Keeping biting insects at bay is tricky business—of course you don’t want to douse yourself in potentially dangerous chemicals, but at the same time, you really don’t want to end up with Zika, West Nile, or Lyme disease.
The problem: Most natural insect repellents, many of which are made from safe ingredients such as essential oils and apple cider vinegar, aren’t effective and could put you at risk for one of these serious ailments.
(Like what you're reading? Sign up for our newsletter to get health insights, clever kitchen tricks, gardening secrets, and more—delivered straight to your inbox.)
In fact, even the Environmental Working Group (EWG), known for their disdain of any ingredient that is remotely toxic, considers essential oils “not effective” and actually recommends the synthetic active ingredients DEET (20-30%), Picaridin (20%), and IR3535 (20%) as their top picks when it comes to choosing a repellent that gives pregnant women the best chance of avoiding Zika.
That's not to say they think these ingredients are without risk. There is no "completely safe way to prevent bug bites. All bug repellents have pros and cons," states the EWG website. "But some repellents [like these] are effective and relatively low in toxicity."
There is one natural ingredient, however, that is considered safe and effective for the average person at repelling mosquitos and ticks (though pregnant women may still want to opt for one of the options above) by the EWG and Consumer Reports: oil of lemon eucalyptus.
First, though, let’s get one thing straight, oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE) is not the same thing as lemon eucalyptus essential oil. You will find countless natural bug sprays containing the latter and you should avoid them. OLE is an oil extracted from the gum eucalyptus tree, and the actual extracted chemical is called PMD, which has demonstrated effectiveness as an insect repellent. Even the CDC says that OLE-containing products "provide repellent activity sufficient to help people reduce the bites of disease-carrying mosquitoes."
In fact, the OLE-based product Repel Lemon Eucalyptus earned Consumer Reports’ approval this year, as it was able to ward off insects, including mosquitos, for at least 7 hours. Research has also found that applying a product containing 30% oil of lemon eucalyptus three times daily significantly decreased the number of tick attachments experienced by people in tick infested areas; however, it may not be quite as effective against ticks as DEET, Picaridin, and IR 3535, which are the only 3 active ingredients that the CDC technically recommends to repel ticks.
Related: 5 Ways To Protect Yourself From Zika
Ultimately, picking an insect repellent is a personal decision that will vary based on your specific needs and how common certain pests are in your area, but if you do opt for a OLE-based insect repellent, the EWG recommends one that contains a 30-40% concentration.
Here are 4 products that fit the bill (but keep in mind, they shouldn't be used on children under 3 years old).