The Buzz-are Facts About Citronella and Natural Bug Repellents

Skeeter Away Bug Collection

When I think of summertime, I think of hiking, mountains, BBQs, picnics, gardening, and just generally being outside as much as possible. All of this outside time, however, comes with one pesky little downfall: bugs. Usually, I’m able to fly under their radar, but this summer I seem to be a treat for those buzzing beasts. Whether it’s my blood type, the composition of my skin, or as my husband likes to say, the fact that I’m so sweet (Ha – just joking!) bug spray has become a necessity for me. I know I’m not alone in my need for an all-natural, safe bug spray, so I thought I’d share a little bit of my research and findings with all of you. 


For centuries, humans (and animals) have used creative ways to repel bugs. Whether it was using smoke, mud, or plants, our ancient ancestors found ways to help keep themselves safe from bites. One plant that has been carried through history and is still used today is citronella, known as mosquito grass. It’s been used for centuries in China and Indonesia as a homeopathic remedy to treat minor ailments and infections. One of the first recorded uses for repelling insects was by the Indian army in the early 1900s. Then, it made its way to the USA and was registered for use in 1948. After World War II, there was a push to create bug repellents since the aerosol bug-repelling cans that soldiers carried around to prevent bug bites causing diseases weren’t incredibly effective during the war. The EPA pushed the development of bug repellents and thus the creation of the well-known DEET bug repellent.

Why Does It Work?

Almost all plants contain compounds to repel plant-eating insects. When the leaves or plants are damaged, they produce “green leaf volatiles” which are odors to deter the leaf-eating insects. Historically, people use specific plants which contain high levels of green leaf volatiles to keep bugs away from their home. Today, we use these essential oils in sprays, candles, and soaps as repellents whereas, in other cultures, they repel bugs by hanging bruised leaves in their homes or burning the leaves in a small fire. Some plants, like citronella and neem, have very high levels of green leaf volatiles and are quite effective at repelling insects with topical use. These scents mask the carbon dioxide and lactic acid scents that insects (specifically mosquitoes) are searching for.


Citronella has a high rate of evaporation. The effectiveness and longevity of citronella depends on the esssential oils it’s mixed with. Two oils that are known to make it last longer are geranium and vanillin (found in vanilla extract). Adding a carrier oil versus a water-based spray can also help the life span effectiveness of the repelling oils. It’s recommended to reapply every 1-3 hours or as needed.

Enjoy the outside this year without having to worry about getting eaten alive. Now, with this new-found information, You too can inform your friends with this knowledge of why natural repellent works. Don’t let the bugs take away your buzz!

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