Does Incense Really Deter Bugs?

Mosquitoes are the bane of your existence when it comes to spending time outdoors, and along with roaches, spiders, and ants, they’re among the most annoying insects in the world. You’ve recently heard from some sources that a simple stick of burning incense can keep them at bay. But how effective is incense against bugs when compared to other methods?

Incense can deter mosquitoes and other bugs if it contains natural bug repellents like citronella, peppermint, or eucalyptus. But the traditional scents you know, like sandalwood, jasmine, and honeysuckle, have no such effect. You might want to use proven bug repellants instead.

This article will explore: 

  • The effectiveness of incense and other methods against mosquitoes, spiders, and ticks, among others. 
  • We’ll talk about what makes some natural substances a good defense. 
  • We’ll debunk some popular myths about bug control. 

Read on to discover the real deal on keeping your backyard bug-free.

How Does Citronella Repel Bugs?

You might want to forget about most traditional incense for use as bug repellents. Only the ones that contain the natural essence of known insect repellents like citronella are effective in keeping the creepy crawlies off your arms and face when you’re outdoors. Like these citronella incense sticks, sold on Amazon.

What is citronella? It’s a natural oil derived from plants in the lemongrass family that’s safe for humans or pets that’s been recognized by the United States government as an effective insect repellent since 1948. It doesn’t harm insects per se, it just keeps them away from you and your family or pets. It works against insects because citronella’s distinctive smell makes it difficult for mosquitoes and other bugs to find a “host” for their bites, so they’d rather try elsewhere.

Citronella comes in many forms, from the familiar candles-in-a-bucket to lotions, sprays, rub-on liquids, and more. To maintain effectiveness over a more extended period spent outdoors, you need to reapply citronella products every 30-60 minutes. 

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration lists citronella under its designation “Generally Recognized As Safe,” or GRAS, despite restrictions that have occurred in Canada and the European Union because of localized adverse effects.

What Diseases Can Mosquitoes Carry?

Every few years there’s a story on the news about a new disease spread by insects, so repelling them has become an important health issue. For example, mosquitoes have been known to transmit not only Zika and malaria but also West Nile virus, encephalitis, Dengue fever, and Yellow Fever. 

That’s not mentioning other insects and their diseases, like ticks carrying Lyme disease. So it’s extra important, if you live in an area with a high concentration of bugs, that you protect yourself.

What Is DEET and How Does It Work?

It’s can be challenging to do minimal research on insect repellents and their applications without coming across a lot of material on the repellent known as DEET. The acronym stands for diethyltoluamide, a compound first used in military applications that is now the most popular ingredient in commercial insect repellents.

DEET products contain this slightly yellow oil, which is meant to be applied to the skin, clothing, or both, and is shown to be effective against leeches, chiggers, fleas, ticks, and mosquitoes. The chemical’s origin can be placed after the U.S. Army’s experience with jungle warfare during World War II. 

After being tested on farm fields as an insecticide, DEET came into regular use by the military in 1946 and by the public in 1957. A few years later, the “bug juice” was reengineered into an extended-release version that is the powerful repellent in products we see on store shelves today. Some Americans avoid DEET because of its origins in chemistry and not botany, but its popularity has not significantly waned.

Essential Oils May Not Be the Best Bet

It’s easy to be fooled by unrealistic claims on bottles of essential oils when it comes to the effectiveness of their insect-repellent properties. Many brands purport strengths beyond that of DEET or picaridin, which is another government-approved insect repellent, but use vague language that defies efforts to confirm their claims.

According to this New York Times article, the thing about essential oils is that they’re grouped by the Environmental Protection Agency as “minimum-risk pesticides.” 

This means that essential oils are never given the extensive testing under product-performance guidelines by the EPA that other products are given. For example, products containing DEET or picaridin are legally bound to have labels that specify toxicity levels, time of protection, and specific instructions.

Since essential oils don’t have those same constraints (because of their designation as minimum risk), there’s a lot of wiggle room when it comes to their labeling. Many manufacturers and distributors of essential oils fall prey to the temptation to exaggerate the effectiveness of their products to boost sales.

Where does incense fall on the spectrum of EPA guidelines? Not only does it not show up on their radar as an effective pesticide, but it also is the subject of an EPA study on indoor air pollutants. So put that “Dragon’s Blood” on hold.

Bug Zappers May Miss the Mark

“Bug zappers,” like the Naiyo Bug Zapper from Amazon, attract many insects with their blue glow. When you sit on your back deck with a zapper going, you might gain a sense of satisfaction with how often you hear that buzz indicating that an insect has just met its demise in your machine. (You get the idea… right?)

However, as outlined in this SkeeterBite article, most dead insects that you find on the bottom tray will not be potential disease carriers like mosquitoes. Instead, you’ll find many harmless varieties like ladybugs, grasshoppers, moths, and bees, so it might be a matter of blind luck when a mosquito does blunder into the zapper.

Though it may seem low-tech, placing a perimeter of citronella candles around your deck will be much more effective, and if you slather yourself with a government-approved pesticide like a DEET-containing product, you’ll be much more likely to hold off the mosquito assault.

Vinegar Is a Good Cheap Fix

Since you are researching this topic, you might be more interested in a simple, organic fix that will take care of annoying, and potentially disease-carrying, insects so you can concentrate on the company you’re keeping, rather than constantly swatting away bugs. 

Plain old vinegar could be your salvation.

If you have a bottle of red wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar, put it in a spray bottle and spray your skin and clothing for an effective way to keep mosquitoes and other pests away. 

But if you have white vinegar, you must follow this recipe from Mosquito Reviews:

  1. Put three cups of water in a spray bottle or other container.
  2. Add one cup of white vinegar.
  3. Add one teaspoon of dish soap.
  4. Mix thoroughly and apply.

Many people swear by the ingestion of apple cider or red wine vinegar on a daily basis, a process that will help you cultivate a natural body odor that insects will avoid. While you might not want to smell like vinegar all day at work, there is evidence that the method is effective. 

Arguably, you could also gain an advantage in losing weight and reducing cholesterol by ingesting vinegar daily, but you might want to stick to exterior use against mosquitoes.

Final Thoughts

Pest control is essential today because of the diseases that certain insects can carry and pass along through their bites. I’ve shown that there are better repellents than incense that you should use.

And there are more down-home recipes to deter insects than I’ve mentioned here, like burnt coffee grounds, mouthwash, the list goes on. But I recommend that you go for an effective chemical option as long as it’s government-approved. With the dangers that some bug bites hold, there’s no time for hyped-up but ineffective natural remedies.

Best of luck in the battle versus bugs.

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Anat Goldberg

Hi! My name is Anat and I have lived all my life in the countryside. I grew on a farm in Northern Italy and from an early age, I took care of the animals on the farm and the family garden. Over the years I have developed a growing passion for organic cultivation and pest control.

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