Mosquito Repellent - Why Ingredients Matter

The mosquitos are in full tilt y'all! When I was a  camp counselor, I spent many summers getting kids to spray their bug repellent when we would hike or sleep out in the woods. We COATED them in DEET.  Folks - we can do better -   

DEET is considered the most effective and longest lasting repellent available for topical application as it was developed as a pesticide in the 1940's for the military.  It is said to have "minimal impact" on the environment (though it is "slightly toxic" to birds, fish and aquatic invertebrates according to the EPA), and has been deemed as "slightly toxic" for humans when used properly (like by grown ups).  And properly involves these steps amongst others:

  • Do not apply to children’s hands. (what?)
  • When using on children, apply to your own hands and then put it on the child. (who does this??!)
  • After returning indoors, wash treated skin with soap and water. (yep, this doesn't happen either)
  • Do not apply on or near: acetate, rayon, spandex or other synthetics [other than nylon], furniture, plastics, watch crystals, leather and painted or varnished surfaces including automobiles. (because it will eat through it - literally - but totally spray that on your arms 😳)
  • If in eyes: Hold eye open and rinse slowly and gently with water for 15-20 minutes. Remove contact lenses, if present, after the first 5 minutes, then continue rinsing eye. Call a poison control center or doctor for treatment advice.

So do you want to use it?  Me neither.

Back to being at camp, having been a counselor and spraying kids down with DEET at a campout while making dinner over the fire, we never washed their hands before they ate as we never knew we were supposed to (nor did we really have a way to do that as it was pre hand sanitizers) and they absolutely ate s'mores with DEET sprayed hands.  

Additionally, DEET can irritate since it is technically a bug neurotoxin. DEET interacts with insects’ nervous systems so that they can not smell human sweat and blood. This explains that numb feeling you get if you accidentally spray it on your lips. We know kiddos and pets tend to get their mouths on things, so they might experience this more than us. DEET also has very high skin absorption and, although it will be eliminated quickly, it is recommended that you only spray areas that are exposed.

So, what to do if you want to make sure your fur babies and human babies aren’t accidentally absorbing or ingesting DEET? Essential oils have far less risks than DEET and are effective at warding off mosquitoes and ticks (the EPA even thinks so!). It is recommended that multiple essential oils be blended in one repellent so they can work together to increase efficacy. Certain essential oils actually work against each other, so we created a blend of oils that work synergistically.

After many incarnations, our Deet-Free Mosquito and Tick Repellant contains a blend of

  • Citronella
  • Lemongrass
  • Geranium
  • Eucalyptus
  • & Cedar Wood essential oils. 

Citronella and Lemongrass are plant cousins and both mask the scents that attract insects. Geranium oil is a tick repellent. While the floral scent of geranium is pleasant to us, bugs find it repulsive. This is how the geranium plant has evolved to protect itself from pests!  Eucalyptus and Cedar Wood are bonus oils that work in combination with the three active ingredients for that synergistic effect I mentioned.  


Essential oils are known to be volatile in the environment, a word that sounds scary but really just means they evaporate quickly, so they don’t last as long as DEET. These oils are effective for up to two hours. As such reapplication is key.  

If you do get a bug bite, a dab of Tamanu Oil can help to keep you from scratching and allow it to feel better!

Have fun in the outdoors!


Written together with June Solow.

Updated June 2024.


  • Erin's Faces

    Catherine – ha!! They’re good with herbs and plants and such so I wouldn’t be surprised!! xo

  • Catherine Flynn

    “While the floral scent of geranium is pleasant to us, bugs find it repulsive.”
    I wonder if Parisians know this, and if it’s why they always have them in their window boxes. I think I need to go and find out…
    Hope you’re well!

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