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Does citronella actually ward off mosquitos?

Experts share what the buzz is all about

A collage of images showing a bottle of citronella and a family seated outside for a meal. Credit: Reviewed / Getty Images / zetat / Wavebreakmedia

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While they aren’t the most popular party guests, mosquitoes seem to be some of the busiest social butterflies during the summer months. Their schedules are full of backyard barbecues, afternoon hikes, firepit nights—some of the best get-togethers the season affords. Too bad no one invited them.

With tough-as-nails tenacity and nearly 175 species recognized in America alone, these pests are unfortunately also the vectors of several illnesses (West Nile Virus, Zika).

So, you reach for the citronella candle and torches because not only do they set a great mood for a movie night under the stars, they also are supposed to repel mosquitoes, right?

Sad to say, one recent study published in the Journal of Insect Science takes a bite out of that theory, discovering that these scented candles in fact don’t live up to the hype.

We reached out to the experts to find out, “Does citronella repel mosquitoes?”

What is citronella and how does it work, exactly?

There’s a reason citronella is such a popular scent for mosquito-repelling candles and your nose knows why—it’s strong. Anyone who has sprayed citronella on themselves before a hike and still smelled it hours after can attest to its staying power. But does citronella repel mosquitoes?

“Citronella is a natural oil derived from the leaves and stems from a cousin of lemongrass, Cymbopogon nardus,” explains Nichole Powell, founder of Kinfield DEET-free bug repellent spray. “The way it works is that it interferes with the mosquito’s olfactory receptor, masking the carbon dioxide and lactic acid scents that mosquitoes are searching for.”

While the strong scent masks other scents that attract mosquitoes, how well it works is up for debate. According to Emma Grace Crumbley, an entomologist with Mosquito Squad, the star ingredient doesn’t even warrant a blip on the radar. “The CDC does not list citronella products on its recommended mosquito repellents,” she says.

“The smell of citronella in a concentrated form (like a candle) is a repellent,” explains Grace, noting there’s an issue. “The smoke or the scent actually has to get between you and the mosquito in order to keep them away from your skin, which can be tricky.”

With the bobbing and weaving of most wicks’ smoke spirals, this will just never be the case.

Do citronella plants prevent mosquitoes?

1) A person scratches a mosquito bite on their arm. 2) A mosquito lands on a person's body.
Credit: Reviewed / Getty Images / Jonathan Austin Daniels / simarik

Citronella isn't quite the mosquito repellent it's marketed as.

Citronella also has found its way into the gardening center, poised and ready to stock your outdoor garden with plants that boast “natural mosquito control.” As much as we love that idea, it’s not reality.

“Citronella oil’s volatile compounds give it its mosquito-repelling reputation,” explains Justin Hancock, horticulturist at Costa Farms. “Unfortunately, these volatiles don’t really do any good unless they’re released. So having a citronella plant on or around your deck or patio won’t provide any kind of protection unless you’re constantly brushing up against them or rubbing them on you to unleash those compounds.”

How to prevent mosquitoes

From a gardening or landscape standpoint, the best way to prevent mosquitoes is to reduce a welcoming habitat. “Make sure there isn’t standing water and ensure there’s good airflow,” continues Hancock. “You can also make your yard friendly for mosquito predators like bats, dragonflies, and some bird species.”

Grace agrees. “Standing water may be in your child’s plastic toys, areas underneath downspouts, plant saucers, or dog bowls. Other areas may include traps, gutters, and flat roofs.”

Turn over larger yard items that could hold water, like portable sandboxes, plastic toys, and birdbaths. She also suggests removing excess grass, leaves, firewood, and grass clippings from your yard.

If you want to use a spray to deter these pesky fliers, Grace points you to EPA-registered repellents as the best route to repel mosquitoes, noting products containing DEET are most effective in combating mosquito bites.

The National Pesticide Information Center also suggests pyrethroids, synthetic chemicals that act like natural extracts from the chrysanthemum flower, which can be in liquids, powders, dusts, aerosol solutions, sprays, and treated clothing.

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