Monday, September 1, 2014

Keeping Bugs at Bay

I seem to be apologizing a lot lately for the lack of posts.  When I haven't been sick, I've been busy, but it hasn't been much that is sailing related.  We've been working hard on our downsizing, but it is amazing how much stuff you can collect being in one home for almost 18 years.  I should have more updates in the coming weeks, so please stand by.

Meanwhile, I was reading a blog post yesterday over on Zero To Cruising about a mosquito borne illness called Chikungunya that is being a bit of a problem in the Virgin Islands right now.  In the notice that the ZTC folks put on their web site it mentioned the use of insect repellents containing DEET or Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus (OLE) as an effective means of combating the spread of this illness.  It just so happens that my wife and I have been trying a homemade insect repellent that contains OLE since the West Nile virus has made it's way this far north.

If you are like us and have lived in the U.S. most of your life, you may be under the impression that only DEET is an effective bug repellent...probably because of all the advertising of the bug spray manufacturers. So, when I ran across an article a month or two ago from The Savings Experiment that talked about a natural, homemade repellent I decided to do a bit of research.  I found a number of sources that indicated that OLE is as effective as DEET, and a couple of the big bug spray makers now offer "natural" products that use OLE, so decided to give it a try.

In my research, I found a few sites, such as this one, that listed different essential oils to repel different bugs.  The folks over at The Boat Galley even had a recipe.  I have yet to find anything that is all that good dealing with noseeums, so I wanted to create an option that will hopefully do that as well.  So, in addition to OLE, I decided to give citronella essential oil a try as it is supposed to help with those pesky bugs as well.

They say essential oils can degrade in strong light, so my first step was to find a spray bottle that won't allow the oils to degrade.  But I also didn't want to spend a fortune on a bottle or have glass on the boat, so I ended up using a reasonably opaque old 10oz hairspray bottle my wife had (I should probably wrap it in duct tape to block out more light...but thus far it seems to be working OK).  After cleaning the bottle out really well, I used a permanent marker to make graduations at 4 and 8 ounces (~118 and 236 ml.).  Since oil and water don't mix and essential oils are very concentrated, a carrier substance that will mix with oil is needed to dilute it.  I used witch hazel since it is pretty cheap, but I understand you can use a variety of skin-safe oils or alcohols (someone recommended vodka, but that seems like a waste to me...unless you can find some really bad vodka for a couple bucks a liter). I filled the spray bottle to the first mark with witch hazel, added 25 drops of each oil, shook it up to mix it, then filled the bottle to the second mark with water.

Since the mixture is 50% oil mixture and 50% water, the two don't remain mixed, so you need to shake it well before each application.  We shook well and sprayed ourselves and gave it a try one evening.  OK, actually I was just coming down with what would later be pneumonia, so my wife was the one who gave it a try. She was doing some yard work and apparently it did not work very well.  Since the recipe I was basing my concoction on said 50 drops (or more) of oil, I had tried 25 of each. Once I was feeling a bit better, it donned on me that if each oil only dealt with specific bugs, that a minimum strength half-and-half approach probably wasn't the best idea. So, I added an additional 50 of each oil to give it a better chance of working (don't want to subject my wife to more bites and I do want to give the concoction a better chance at success).

We tried the improved mixture and that seemed to do the least against mosquitoes.  We have used it when outside the past couple months including a number times at dusk or when we would expect to encounter a fair amount of mosquitoes and neither of has experienced a single bite.  The mixture has a reasonably pleasant lemon smell that I know my wife prefers to the deep woods chemical-pine smell. I also have to admit I feel better when using it than I sometimes do when I use DEET based products.

We haven't had a chance to see how it works against noseeums as they don't exist in Colorado.  I'll give it a try against those pests once I get back to an area where they are encountered, but so far I do have some hope it will work for them too.

Here is the "recipe" and cost of the spray we are using that seems to work.

Place the Witch Hazel in a spray bottle that protects the solution from light.  Add the drops of essential oil, cap and shake the bottle to mix.  Add water and cap bottle.  Prior to each application and periodically during application, shake bottle to ensure contents are mixed. It seems that at these concentrations, a 1 oz. bottle of essential oil will make between 8~10 bottles of spray.

So, for about $1.80 (current price here in Colorado at the time of writing), you get 8 fl. oz. of repellent.  Compare that to a can of Deep Woods Off whose current MSRP is $8 for a 6 oz. can.  Pretty good value for something that seems a bit less toxic than the average can of bug spray.

Since mosquito species vary and other bugs don't respond to the same oils, you may want to give different recipes a try or even try whipping up one of your own.  And, if you do try one and it works, I (and I bet other readers too) would love to hear what you used and how well it worked.

And now...since everything requires a disclaimer these days...

This particular solution seemed to work against mosquitoes for my wife and me.  I cannot guarantee that it, or any solution, may work for you.  If you try this, you do so at your own risk.  I am not a chemist, herbologist, or any other -ologist nor did I stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night.  Do not drink, use as a cake topping, breath freshener, or as a replacement for your engine oil.


  1. Everything I'm reading on Amazon's reviews of bottles says that essential oils will eat through plastic bottles and sprayers in a very short time. Please keep me posted on how long this bottle/sprayer lasts for you before I buy one.

    Thanks for a great idea! Tim is allergic to mosquito bites so this is good news.

    S/V Kintala

    1. Hmm...hadn't heard that. I don't think we've noticed any degradation of the spray bottle we are using, it has had spray in it for about 2 months and we have gone through almost a full bottle of the stuff (8 oz). Of course, the hairspray bottles aren't the greatest anyway and pump leaked a bit when they were dispensing hairspray so we may have just figured it was the cheap used bottle we chose. I can say that the spay bottle is better than the last couple insect repellent spray bottles we bought (those don't seem to last for the full 6 ounces of spray they contained).

      The solution is also pretty diluted (maybe 1/8 oz of oil in 4 oz of Witch Hazel - assuming it does still separate from the 4 oz of water) so maybe it doesn't impact the bottle as much as a concentrated essential oil would?

      I know when I was doing the research, several showed pictures of blue glass bottles with plastic don't know if those are better but for my initial test I figured a free spray bottle was better than one I paid for and I didn't really like the idea of glass on the boat.

      So far the only thing I didn't really like about the hairspray bottle was that the spray pattern is a bit wider than I would like (I guess the width of my arm is less than the width of the average hairdo).

      I will try to update the thread or do another post after some more time with it and will let you know if the bottle self destructs or anything. My wife seems to have a bad reaction to noseeums, so figuring out a spray that will work against them as well as mosquitoes and having a reliable application method is fairly high or our priority list.