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April 2022

The Latest on Natural Insect and Tick Repellents

Along with warmer weather, budding trees, and blooming flowers, spring also awakens a new season of insects. Some are simply annoying, while others can transmit dangerous diseases. It’s important to guide patients towards effective repellent products, particularly as the natural repellent industry expands.

Lemon eucalyptus oil is one of the most popular ingredients in these products - it might be listed as “OLE” or “PMD” on product labels. When it comes to mosquito bites, concentrations of 40-75% seem to be similarly effective to some DEET-based repellents. The CDC considers topical lemon eucalyptus oil as an effective alternative to low concentrations of DEET. It also might help repel ticks. Applying a lemon eucalyptus oil extract three times daily might reduce tick bites by 65% for people living in tick-infested areas. But stay away from “pure” oil of lemon eucalyptus products - it’s not clear if these contain the same amount of active ingredient or if they have the same effects.

Soybean oil is another option to consider. It seems to work about as well as some DEET-containing products for repelling mosquitoes. Health Canada considers soybean oil as an effective alternative to low concentration DEET products. But it only lasts about 1.5 hours compared to the 4-12 hours of protection from products containing higher concentrations of DEET. And there’s no evidence that it can help repel ticks.

A variety of other essential oils are also promoted as natural insect repellents, including lavender oilpeppermint oillemongrass oil, and citronella oil. But only citronella oil has supportive evidence showing it might actually help, and concentrations need to be over 10% for only 20 minutes of protection. This is much shorter than DEET-containing products. It’s also not clear if citronella oil protects against tick bites.

Remind patients that using effective repellent products, particularly when in tick-infested areas, is very important. While some natural repellents might help, they should only be used alongside proven prevention methods, such as wearing long pants and high socks, applying DEET- or picaridin-containing repellents, and checking for ticks during and after outdoor activities. Also, if you suspect you’ve been bitten by a tick or have a bug bite that looks concerning, seek medical treatment right away.

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