The Gardener’s Guide to Mosquito Repellent

By Andrea Pisani Babich
mosquito on green leaf

Mosquito bites can be the scourge of your summer fun. More than just irritating, mosquitoes bites can be dangerous. Mosquitoes are responsible for the deaths of over one million people each year worldwide. And while no repellent is 100% effective, there are several measures you can implement to reduce your exposure and minimize your chances of becoming a mosquito’s next bite.

The best way to repel mosquitoes is to apply an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)–registered insect repellent that includes one of the following active ingredients:

  • DEET
  • Picaridin
  • IR3535
  • Lemon eucalyptus oil
  • 2-undecanone

But don’t lean only on chemical repellents. You can minimize the risk of bites with a few simple steps.

How to prevent mosquito bites

Mosquitoes can’t spread their misery if they can’t bite you. The two main methods for reducing your chances of being bitten by mosquitoes are avoiding exposure and using effective mosquito repellent.

How to avoid exposure to mosquitoes

  1. Most species of mosquitoes feed at dawn and dusk and a few hours after dark. Limit your outdoor activities at these times. However, the mosquitoes that spread Zika, dengue, and chikungunya feed during the day and night. For these mosquitoes, the best protection is using effective insect repellent.
  2. Remember that mosquitoes are attracted to the carbon dioxide. If you are especially susceptible to bites, avoid exercising outdoors and take other precautions (see below) if your must be active outside.
  3. Wear mosquito-resistant clothing. Long sleeves, pants, socks, and sneakers offer limited skin exposure for mosquitoes to bite. Athletic wear made of synthetic fibers are more tightly woven than cotton and linen and help to frustrate mosquitoes’ attempts to bite. Wear clothing treated with permethrin, a chemical that repels mosquitoes. Opt for close-toed shoes since mosquitoes love to bite exposed feet.
  4. Eliminate mosquito breeding locations by keeping your yard clear of items where water can collect. Kiddie pools, buckets, birdbaths, even folds in tarps are all prime breeding grounds for mosquitoes. Clear potential breeding spots at least once a week.
  5. Bring a floor fan outdoors. Mosquitoes are not very strong flyers, so even a modest breeze can keep them away. Set the fan at foot level to blow them away from their favorite feeding spots.

Best mosquito repellents

There are many different kinds of insect repellents that keep mosquitoes away or keep them from biting you.

DIY repellents

Many people prefer to use natural repellents they can grow in their gardens. The essential oils from these plants smell delightful to us but are unattractive to mosquitoes.

  • Lavender
  • Lemon balm
  • Catnip
  • Basil
  • Peppermint
  • Sage
  • Rosemary

These strong-scented plants are most effective when their oils are applied to your skin. Simply cut a handful of leaves and crush them until the oils are released, then rub the oils on your exposed skin.

Or you can dilute store-bought essentials oils with water to less than 15% concentration for a solution that is strong enough to repel bugs but gentle enough to avoid skin irritation. Spray on exposed skin before heading outdoors.

Store-bought repellents

Products whose active ingredients are EPA registered have been tested for acceptable human toxicity and effectiveness. When choosing a mosquito repellent, look for one of the following active ingredients.

Keep in mind that higher concentrations of these active ingredients do not improve efficacy but increase the duration of their effectiveness.

DEET has been the gold standard in insect repellents since 1957. It has been reported to cause eye irritation, headaches, dizziness, and rashes in people who use it every day, but is considered safe by most public health authorities when used sparingly. Look for concentration of 7%–10% for short periods outdoors and 10%–30% for longer periods.

IR3535 is a good alternative to DEET with similar effectiveness. Look for 20% concentration for long-lasting protection.

Picaridin is recommended by the World Health Organization for its effectiveness in repelling mosquitoes without the potential side effects of DEET or IR3535—and it may repel mosquitoes longer. A 5%–10% concentration is recommended for short-term protection and 20% for longer periods of mosquito exposure.

Lemon eucalyptus oil is chemically synthesized in a lab to mimic an extract of the eucalyptus tree native to Australia. The CDC advises against using this repellent on children younger than three years old. A 10% concentration is recommended for short durations and 30%–40% percent for longer periods.

2-undecanone was just recently approved by the CDC as an effective insect repellent. It is a synthetic version of an extract from the wild tomato plant.

The EPA has a quiz that helps you find the best mosquito repellent for you.

Mosquito torch in backyard

Mosquito bites are serious business

Malaria, Dengue, Yellow Fever, West Nile Virus, and Zika Virus are just some of the most common diseases spread by biting mosquitoes. And humans aren’t the only victims of these menacing insects. Dogs and sometimes cats can be infected with heartworm spread by mosquito bites and dangerous Eastern Equine Encephalitis infects horses and humans bitten by mosquitoes carrying the virus. Take as many measures as possible to protect yourself and your family from mosquitoes’ potentially disease-transmitting bites.

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