Ticks. Not only are they nasty insects that feed on our blood, but they represent a real danger to our health as well, whether it is Lyme disease or several others. They can transmit dangerous diseases, and can cause a lot of suffering even after they are removed.
With that in mind, having good tick repellent for you and your children makes sense, but with a vast choice on the market, some of them incredibly expensive, what works the best?
Why Essential Oils as Tick Repellents?
While there is a huge choice of tick repellents available, the many commercial ointments and treatments, shampoos and additives all tend to be high priced and often have something of an unpleasant aroma. Some of them contain strong chemicals that you may prefer not to have sprayed all over your family, especially children. Many people think that is simply something we have to put up with to keep ourselves safe, but there are more pleasant ways to approach this.
Essential oils are an intriguing solution for ticks. Instead of relying on chemicals and commercial products, many people have found that using essential oils can help keep ticks away from themselves and their families, keeping them safe in a more natural way. Not only is this approach much cheaper, but because you can make your own tick spray with your choice of essential oils, you always know exactly what is in it, and you can make sure it is always safe for you, your children and everyone they come in contact with.
Essential Oils for Ticks: Do They Work?
There are several studies that have examined the effects of essential oils when used as tick repellent, including this one that focuses on geranium oil, showing that it can have a positive effect, deterring ticks and keeping everyone safe. Note that while that particular NIH study focused on the Lone Star Tick, we think there is promise for essential oils as a general tick repellent.
We will be honest with you — when we are out in tick habitat, we don’t take any chances. We go with the full-on permethrin and DEET combo. Nothing against other concoctions, but it is a combo that has worked so well for us. Whatever you use, we urge you to look for products that have some science behind them. There are tons of myths about what works and what doesn’t, and often they are faulty inferences drawn from anecdotal experiences. These are nasty diseases we are all trying to prevent — Lyme disease and Babesiosis to name a couple — and the ticks that spread them are now found in nearly half of all US counties! We don’t want you taking any chances.
On the other hand, there are some people who swear by their essential oil concoctions for repelling ticks. While we have not yet been able to do a truly controlled experiment of essential oils and ticks, we hear enough anecdotes so we think it might be worth considering in some cases.
When it comes to essential oils and ticks, it is not as simple as saying essential oils work or not. Studies-to-date have found that some might work quite well, while others are hardly worth the bother of applying to your clothing or skin. A study in the Journal of Medical Entomology found that oils such as nootkatone (found in grapefruit), carvacrol (found in oregano and thyme) and rosemary and geraniol are quite effective at repelling ticks. If you decide to use these, just be sure you are using concentrations and strengths similar to those that were used in the studies. One of the issues with essential oils is that not regulated, so a manufacturer can slap whatever they want on the bottle. It is up to you to decide if it will be effective for your uses.
Our Favorite Essential Oils for Ticks
We have a couple favorite essential oil products when it comes to repelling ticks. Here are some of our favorites.
Top Choice: Geranium Oil
showed that Geranium oil had a tick-repelling ability that was on par with DEET! As noted above, geranium oil is shown to have evidence of tick repellent capabilities. Geranium oil also has the benefit of providing relaxation and skin care benefits. We prefer using it as a spray – which we describe below. We like Sun Organic’s 4 oz. Essential Oil, a product that is reliable. When using geranium oil, it is important to note that at high concentrations it can be toxic to pets. Be sure to use it and store it in places that won’t pose a risk to cats, dogs, etc.
Carvacrol Oil. If you like the smell of oregano, you will probably describe this as calming. If you don’t like the smell of oregano, you will probably describe this as pungent. Based on the study cited above, though, Carvacrol is effective against ticks, so may be one of the better home remedy ingredients as far as oils go. Plus, it is easier to find that Nootkatone oil. Find it here on Amazon.
Lavender Oil. In addition to being known for things like skin care and air freshening, lavender oil tends to do quite well as a tick repellent. There is some evidence that it not only keeps ticks away, but it can also deter ticks from laying eggs. However, in full-disclosure, we have not seen the same level of study rigor on lavender oil as we hae on Geranium or Carvacrol oil. We like the 4 0z. bottle from Lily and Lush.
Garlic Oil. Garlic oil may show some ability to repel the Deer (or Blacklegged) tick, the tick that can carry Lyme disease. Testing suggest that it would require multiple and frequent application, but it could be a lower-risk way to try to keep ticks at bay. A pure concentration of garlic oil, such as this one, may be worth a try.
Cedarwood Oil. (here on Amazon) Who doesn’t love the smell of cedar? This oil gives off a woodsy aroma, and when used in strong layers seems to do a good job of repelling ticks. The NIH studies found that it can actually be a deterrent to ticks, although their tests were more as a direct insecticide than as a skin repellent.
Cedar or Cedarwood oil is also one of the ingredients we like for homemade yard tick repellent sprays.
Note that for best practice, you would want to use certified essential oils that are not a concoction with unclear proportions. Most essential oil distributors cut the concentration due to the price of the oil. These products would often lack the necessary potency to effectively repel ticks.
Applying Essential Oils
Because you get to decide just how you apply essential oils, there are several methods that you have available, depending on which you prefer. Some use the essential oils neat, with many of the essential oils that repel ticks being ones that are safe even without dilution, while others prefer to mix the essential oil into water or oil and use it as a spray, especially for children.
The method you use is entirely down to personal choice, there are reports of success with neat application, diluted sprays and even home-made roll-on type applicators. They all work well, however a spray is very easy and quick to apply, which can be important if you have several children to treat before venturing out, and is the most common way of using essential oils as a tick repellent.
If you want to make a spray version, then it’s very straightforward, a water based spray can be made by adding two tablespoons of witch hazel to about 2oz of water, and then adding 20 to 40 drops of your chosen essential oil to the mix. You need the witch hazel to help the oil mix with the water.
Creating an oil based spray may be more attractive, you don’t need witch hazel and it also stays effective on the body longer, and to do this, just take a couple of ounces of a liquid oil, Jojoba is a nice one to work with, and add in your 20 to 40 drops of your chosen essential oil, it really is that simple.
So, you know how to make it, but which essential oil should you use? There are a lot of answers to this, however, when you balance the safety aspect with effectiveness, there are three or four that have proven to be very popular with lots of pet owners recommending them. These are Geranium Oils, citronella oils, lemon eucalyptus oil and catnip essential oil. Of these, catnip is not the most pleasant of scents, and in our experience, a geranium essential oil of your choice is easy to use, it has an aroma that most people like, and as we have shown scientific studies have displayed the potential for tick deterrent.
With many people reporting good results, these easy to make, easy to use and much less aggressive ways of combating ticks are a real alternative to the commercial products that you may not wish to use. Used sparingly they still last a while, longer if you use an oil based spray or neat application of a couple of drops from the bottle (and no more than a couple of drops if used neat), and are a wonderful; way to protect you and your family safely and cheaply.
Written by Tick and Mosquito Project Staff. Most recently reviewed by Nicole Chinnici, Northeast Wildlife DNA Laboratory Director at East Stroudsburg University