Saturday, August 31, 2013

How to Make a Natural Insect Repellant

To balance out the more spiritually-oriented blog posts on Moonflower Musings, this month’s article will be very practical. Although here in Indiana summer is on the wane, the biting insects are still out in full force. Ticks, chiggers, mosquitoes, no see-ums (I believe that is the technical term for biting, fly-ish, gnat-things that are so tiny you can hardly "see-um" )—you name it, we’ve got it. Yet, conventional insect repellants are full of harmful chemicals like DEET. It’s best to avoid these for both health and environmental reasons.

Sarah at Moonflower Medicinals Booth
As an alternative solution, I’d like to share an original recipe for Bug Balm, a natural insect repellant. This was my signature formula when I ran Moonflower Medicinals, a cottage business where I sold herbal products through festivals, farmer's markets, and a CSA. I’ve honed it over the years as new information has come to me about what works. Part of why I transitioned out of selling herbal products and into writing was to bring power to the people, so that folks could learn how to make this stuff themselves. 

It’s a beautiful thing, growing and making some of what you need to live. Think of it kind of like canning extra garden vegetables—it does take time, but it’s a way to save money and live healthier in the long-run. After all, what's a little time investment now if you get a longer life span in return?  Plus, this type of process connects you with the natural rhythms of the Earth and of life itself.

Does it Really Work?

Everybody wants the most effective insect repellant possible. That was the single-most question I was asked during my Moonflower Medicinals days: “Does this stuff really work?” This was commonly asked of all herbal products, but especially the Bug Balm.

The answer yes, it works to an extent. It will help repel biting insects significantly. Can I promise that you’ll never get a bite while wearing it? No. If you’re in a boggy area with tons of hungry mosquitoes, or if you step in a tick patch deep in the woods, you might still be bitten. What Bug Balm can do is disguise your scent—if you smell like certain botanicals, insects are less likely to bite you. What it cannot do is lower your body temperature to make you completely invisible to the blood-sucking beasts.

In my world, using a natural insect repellant is still worth it. Not even DEET can assure that you won't get a bite (especially since mosquitoes are becoming resistant), and personally I’d rather avoid the chemicals. While buying natural insect repellants can be pricey, making your own is more affordable. I recommend making a large enough batch to last you, your family, and your friends for 2-3 years. That's a good time-frame so that your Bug Balm stays fresh, but you don’t have to repeat this process every single year.

The Recipe


Tightly-woven Cheesecloth

Large Metal Strainer

Crock-pot (small)

12-pack of 4 oz. mason jars (or baby food jars, or any other jars of your choice)


4 cups Castor Oil

2 cups Olive Oil
Crock-pot and Strainer

½ oz. Dried Catnip Leaf/Flower

½ oz. Dried Lemon Balm Leaf

3 ½ - 4 ½ oz. Beeswax

3 Tbsp. Vitamin E Oil

Essential Oils:    Citronella           144 drops/12 drops per 4 oz. jar
                           Cedarwood         96 drops/8 drops per 4 oz. jar 
                           Lemongrass        96 drops/8 drops per 4 oz. jar
                           Peppermint          96 drops/8 drops per 4 oz. jar
                           Lavender              96 drops/8 drops per 4 oz jar
                           Geranium             72 drops/6 drops per 4 oz. jar
                           Rosemary            72 drops/6 drops per 4 oz. jar
                           Clove                    48 drops/4 drops per 4 oz. jar


1) The first step is to infuse your herbs into the oil. The easiest way is by using a small crock-pot. (This is another reason why I prefer making larger batches, because smaller amounts won’t work well in a crock-pot). So, gather your Catnip and Lemon Balm and mix them in the crock pot with the olive oil and castor oil. Turn the crock pot on to its lowest setting for at least 6-8 hours, but preferably overnight. You will know the oil is done when it’s a nice green color and smells like the herbs.

2) Let the mixture cool enough to be handled, and then strain the herbs from the oil. Cover the metal strainer with the cheesecloth and pour the oil/herb mixture through into a medium saucepan. Get every last bit of oil you can out of the herbs by removing the cheesecloth from the metal strainer, wrapping it together and squeezing. Twisting also helps. Be patient—infused oil takes a while to make, so it’s precious stuff.

3) Bring the saucepan to the stove and heat on the lowest burner setting. Add the beeswax a little at a time until you get the desired consistency. Less wax makes for a softer salve, and more wax makes it harder. Of course, you won’t be able to tell when the mixture is still hot, because the wax melts into liquid. A great way to test the mixture is by getting a spoonful
and putting it in the fridge or freezer for a couple of minutes until it cools. Then you can see how hard or soft it will be.

4) Let the mixture cool as much as you can without letting it become hardened. This is where the balm-making art form can get a little tricky. Heat can destroy both the vitamin E, which is used for preserving the salve, and the essential oils, which are a crucial part of the insect repellant. My method is to let it cool as much as you can and then add the vitamin E to the saucepan.

5) In order to preserve the essential oils (EOs) as much as possible, my preferred method is to add them to the jars individually before pouring the oil in. This is why I’ve given an EO drop count for each individual 4 oz jar. If you use a different size, you can either do the math and adjust accordingly, or add the essential oils to the pot of oil. If you do this, make sure the oil is as cool as possible to avoid losing the EOs to steam.

6) After you add the drops of EO to each jar, transfer the oil/beeswax mixture from the saucepan into a measuring cup for pouring. Pour the mixture into each jar, and quickly mix it with a spoon (or spoon handle) to evenly distribute the EOs before the balm hardens. The beeswax will start to harden as you go, sticking to the measuring cup, saucepan and utensils. You can get more out of your mixture by scraping the sides of the measuring cup and utensils back into the saucepan and briefly re-heating it on the stove. Allow your balms to cool, then cap them and label them for storage. Be sure to include the date and what type of balm it is. (Believe me, you might think you’ll remember, but after three years you'll open your cabinet and be totally mystified by your own salve collection. Labeling is key.)

Yield: The yield of infused oil is a little hard to predict since the herb will inevitably soak up some of the oil. Try to squeeze out as much as you can. This recipe should yield about 48 ounces of Bug Balm. 2 oz. and 4 oz. jars are convenient sizes to have on hand. You can buy a 12-pack of 4 oz. mason jars (typically used for jams and jellies), and this should do the job. This is a fairly large batch size and should keep you going for a while. Of course, you can always adjust it to fit your needs.

Balm vs. Oil

I have usually made this recipe as a balm, but the blend can also be made as an herbal oil to absorb more quickly into the skin. It just depends on what consistency you like. A salve takes longer to absorb, so it does stay sticky on the skin for longer. If you don’t mind this feeling, it actually helps deter the bugs even more. The downside is, slathering your legs with balm means that dirt and grass clippings get stuck on you as well. My solution is to use it when I’m working in the garden or hiking, and then take a shower afterward.

So, how do you make this recipe as an oil? It’s simple: just don’t add the beeswax. After you infuse the oil with herbs, simply strain and add the essential oils. You’ll probably want to use bottles instead of jars for ease of application; you can even use a spray bottle. Keep in mind that if you use the oil, you may need to re-apply more often.


Castor Oil is actually an insect repellant all by itself, so don’t substitute this ingredient. You can use all Castor Oil if you want, but I like the consistency of the Olive Oil blend.

Dry your herbs thoroughly before infusing the oil. Don’t use fresh herbs, especially if this is your first try at salve-making. The water in fresh herbs can spoil the batch with mold. 

I recently heard Lyme disease expert Tom Grier say that ticks are repelled by a chemical found in Pine needles. Apparently, some people use the needles around their tents or homes for this purpose. I plan on incorporating Pine needles into my future Bug Balm batches, to see if it helps repel these disease-spreading critters. I thought I’d mention it in case ticks are your main problem; it’s worth a try.

Planning Ahead to Source Ingredients

Why am I posting this recipe now, you ask, rather than at the beginning of summer? I admit this would have been more in-theme for springtime, but it still has value now, as summer comes to an end in the Northern Hemisphere. For one thing, the recipe involves using Catnip and Lemon Balm. While the dried herbs can be purchased in bulk, these two plants are also really easy to grow.  Get them established now, and next year you can harvest these plants for Bug Balm. It’s never too early to plan ahead when it comes to gardening.

Great places to buy organic/heirloom seeds and plants:

1)      Horizon Herbs
2)      Baker Creek

Lemon Balm

Getting a hold of the essential oils may also take some doing, depending on your location and the amount you’d like to buy. You can often find smaller amounts in health food stores, but oftentimes the retail prices are quite high. I recommend buying them in bulk, as EOs don’t tend to go bad over time. If you do sell herbal products, then it is vital to buy your EOs in bulk to keep your product prices down and avoid going broke.

Sources for essential oils and other ingredients:

Products Available include: bulk castor oil, organic olive oil, and many of the EOs used in this recipe (including some organic EOs). The shipping is fairly reasonable, especially if you consolidate orders for larger quantities. They also have beeswax, but I recommend buying this from a local beekeeper (it’s better for the environment, the local economy, the bees and you).

This company has pretty a good selection of EOs at good prices.

Here is another place to buy EOs, but they are more expensive, and the shipping is often more.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of sources, but it will get you started. Be sure to compare and contrast prices and quantities before you buy. In general, buying in bulk is a better deal, but carrier oils will go rancid over time. It depends on what scale you are making the products. If you just want to try making Bug Balm for the first time, perhaps buying small amounts of the ingredients at a health food store will be better.

Have a balm! 

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