Not only does the thought of bed bugs make your skin crawl – but bedbug bites can be downright painful and leave you covered in embarrassing welts.
Now, the quickest solution is to burn your house down… but this is neither safe nor advised. Likewise, there are many chemical products out there that will get the job done, but you may be concerned about health risks.
Many people are looking for more natural solutions to a bed bug infestation – a solution that will protect your family and pets from exposure to dangerous chemicals. Several essential oils, scents, and other substances derived from plants have shown promise as repellents and insecticides against bedbugs.
This article looks at several different natural products that have been tested against their synthetic chemical alternatives, as well as some suggestions on when and how to use natural repellents and insecticides to combat bed bugs.
Do Scents Repel Bed Bugs?
Based on all the science we’ve seen, there is really no evidence of a natural scent that will repel bed bugs. This sucks to hear, but is sadly the truth! If anyone is telling you otherwise, you should dig into what proof they offer for those claims.
That being said, you can use certain essential oils to kill bed bugs and that can kill bed bugs. It’s possible these scents do have a repelling effect, or can kill bed bugs fast enough on your luggage that it’s still worth using. Just know that these methods haven’t been scientifically proven to be effective, yet. Just keep in mind the difference between repelling bugs and killing bugs.
What’s the Difference Between Repelling and Killing?
There are two basic bedbugs tasks – exterminating bedbugs in your home and trying not to bring bedbugs back when you travel. When bedbugs are already in your home, the only option is to exterminate all of them. Trying to just repel them or “keep them away” at this point won’t work.
Repelling does have it’s place, though. When you’re traveling and staying in hotels or AirBnBs, that’s the best time to use a bed bug repellent. If you’re looking for a “scent” to keep bed bugs away, this is the time to use it – as a preventative measure.
Repelling Bed Bugs with Scents
If you just checked into the Creepy Crawler Motel – it may be time to practice some repellent procedures. Unfortunately, the only effective method at repelling bedbugs comes from physical biosecurity precautions.
Studies on some natural bed bug sprays revealed that while the sprays did kill many of the bedbugs when they were sprayed directly, the essential oil components of the sprays did not repel bedbugs to any measurable level. So, while dosing yourself in essential oils may kill some bedbugs after a number of hours, it won’t stop the bugs from getting to you.
Best Scents to Repel Bed Bugs
There are a few scientific studies we can look to in order to find out which essential oils/scents are most effective against bed bugs. This study from Nature brings us our first two suggestion.
For both of the suggestions below, the study found that bed bugs in extended contact with the oils displayed wandering/uncoordinated behavior, paralysis, and leg tremors after 2-4 hours.
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Carvacrol is an interesting essential oil that comes from plants like oregano or thyme. The above spray will smell like oregano, which isn’t the worst thing smelling thing to spray on your luggage or around your hotel’s bed to try to repel bed bugs. Cravacrol was one of the most powerful essential oils at killing bed bugs.
Thymol is an incredible component found in essential oil of thyme that is also very effective at killing bed bugs. Thymol also has been shown to have a lot of anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties that are well studied.
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I’d much rather smell like thyme than oregano, but you may want to use both for maximum effect.
Blood Orange Oil
Another study found that blood orange essential oil was the most effective oil for killing bed bugs.
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EcoRaider is a commercially made product for the sole purpose of killing bed bugs. This spray has a cedar scent and is plant-based, though they don’t say what exact plants are used in their formula.
EcoRaider also has a residual killing effect shown to last up to 14 days. This would be our recommended spray of choice if you’re OK with not knowing exactly what plants are inside.
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More Bed Bug Prevention Tips
Remember to keep in mind when using the above essential oils, the bugs need to stay in sustained contact with the oils for maximum effectiveness, so there’s no guarantee you will stop them from getting to you.
The best bet is to examine your room and bed when you arrive. Pull the covers back, and look for any brown specs trying to scurry back into the darkness. Remove the sheets, and examine the seams of the mattress. Bedbugs love to hide in these crevices. If you can, look under the bed with a flashlight to get a view of the frame. Inspect it carefully for any traces of insects.
While essential oils can’t help you with the next step, simple laundry detergent sure can.
When you get home, quarantine your suitcase and the clothes you are wearing. Put them directly into the washing machine, add some detergent, and let it work. The detergent helps drown any eggs or bedbugs you may have accidentally brought home. Go take a shower and use lots of soap to ensure you wash off any attached eggs or bugs trying to hitch a ride.
Don’t forget your suitcase! Insect it visually, and if you need it can spray it down with a strong solution of 70% alcohol or a product like EcoRaider in order to kill any insect travelers.
Killing Bed Bugs
While mass extermination of bedbugs may turn some people off, it is really your only option when it comes to bedbugs in your home. Bedbugs cannot be encouraged to go back outside, lured to a different location with bait, or otherwise tricked into leaving peacefully. Bedbugs have evolved for tens of thousands of years preying almost solely on one species – humans!
If you think you have a bedbug bite, you better start looking for the culprit. After biting you (and typically creating an itchy welt) the insect will seek shelter to digest your blood and lay a set of eggs. Unfortunately, bedbugs have also evolved to avoid your extermination efforts.
Eggs are laid individually, in all sorts of places that the female bedbug can crawl to. This helps ensure that you will miss them and the next generation can go on. In your search for the adult bugs, be on the lookout for tiny white eggs laid on the wood or metal frame of your bed. The adults can be around an 1/8th of an inch (5mm), though the eggs and nymph stages are much smaller and harder to detect.
The key to any extermination effort is finding and killing every individual and egg present – so be sure to check every crack and crevice on the bed and around the bedroom.
Do Natural Products Work to Kill Bedbugs?
A few natural essential oils from plants like thyme, oregano, cedarwood, peppermint, and cloves have shown some promise in their ability to kill bedbugs. In fact, one study showed that the products EcoRaider and Bed Bug Patrol were both effective at killing >90% of all bedbugs and eggs when the product was applied directly – known as contact killing. These products are made of a combination of essential oils like geraniol, clove oil, peppermint oil, and cedarwood oil.
However, both of these products also contain sodium lauryl sulfate.
Whether or not this product can be considered “natural” is debatable – it can be produced from petroleum or vegetable sources depending on the manufacturer. Either way, it is highly processed. This doesn’t mean it is unsafe – it is used in shampoos, is approved for food-uses by the FDA, and is even used in some cosmetic applications. Unfortunately, the sodium lauryl sulfate may be mostly responsible for killing the bedbugs.
Compared to EcoRaider, essential oils of thyme, oregano, and cedarwood only kill roughly 30% of the insects. That’s not enough to completely exterminate the population, and it may just lead to the insects evolving resistance to any methods you are using.
The molecular constituents of many essential oils, especially carvacrol, thymol, and citronellic acid do have a lethal effect on bedbugs. But, these studies used a very concentrated form of each oil. Even in this concentrated form, it would still take a small droplet to effectively kill each bedbug.
With an inability to separate and purify the oils at home, this would essentially mean applying massive amounts of essential oils to your bed, clothes, and house to effectively kill a population of bed bugs. Essential oils evaporate quickly, limiting the residual time after application that the spray will have a lethal effect.
Another interesting product that has been studied is a dust-based treatment of diatomaceous earth. When integrated with appropriate pest-management techniques, bedbug traps, and steam treatment, the diatomaceous earth helped eliminate up to 97% of bedbugs. However, while this strategy uses natural techniques it is a little too complicated and technical for most people.
To make sure the job gets done right the first time – see our section below on great alternatives.
More Non-Chemical Means of Fighting Bed Bugs
There are some very effective ways to fight bed bugs that don’t resort to chemicals. The first being a good vacuum cleaner for bed bugs.
By vacuuming up bed bugs, you can immediately capture and dispose of them which means less eggs being laid, less bites, and an immediate reduction in the bed bug population.
The other most effective way to fight bed bugs is by installing bed bug traps. The traps go under the legs of your bed frame and allow bed bugs to crawl into them, but not out of them or onto your bed frame.
This gives you the benefit of instant relief from bed bugs not living on your bed, and it lets you monitor the infection going forward to see if there are still bed bugs around.
Before you hate on these synthetic alternatives, it should be noted that even natural products can have an effect on human health – especially if used in heroic doses to try and kill a few insects.
For instance, the essential oil carvacrol (yes, the same one that kills bedbugs) has been shown to paralyze the sciatic nerve rats. So, it’s definitely not recommended to ingest any of these essential oils or cover your house in large amounts of it.
Instead, there are many synthetic insecticides that have been developed specifically to affect insects. These products are thousands of times more powerful at killing bedbugs – both on contact and residually for some time. This makes it much easier to get an infestation under control.
Bedlam Plus Aerosol – a convenient spray can which can safely be used directly on your mattress and box spring.
Bifen Insecticide/Termiticide (IT) – this concentrated formula allows you to create large batches of powerful insecticide. This product contains bifenthrin – which is around 45,000 times more lethal to bedbugs than the essential oils.