Wouldn’t it be nice if there was something you could spray on your body, in your bed, on your clothes and in your luggage to keep bed bugs away? There is a lot of information on the web claiming that various things do just that. But is bed bug repellent just wishful thinking?
What is a repellent?
A repellent is something bugs will avoid. This is different than a bed bug insecticide, which kills them. A lot of websites seem to use the term repellent to mean insecticide, which can be confusing. In this article I’m dealing very specifically with the effect of repelling bed bugs.
Claimed as Bed Bug Repellents
I will discuss specific insecticides that are often mis-characterized as repellents. But I’m only going to touch on their value as something a bed bug would avoid.
I’ll also look at certain herbal or natural substances that are claimed to act as bed bug repellents.
Keep in mind that ultimately, repelling bed bugs might not be the best idea. It is like taking aspirin for a brain tumor. It might make the pain go away for a bit but it doesn’t address the underlying problem. And the underlying problem continues to worsen the longer you ignore it. If a bed bug repellent causes bed bugs to disperse, they will find harder to reach hiding places which will make inspection and extermination that much more difficult.
But a functional bed bug repellent could go a long way to protecting you while you travel and in other situations. So lets investigate the idea of bed bug repellents and see what we learn.
Bed Bug Insecticides
These insecticides are commonly used for bed bug extermination and control. Sometimes claims are made that they are also repellent or can be used as a flushing agent. Insecticides should be used as directed as they can be dangerous to people and animals if used incorrectly. This is why they are regulated and should be handled and applied only be trained professionals.
Insecticides made with pyrethroids are known to be repellent to many insects but there doesn’t seem to be strong evidence to support that they are repellent to bed bugs. In fact, bed bugs susceptible to pyrethroids will stay on the substance until it kills them. Many bed bugs are resistant to pyrethroids anyway and have been seen crossing materials treated with pyrethroids with no difficulty or ill effect. I’ve seen it reported that aerosol pyrethrins are often used as a flushing agent to get bed bugs out of their harbor but this seems to contradict other information published.
Chlorfenapyr is an alternative to pyrethroids and is used in a similar way as a bed bug insecticide. It is not known to be repellant.
Diatomaceous earth (DE) pierces a bed bug’s exoskeleton and sucks the water out of it, dehydrating and killing it. DE kills them but the action is not instant (it can take up to two weeks) and there is nothing in DE on its own to repel bed bugs. Some forms of DE are combined with pyrethroids but that won’t necessarily make them repellant.
Boric acid, frequently used to kill cockroaches, is often claimed to be a bed bug insecticide and a repellent. But it is in fact neither. This is due to the way bed bugs get their food. Boric acid works as a stomach poison. But bed bugs are attracted to carbon dioxide and the warmth of the body and they feed only on blood. There is no way to entice them to eat boric acid. Although it is abrasive to their exoskeleton, boric acid is not recognized as a repellent.
Acetamiprid with Bifenthrin
A chemical formulation of Acetamiprid with Bifenthrin is currently in the process of being registered with the EPA. University testing has shown that it may have some repellant power. So down the road a bit we might see a legitimate bed bug repellent supported by research.
All-Natural and Household Substances
Finally, let’s investigate substances that are often referred to as more natural; things such as herbs, essential oils and also common household items.
All-natural substances are appealing if you are concerned with making environmentally friendly choices or you simply prefer natural alternatives over manufactured chemicals. Appealing as these factors may be, best practices for using them rarely exist and many of them can be dangerous if used incorrectly.
Additionally, just because something is all-natural doesn’t mean it’s safe or environmentally friendly. Marketers often cast manufactured chemicals as the bad guy and then position (their) all-natural substances as the good guy. It’s a simple (but effective) trick they use to get you to do what they want: buy their stuff.
If you see the words all-natural and it gives you the warm fuzzies, keep in mind that poison ivy is all-natural as is snake venom and poisonous mushrooms. Black walnut (discussed below), also all-natural, can be toxic to both plants and animals. If it seems like I’m going heavy on the dangers of all-natural substances it is because:
- I believe people are more likely to respect the danger of manufactured chemicals like pesticides than they are all-natural substances.
- Pesticides are regulated, tested and have documented best practices for application, whereas many all-natural solutions do not.
- Most people don’t have access to the same kind of powerful pesticides pest control professionals do but they can easily get their hands on these other substances.
Teatree Oil, Neem Oil and Other Essential Oils
Essential oils include cinnamon oil, lemongrass oil, clove oil, peppermint oil, lavender oil, thyme and eucalyptus. Essential oils are often claimed to both kill and repel bed bugs. It appears accepted that many of these oils will indeed kill bed bugs. However I could only find anecdotal evidence from non-professionals and claims made by pesticide manufacturers to indicate that they act as effective bed bug repellents. There may be some effective repellents to be found here but it is hard to tell. Teatree oil can be toxic to both humans and pets.
Black Walnut Dust
I’ve seen the claim that black walnut dust is effective in both repelling and killing bed bugs. This claim often references the National Park Service as supporting this but I haven’t found any information on their site. For now the claim that black walnut dust is an effective bed bug repellent seems anecdotal, although there may be information supporting it as an insecticide in the book: A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants. Eastern and Central N. America. Black walnut dust may cause allergic reactions in people and animals.
Petroleum Jelly (people also refer to it by the brand name Vaseline) is often applied to the legs of a bed or other surfaces to catch bed bugs. Some people believe the smell of the petroleum jelly repels bed bugs but there doesn’t seem to be much evidence to support that.
Alcohol is known to kill bed bugs on contact (3 parts rubbing alcohol with 2 parts water in a spray bottle). But it isn’t a repellent. It dries almost right away and it has no residual effect once it has dried.
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate
This is the active ingredient in several household products like shampoo, shaving cream and toothpaste. It is also an active ingredient in the EcoBugFree and Bed Bug Terminator sprays, both of which appear to be supported by professionals for killing bed bugs. It doesn’t appear to act as a bed bug repellent though.
The Bottom Line
Dealing with bed bugs is difficult and stressful. You may consider trying anything just to make progress or get some relief. There is a lot of information out there but much of it is confusing or misleading. The bottom line appears to be best put in a document published by Dini M. Miller Ph. D of Virginia Tech:
Repellents: no functional repellents
Right now, it just doesn’t seem as though there’s a lot of evidence to support the existence of effective bed bug repellents. If you have direct experience you would like to share on this topic or you are a manufacturer that does indeed sell a proven bed bug repellent, please get in touch to share your thoughts with other readers.