Travel Health

The 4 ingredient, DEET-free mosquito repellent that actually works!


Alright guys, I’m long-overdue for sharing this one with you. I’ve been making and using this stuff daily since we left Vietnam to travel full-time. I can’t even begin to tell you how important mosquito repellent is when traveling through the tropical hotbed that is Southeast Asia—especially for someone like me who has grown accustomed to being “eaten alive” by bugs my entire life.

For the longest time, I was convinced that only real repellent out there, the only stuff that really works, has got to have DEET (N, N-Diethyl-m-toluamide)—a chemical specifically engineered for the purposes of “repelling” but not “killing” mosquitoes. And I think it’s safe to say that the majority of the U.S. population is probably of the same mind (nearly 1/3 of all Americans use DEET on a yearly basis).

And while DEET is approved by the EPA (the US Environmental Protection Agency), it is also a known eye irritant; can cause rashes; blistering; soreness; and neurological effects—especially in small children. Not to mention, it’s toxic to wildlife, and it’s been found in approximately 75 percent of U.S. water sources.

So we all get the basic idea here: DEET is a noxious chemical, which can’t be good for our bodies, let alone the environment. But it’s got to be better than the alternative—getting bit by a mosquito and possibly contracting some serious, life-threatening mosquito-born illness like Dengue Fever or the Zika virus—right?

Well, that’s what I’d convinced myself of anyhow, until we were three days into traveling, and I started breaking out in hives on the reg. At first, I figured it was something I was eating—either I was getting dosed with gluten or my body was just adjusting to some new strain of MSG they use in Singapore and Thailand. But no matter how carefully I ate, the hives weren’t going anywhere. In fact, they started spreading.

So, I did some more research and figured that because the reaction seemed to be starting and spreading from my hands, it was most likely topical (something I was putting on my body, not in my body). And then it hit me: it was all the damn DEET I was putting on my body, every day.

I hit the books again (and by books, I mean Google), and quickly found a few essential oils that are known insect repellents. As always, I wanted to keep things as cheap and simple as possible, so I limited myself to three essential oils + the cheapest possible carrier oil I could find. (Please note: it’s very important not to apply essential oils directly to the skin. Read more about this and the importance of carrier oils here.) And with a quick trip to one of Bangkok’s many super-malls, alas, my DEET-free bug juice concoction was born.

Here it is friends:

  • 10 drops of citronella oil
  • 8 drops of lemongrass oil
  • 6 drops of tea tree oil
  • 60 ml (2 oz.) of cold-pressed, organic coconut oil

A good rule of thumb is to use 12 drops of essential oils per 30 ml (1 oz.) of a carrier oil; 24 drops of essential oils per 60 ml (2 oz.) of a carrier oil; 48 drops per 120 ml (4 oz.), and so on, and so forth. So, if you’re looking to use more or less of a carrier oil, just keep the “12 drops per 30 ml (1 oz.) carrier oil” rule in mind, and adjust your ratios accordingly.

Mix everything together, and apply the oil solution to any exposed areas of the skin. Store in an airtight container and use until it runs out. I suggest definitely keeping it somewhere warm, so that the coconut oil doesn’t solidify. Also, please note that your skin doesn’t absorb coconut oil. So, you will need to reapply the repellent regularly if you’re outside for an extended period of time. (I suggest reapplying every 2-3 hours.)

Now, I must also remind you that by no means am I doctor. But I can attest to the fact that this stuff actually works. As I said, I’ve been using this (and only this) regularly since we’ve been traveling—even on days when we’ve been out hiking in the jungle and playing with elephants for 6 hours+. That said, if I were to be spending an extended period of time in any red-zones—i.e. trekking through the Amazon—I would still probably endure the hives and stick with the DEET to have peace of mind. But for anybody who is just looking for some day-to-day coverage, especially any moms out there, who are worried about summertime bugs and their babies, then I definitely recommend giving this a shot instead. Your bodies, your babies, and the environment will thank you for it. 😉