Citronella oil, which is derived from some varieties of the lemongrass family, can be used as a safe, non-toxic insect repellent. Citronella oil can be applied directly to skin in diluted form, or it can be burnt in candles and lamps to repel insects over a greater area.
Use a topical cream or spray containing citronella oil as an effective insect repellent. These creams may use other natural ingredients, such as peppermint oil or cinnamon, to increase the effectiveness of the citronella. Note that you may need to re-apply the topical cream every 30 to 60 minutes, since citronella can evaporate quickly when exposed to the air.
Test whether your skin will have a negative reaction to the use of citronella as an insect repellent by rubbing a small amount of the product on your forearm. A small percentage of people report incidents of dermatitis (skin rashes or blemishes) when using citronella oil as an insect repellent, especially when concentrated forms of the oil are being applied.
Burn candles and lamps which contain citronella oil in outdoor areas in order to repel insects over a wider area. By placing these products around the perimeter of a patio, backyard deck or pool area, you can be relatively free from insect activity for that summer barbecue or picnic.
Add citronella oil to a bath or shower for an additional measure of protection. Some mineral oil products may contain small amounts of citronella oil for this specific purpose. Note, however, that most of these products offer protection from insect bites for less than an hour after application.
Crush the leaves from lemongrass or lemon thyme plants to make your own, completely natural insect repellent using citronella oil. Lemon thyme, for instance, offers 62 percent of the potency as chemical insect repellents such as DEET, which is found in most commercial products. Just grind or crush the leaves of the plant, and rub the juice all over your skin.
Wash the citronella from your skin with hot water and soap once you return indoors.
While there is concern in Europe about the overall safety of citronella, especially used on the skin in concentrated form, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has declared citronella oil as a completely safe way to repel insects.
The use of citronella as an insect repellent is generally not recommended for children under the age of 3.