Can This Essential Oil Deter Summer Pests?

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Hate stinky bug spray almost as much as you hate bugs? This one essential oil might be the answer, but make sure you buy the right product!

Unfortunately, in most parts of the world, mosquitos and ticks go hand-in-hand with hot summer weather. Beyond being annoying, they’re also dangerous. Mosquitos can carry West Nile Virus and a host of other things you don’t want. Tens of thousands of people in the U.S. contract tick-borne Lyme disease every year. Chemical-based insecticides can keep these summer pests at bay, but many have an aversion to the odor and potentially harmful chemicals insect repellents contain. Yet for many users, natural bug repellents, most often derived from essential plant oils, just aren’t as effective as DEET and other chemical solutions.

However, there is one contender for natural pest control that may actually live up to its hype — a specific type of eucalyptus oil. Here’s a look at what it can and can’t do, and why all eucalyptus oil isn’t created equal.

Eucalyptus Oil for Pest Control

You may know eucalyptus oil can be an effective repellent for biting and parasitic insects like mosquitoes and ticks. But, of the more than 800 species of trees and plants in the eucalypteae “tribe” (as the grouping is known among botanists), only one of them produces an oil that’s actually been proven to repel bugs. Corymbia citriodora, commonly known as lemon eucalyptus or lemon-scented gum tree, only occurs naturally in parts of Australia, though the trees are available for purchase in the U.S.

It’s important to read the labels when you buy a eucalyptus oil bug repellent, and here’s why:

  • Oil of lemon eucalyptus, which will be labeled as OLE or PMD (for p-menthane-3,8-diol) is sourced from the leaves of lemon eucalyptus. If you buy an insect repellent that contains “oil of lemon eucalyptus,” OLE or PMD, you’re getting a formula that’s been verified in studies, one as recent as 2016.
  • Products labeled as containing lemon eucalyptus essential oil aren’t the same thing. It’s confusing, we know! Lemon eucalyptus essential oil contains only trace amounts of PMD, and therefore doesn’t have the same ability to repel insects.

The 2016 study in the Wilderness and Environmental Medicine Journal showed that oil of lemon eucalyptus/OLE/PMD was as effective, or more effective, than DEET in repelling the following insects:

  • Anopheline mosquitoes, which carry malaria;
  • Culicine mosquitoes, which carry arboviruses, including Dengue fever and West Nile virus;
  • Ticks, including deer ticks, which carry Lyme disease;
  • Flies and biting midges (called “no-see-ums” in some parts of the U.S.).

Because it contains small amounts of PMD, lemon eucalyptus essential oil can help repel bugs — a little. But it doesn’t last nearly as long as products with higher concentrations of PMD, and it doesn’t dissuade the bugs nearly as effectively.

How To Use Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus for Pest Control

When shopping for a product containing PMD, do your homework. When we inserted the search term “oil of lemon eucalyptus” on Amazon, the results that came back were virtually all lemon eucalyptus essential oil, not — repeat not! — the same thing. Instead, a search for “PMD insect repellent” turned up a few options, including pump-spray formulas from Cutter and Repel. Read the label and make sure you’re buying a product that contains oil of lemon eucalyptus, not lemongrass oil, lemon eucalyptus essential oil or other ingredients that are either less concentrated or not derived from the same trees.

These spray products can be applied topically, just like any other mosquito spray, to skin and clothing. If you’re spending an extended amount of time outdoors, you’ll want to reapply every two hours.

Other Essential Oils and Natural Forms of Pest Control

Oil of lemon eucalyptus may be the only essential oil proven to work on ticks and mosquitos, but there are plenty of other plant-derived solutions for pest control:

  • Peppermint oil. We may love it for fresh breath and its minty flavor, but bugs absolutely hate it. A diluted spray of peppermint oil and water will keep away most common household bugs, such as flies, ants and roaches. (And mice!)
  • Cedar oil. When sprayed on plants, a mix of cedar oil, witch hazel and distilled water will eliminate nymphal-stage black-legged ticks.
  • Lavender oil diluted with water can be sprayed on bed linens and in closets to deter moths, and it will kill tick eggs.
  • Consider planting some mosquito-repelling plants, especially around outdoor areas where people and pets are most likely to congregate. Basil, lavender, lemongrass and penny royal are just a few plants that naturally repel mosquitos.

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Elizabeth Heath
Elizabeth Heath is a travel, culinary and lifestyle writer based in rural Umbria, Italy. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, HuffPost, Frommers.com, TripSavvy and many other publications. Her guidebook, An Architecture Lover's Guide to Rome, was released in 2019. Liz's husband is a stonemason and together they are passionate about the great outdoors, endless home improvement projects, dogs, their unruly garden and their slightly less unruly 8-year-old.