 20 percent performed poorly in our tests, as did picaridin lotions and wipes.

Is it safe? Repellents containing picaridin are EPA-registered and subject to the same level of EPA safety evaluation as deet and other synthetic chemicals. The agency found, and our experts agree, that picaridin is safe, even for use on infants. But use as directed, because if misapplied picaridin can irritate your skin and eyes. 

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 lemon grass, 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 well.

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.

Consumer Reports has no financial relationship with advertisers on this site.



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