Do “natural” insect repellents work?

Not all products are created equal. Here’s what you need to know.

By Consumer Reports

Many consumers like the idea of ​​”natural” products. Around 2 in 3 people surveyed by market research firm Mintel in June 2020 said they prefer to use natural pest control and repellent products whenever possible.

At the same time, 66% of respondents also said that the performance or reliability of a pest control product or insect repellent is more important than the presence of natural ingredients.

It’s not always easy to achieve both of these goals – a high performing repellent that also uses what people think of as natural ingredients – in one insect repellent. In CR’s insect repellent tests, an active ingredient derived from a plant (lemon eucalyptus oil) and an active ingredient synthesized to mimic a chemical in a plant (picaridin) appear in our recommended repellents.

But several other plant-based ingredients, including lemongrass and soybean oil, typically land at the very bottom of our ratings.

The Natural Products Association, a trade group, has defended these low-scoring insect repellents by pointing out that there are variations in the effectiveness of all repellents, natural and synthetic.

But the gap between what works and what doesn’t is less random than this statement suggests. All of the top-rated repellents in CR’s ratings are registered with the Environmental Protection Agency, while few of our lowest-rated repellents are. A registration with the EPA means that the product has been evaluated by federal regulatory agencies to ensure its safety and effectiveness. The agency requires this verification for some chemicals, such as deet, picaridin and oil of lemon eucalyptus, but not others.

Here’s a quick breakdown of which compounds are registered with the EPA, which aren’t, and what our testing found. (Learn more about deet, a synthetic chemical registered with the EPA.)

Lemon Eucalyptus Oil (OLE)

What is that? It is 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 ingredient derived from a tree native to Australia known (among other names) as lemon-scented gum. The actual repellent chemical in OLE is called p-menthane-3,8-diol or, much more simply, PMD. It can be synthesized or extracted directly from the plant and has been shown to have good efficacy as an insect repellent.

Lemon eucalyptus oil, on the other hand, is distilled from the leaves and twigs of the lemon eucalyptus tree. The distilled product contains several plant substances, including lemongrass and a very small and variable amount of PMD.

Does it work? In our insect repellent tests, four of the eight products we evaluated that contain 30% OLE earned our recommendation.

Is it safe? The EPA classifies PMD as a biopesticide, which means it undergoes more safety testing than plants (see below), including oil of lemon eucalyptus, but less testing than plants. synthetic chemicals like deet and picaridin. Federal regulators and our experts agree that OLE is relatively safe.

OLE is not as well studied as some other repellent ingredients. But the research we do have suggests that any adverse effects are limited to eye and skin irritation. OLE should not be used on children younger than 3 years old, in part because research is lacking on OLE in young children. (Both deet and picaridin are considered safe to use in children over 2 months old.)

Repel Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent2

Cutter Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent Aerosol

Picaridin

What is that? Strictly speaking, picaridin is not a plant-derived ingredient; instead, it is chemically synthesized. However, its chemical structure mimics that of a compound found in pepper plants. It has been available as an insect repellent in the United States since 2005.

Does it work? Some (but not all) bug sprays containing 20% ​​picaridin worked well in our tests, but one wipe and two lotions made with this concentration performed poorly. Our testing can’t explain why picaridin seems to work best in spray form, but ignoring wipes or lotion formulations of this ingredient is probably wise. While a spray with 10% picaridin earned our recommendation, another didn’t, so we suggest sticking to sprays with a 20% concentration.

Is it safe? Picaridin can cause eye and skin irritation, but this is probably rare. In an analysis of poison control calls related to insect repellents, picaridin caused only a few problems, and almost none of them required a trip to a doctor’s office or the emergency room.

Sawyer Premium Insect Repellent

Natrapel Tick and Insect Repellent Aerosol

Botanicals

What are they? Botanical repellents, which often say “natural” on the product label, can include a number of plant-based chemicals. Some of the most common are lemongrass, lemongrass, peppermint, geraniol, soy, and rosemary. These ingredients can be oils extracted directly from plants or synthetic chemicals that exactly replicate their natural counterparts.

Do they work? These products are not registered with the EPA. Since the agency doesn’t consider the chemicals they contain to pose serious safety risks, it doesn’t bother to assess them. As a result, companies that make botanicals aren’t required to prove to federal regulators that they actually work. And CR’s tests have repeatedly revealed that they don’t work for long periods of time.

Are they safe? Yes and no. The chemicals in these products are unlikely to cause you serious harm, although they do contain known allergens, often in much higher concentrations than other natural products. But by using an unapproved botanical repellent, you put yourself at risk of serious mosquito and tick-borne diseases, some of which can be fatal.

The truth about insect repellents

Insect bites are bothersome and can also transmit disease. On the “Consumer 101” TV show, host Jack Rico visits Consumer Reports labs to find out how CR tests insect repellents to make sure you get the best protection.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated with new information.

Jeneen Interlandi and Catherine Roberts contributed reporting.

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