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Going Buggy? Natural vs Synthetic Insect Repellents – What’s The Difference?

Post by Sandy Powell on May 24, 2014

Going Buggy? Natural VS Synthetic Insect Repellents – What’s The Difference?
By Sandy Powell R.A.H.P

Anyone who’s idea of the great outdoors involves something more than opening a window will let you know the annual rite of slapping one’s self and waving hands in the air has begun as the black flies, mosquitoes and deer flies make their presence felt.

Mosquito on hand

Those focused on protecting their blood supply while maintaining health face a choice: use products with synthetic chemicals or natural ingredients. For consumers wishing to pursue the latter, one of the more useful and popular natural pest control options is essential oils. However, effective use of them requires a different strategy from the one-spray approach of most commercial insect repellents.

To make informed decisions, it is important to understand the industry’s choice to use synthetics and why essential oils still do not have a strong presence in the mass market place even though they are quite effective.

Why Are Synthetic Insect Repellents Widely Used?
The cosmoceuticals industry typically uses single synthetic actives (SSA), the most common being DEET. These chemicals are low cost, consistent, can be used in high quantities without apparent dermal reaction to the masses. Their low volatility (evaporation) allows for them to be applied to the skin and remain active for up to 8 hours. These stable actives also make it possible for companies to patent their formulas.

The downside is that insects are developing resistance to these SSA’s and there is mounting evidence of toxic side effects to humans, wildlife and the environment.


Why Are Natural Insect Repellents Not Widely Used?
Which leads to the other side of the equation – why are natural compounds not in regular commercial use? Essential oils are extracts from plants containing many natural chemical constituents. The chemistry and strength vary from season to season and geographical region which makes them slightly inconsistent, much like wine. Using these raw materials also makes it difficult to patent a formula. Essential oils are also far more expensive than SSA’s which will dramatically increase the cost of manufacturing the product. These factors alone make it unlikely that mass market companies will use them.

The highly volatile nature of essential oils means that frequent applications are necessary as the mixture will dissipate quickly. To make a product using essential oils which would even come close to the staying power of an 8 hour application containing SSA’s, the mixture would have to contain somewhere in the range of 5-10 % essential oils.

Basic safety protocols in essential oil use dictate a maximum of 3%. Formulas over 3 % sold in the USA must be registered with the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and formulas over 10% are banned. There is also the probability that these strong formulas will cause moderate to severe dermal reactions. Just because something is natural does not mean it will not have adverse side effects.

Benefits of Using Essential Oils
The upside of essential oils is that insects rarely develop resistance to them. In fact, many essential oils operate as natural pesticides within the plant. They are far more friendly to humans (in smaller doses), and the environment. The natural aromas are more pleasing to our primal sense of smell plus the added benefits of anti-oxidant, antiseptic and immune boosting properties (just to name a few) have an overall positive effect on our health.

It would appear that the choices for consumers are to purchase mass produced, convenient, easy to use, low priced insect repellants with potentially detrimental risk to health and environment; or higher priced, natural, environmentally friendly products which are beneficial to health yet require more attention to strategic use and repeated application.

basil leaves

In deciding upon the more natural route, you may find some smaller market companies which create their products in limited batches. In Canada, there are many legal obstacles to navigate in attempts to bring natural insect repellents to market. Regulation of approved ingredients and the disallowance of claims on labels for most natural alternatives becomes quite a barrier for most small companies. Thus, there are limited choices in this area.

Create Your Own Natural Pest Management Regimen
There is a third option however which is to take control and create your own. My basic approach during bug season is to make one’s whole environment unpleasant to pests by incorporating specific essential oils into daily routines. This includes laundry, cleaning products, shampoos, body wash, topical creams, body sprays, room fresheners etc.

All bases used to mix the essential oils (vegetable oils, creams, lotion, soaps etc.) should be **plant based and unscented. They should also be free of paraffin or petroleum products and synthetic fragrances. Many products which contain these ingredients will not only interfere with the essential oils, but attract insects as well.

As mentioned previously, many essential oils act as natural pesticides within their own plant environment. However, a few select are shown to have excellent properties for repelling certain pests.

While there are many essential oils which are useful, I focus on those which are known to be very effective based on their chemistry, industry research, are relatively safe, inexpensive and easy to obtain.


lemongrass essential oil is a very effective insect repellent.

lemongrass essential oil is a very effective insect repellent.


My list of favorites includes:
basil, **bergamot, camphor, catnip (must contain nepatalactone), citronella, cedarwood, *clove, *cinnamon, lemon eucalyptus, geranium, **lemon, lemongrass, palmarosa, patchouli, ti-tree.

You do not need to be professionally trained to work with essential oils or to produce some effective products for yourself and family. Learning to use essential oils in this manner does requires some education and time to make mixtures, however the benefits are certainly worth it and you may actually have some fun experimenting with new creations.

**For more guidelines on suitable, unscented, plant based cosmetic bases to mix the essential oils with, refer to our blog and articles for the next few weeks on tips for simple, effective use of these oils for your environment and safe topical recipes for the skin. Please visit our online store to purchase some of these useful ingredients.

Never use any essential oils undiluted on the skin. Keep away from eyes. Essential oils are for external use only. Never apply essential oils to children under 5 without consulting a professional.
Essential oils marked with * are not recommended to be used on the skin and are more effective for indirect or environmental use.
Essential oils marked with a ** are not to be used in direct sunlight.

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