Q. Although there’s usually a summertime scourge of mosquitoes in my neck of the woods, Northern California, it’s never been a huge issue for me at home. Even though I live near a pond, I rarely have to resort to stinky spray repellents … I simply light a couple of citronella candles, sit back and relax on my porch without really being harassed by the little jerks. I guess I should consider myself blessed.

Later this summer, my boyfriend and I are taking a two-week trip to Costa Rica and a couple of other Central American hotspots where we’ll be in some pretty remote locations and I’m kind of, excuse the pun, bugging out on the quito front. I’ve heard horror stories of people being eaten alive in that area. I’m hesitant to resort to DEET-based repellents but I’m unsure of what non-chemical alternatives have a good reputation and are easy to travel with. Any thoughts on what I should pack?

Looking for some DEETS,

—Rose, Boonville, Calif.

Hey Rose,

My first thought: You should pack yours truly. My schedule is looking pretty open for most of July and August, I travel light and I have an excellent sense of direction. Just putting it out there …

But in all seriousness, I’m glad you’re making the decision to steer clear of insect repellents containing the chemical pesticide N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide (DEET) as an active ingredient. Developed by the U.S. Army in the late 1940s, DEET-based repellents are extremely popular (30 percent of the entire U.S. population uses them on a yearly basis) for good reason: They work like a charm.

Although both the CDC and the EPA have deemed DEET as safe for consumer use when applied properly and sparingly, it does still carry the stigma of being a mildly toxic man-made chemical that many would rather not expose themselves, their children and the environment to, especially given that it’s been linked to neurological damage and can, in fact, dissolve plastics. And oh that smell … personally, I can’t think of anything more offensive to the nose than a whiff of eau de Deet. Sure, it keeps mosquitoes at bay, but it also does a bang-up job of keeping humans at a safe distance.

But before moving on, I must point out that the chances of becoming seriously ill from a mosquito-borne disease like West Nile virus are greater than that of periodic use of a DEET-based insect repellent so please, don’t consider going completely repellent-free if you find yourself in serious ’quito country.

There are more than a few natural options out there to consider, Rose. You might not find them as effective as DEET repellents but they’re certainly worth a shot. Just be aware that more frequent application is usually required so make sure you enter the jungle with an adequate supply. If you’re DIY-oriented, go with a homemade potion of essential plant oils. Just dilute the oil — lemon eucalyptus, cinnamon, citronella, lemongrass, clove and rosemary oils are all said to send mosquitoes packin’ — with alcohol or a carrier oil and apply. I’d sample different oils out before you leave to make sure none of them irritates your skin.

Since mixing and matching essential oils might not be the most travel-friendly option, you can also consider the numerous commercially available DEET-free mosquito repellents that contain the essential oils listed above as well as other natural ingredients. One that I have used is USDA Certified Organic Anti-Bug Badger Balm. The balm contains a potent mix of citronella, rosemary, lemongrass, cedar and geranium oils and smells pretty darn nice. You might find it a touch greasy but I’ve never really taken issue with the balm’s texture. Another choice is BiteBlocker, a popular natural repellent that I’ve yet to try. Unlike Badger Anti-Bug, it’s available in all shapes and sizes: spray, lotion and even snap bracelet.

I hope this helps you get started on your non-DEET mosquito repellent hunt, Rose. There’s no reason to bug out. Just remember to reapply liberally when things get buzzy. And to send along your travel dates when you get the chance.

— Matt

Photo: John Tann/Flickr

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

What's an effective, natural personal mosquito repellent?
Matt Hickman knows how to repel the skeeters but not the people around you.