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This naturally derived active ingredient can be effective in certain insect repellents and is safe when used correctly
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One question we get a lot here at CR: Are there any effective bug sprays that don’t contain deet?
While deet-based products make up most of our top-scoring insect repellents, and deet is effective and safe when applied according to the label’s directions, our insect repellent ratings provide a few good alternatives. Several repellents that contain 30 percent oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE) also earn high marks, for example. For people who prefer a plant-based alternative to deet, OLE offers one reliable option.
Here, we explain what oil of lemon eucalyptus is, how well it performs in our tests, and what you need to know about its safety.
Let’s start with what OLE isn’t: It’s not an essential oil, despite a name that would understandably make you think otherwise. Instead, it’s refined from oil extracted from the Australian plant Corymbia citriodora, also known as lemon-scented gum. (That’s another misleading aspect of the name oil of lemon eucalyptus: Corymbia citriodora used to be considered a member of the Eucalyptus genus, but it isn’t anymore.)
The main component of oil of lemon eucalyptus that gives it its repellency to bugs is a chemical called p-Menthane-3,8-diol, or PMD. PMD came to the attention of U.S. scientists in the 1990s, after they learned that a Chinese insect repellent, called Quwenling, was performing better than many other plant-based repellents. Quwenling’s main component is PMD.
CR tests insect repellents by having volunteers put their repellent-covered arms into cages full of disease-free mosquitoes and seeing how long it takes for them to start biting. Our current ratings include eight products we’ve tested that have 30 percent oil of lemon eucalyptus. Of those, four performed well enough to earn our recommendation—which means they provided at least 5 hours of protection against mosquito bites, and in some cases as much as 7 hours. (Other, lower-ranked OLE repellents tend to provide around 3 or 4 hours of protection.)
That means that after deet, oil of lemon eucalyptus has one of the best track records of success against mosquitoes in our testing, says Chris Regan, who leads CR’s insect repellent testing.
PMD can also be an active ingredient on its own, without being part of an OLE formulation. We’ve tested one product that lists PMD alone as its active ingredient, a spray that contains 10 percent PMD (about half the concentration of PMD that’s found in 30 percent oil of lemon eucalyptus products). It ranked in the lower range in our tests.
We have only tested OLE repellents that come in aerosol or pump spray forms. We don’t have any lotion or towelette OLE repellents in our ratings, so we don’t know how well OLE might perform in those formats.
The labels of the oil of lemon eucalyptus products in our ratings tend to mention only their efficacy against mosquitoes, and CR’s tests evaluate only how long a repellent keeps mosquitoes at bay.
But oil of lemon eucalyptus does also have some efficacy against ticks, says Joel Coats, PhD, a distinguished professor emeritus of entomology and toxicology at Iowa State University in Ames. Still, “it still doesn’t last as long as people would like,” he says.
The safety of OLE isn’t as well-studied as, for instance, deet. But evidence suggests that it poses little risk when used according to the label. For one thing, the Environmental Protection Agency classifies oil of lemon eucalyptus as a biopesticide, which means that it’s a naturally occurring substance considered to be a lower risk than more conventional pesticides.
The main risk of oil of lemon eucalyptus is that it could be harmful to your eyes, so take care to avoid spraying it in such a way that it might get in your eyes. As always, when applying repellent to your face, you should spray it into your hands first and rub it onto your face.
The other caveat: Oil of lemon eucalyptus shouldn’t be used on young children. “It’s not registered for children under 3 years of age,” says Mustapha Debboun, PhD, a medical and veterinary entomologist and general manager of the Delta Mosquito & Vector Control District in Visalia, Calif. OLE’s safety hasn’t been well-studied in this group.
Here are a few of CR’s recommended products containing 30 percent oil of lemon eucalyptus.
Catherine Roberts is a health and science journalist at Consumer Reports. She has been at CR since 2016, covering infectious diseases, bugs and bug sprays, consumer medical devices like hearing aids and blood pressure monitors, health privacy, and more. As a civilian, her passions include bike rides, horror films and fiction, and research rabbit holes. Follow her on Twitter @catharob.
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At SeeVay, we know that the safety and well-being of your baby is your top priority. That’s why we’re dedicated to providing you with the tools you need to make sure you’re always on top of your baby’s safety. We understand that being a new mom can be overwhelming, and there’s so much information out there that it can be hard to know where to start.