Citronella: Mosquito Repellent Plant Or Useless Smelly Candle?

If you have ever gone hunting for mosquito repellent, you’re likely very familiar with one key ingredient: citronella. It seems that citronella makes its way into almost every commercial repellent out there, but how effective is it for actually repelling mosquitoes? The answer may surprise you.

Despite its vast popularity as a mosquito repellent, citronella is not nearly as effective as the market would lead you to believe. Since mosquito repellent technology has advanced, research has discovered there are vastly more powerful mosquito repellants than the fragrant citronella oil that once dominated the market. That’s not to say every mosquito repellent containing citronella is useless (many of them pair the popular citronella with other actually powerful ingredients to keep mosquitoes at bay), but on its own citronella is not an end-all solution.

Do Citronella Plants Work Against Mosquitoes?

Citronella plants (also known as citrosa or citronella geranium) are not very effective at repelling mosquitoes. In fact, when compared to other commonly-known mosquito repellent plants like geranium or eucalyptus, citronella plants were found to contain no unique compounds to prove their efficacy as a repellent. Although citronella plants do give off a rather pleasant aroma, you would be wise to look at other forms of mosquito repellent because their sweet aroma does very little (if anything at all) to protect you and your loved ones from mosquitoes.

You may wonder how citronella plants have managed to become so popular as a supposed mosquito repellent when they offer very little protection to the consumer. That question is simple enough to answer: good marketing! Let’s go back many years to the first emergence of citronella plants as a supposed mosquito repellent. The citronella plant we commonly see advertised as a mosquito repellent (the citrosa) was invented by a man named Dirk Van Leenen in the 1980s. At the time, Leenen was trying to create a plant to market to households across the nation as an effective mosquito repellent.

After years spent gene-splicing various plants known to help repel mosquitoes, Leenen began marketing the citrosa as the common homeowner’s solution to their mosquito problem. By 1985, the citrosa was fully developed and Leene began traveling across the nation to market the citronella plant as an effective mosquito repellent. He promised that “for only $5” the citrosa plant he had created would “rid your home of mosquitoes”. His claims were quite attractive and the citronella plant was incredibly inviting with its pleasant aroma and appearance. Coupled with Leenen’s knowledge of horticulture and the growing need for mosquito repellent, the citronella plant seemed to be the perfect solution. Unfortunately, in the end it was all just a money scheme. Even though years have passed, the myth that citronella plants effectively repel mosquitoes when planted in your yard persists.

How do we know citronella plants are not effective at repelling mosquitoes? Researchers from the University of Guelph in Ontario conducted a study to determine whether the presence of a citronella plant would reduce the amount of mosquito bites an unprotected subject had. In order to do so, they had a volunteer enter a small, clear cage with a group of hungry mosquitoes. Before the citronella plant was placed in the room, the volunteer was bitten by the mosquitoes 40 times in thirty seconds. Researchers placed the citronella plant in the cage and waited an hour before conducting the experiment again. Despite the citronella plant presence in the cage, the volunteer was bitten 43 times in thirty seconds. After a day of the plant being placed in the cage, researchers again tested its use as a repellent. This time, the volunteer was bitten 61 times in thirty seconds.

It’s no surprise that after people had sunk money intro citronella plants hoping they would repel mosquitoes that they truly believed the plants were working. No one wants to spend their hard-earned money just to find that the solution they had been promised would work was ineffective! Perhaps it was a combination of pride and the general population’s lack of horticulture knowledge that allowed the “citronella plants repel mosquitoes” myth to become so widely believed. However, the citronella plant offers weak protection from mosquitoes at best and more often offers no protection at all.

Types Of Anti-Mosquito Citronella Products

As I already mentioned, citronella is still widely considered an effective mosquito repellent and there are many citronella-based products available on the market today. Let’s take a look at some of the most common types of citronella mosquito repellent and examine why they are ineffective at protecting you and your loved ones from mosquitoes. For the sake of clarity, all of the following product examples will come from Amazon, but there are many other retailers who still sell citronella mosquito repellents.

Citronella Oil

If you are a fan of the essential oil movement or if you’ve read some of our other articles talking about how essential oils can aid in protecting you and your loved ones from mosquitoes, you may be thinking of using citronella oil to repel mosquitoes. Unfortunately, citronella oil is an ineffective solution to repelling mosquitoes. Citronella oil evaporates extremely quickly when it is not within a properly sealed container. Even if the oil can provide some protection from mosquitoes to begin with, it doesn’t last long because of how quickly it loses its effectiveness due to evaporation. You also shouldn’t apply citronella oil directly to your skin without mixing it with a carrier oil as it can cause irritation. Mixing citronella oil, however, only further cuts into any mosquito repelling ability it has. We’ll talk more on citronella essential oil a bit later in this article, but just know that it is not an effective mosquito repelling product.

Citronella Incense Sticks

Citronella incense sticks typically contain a blend of mosquito repellent scents like rosemary, eucalyptus, and more. Although they can smell wonderful, they contain very little of the oils that work to repel mosquitoes. Because they lack any meaningful amount of mosquito repelling ingredients, they are an ineffective mosquito repellent. When you first light a citronella incense stick, you might notice a slight reduction in mosquito bites. This is because what little oils the incense stick does contain are being burned off, but the oil is quickly burned through. With the oil burned off, the incense is no longer an effective mosquito repellent and you’ll have hungry mosquitoes feasting on you again in no time. Incense smoke is also incredibly easy to disperse, so you would be better off finding another type of mosquito repellent.

Citronella Spray

Many citronella sprays are marketed as pet-friendly because they are made with natural ingredients rather than harsh chemicals. This citronella spray from PetSafe may be safe for your pooch, but that doesn’t mean it will protect you our your loved ones from mosquitoes very well. Citronella spray typically only maintains its effectiveness for roughly 2 hours and even during its “prime time”, it isn’t incredibly reflective at repelling mosquitoes. The spray doesn’t last very long for two main reasons: the citronella oil it contains evaporates rapidly and the spray simply can’t hold up against sweat or other liquids. During the months of summer, you’ll likely be sweating whenever you are outdoors or looking to cool off in a pool or other body of water. If you’re sweating or swimming, you’re ridding yourself of citronella spray. Even if the citronella spray can provide some protection, it’s easily diminished by any amount of moisture and its main ingredient is evaporating quickly from the moment you apply the spray.

Citronella Torch Fuel

Citronella torch fuel (commonly used in Tiki Torches or other outdoor torches marketed to provide protection from mosquitoes) is a really popular product that supposedly keeps mosquitoes out of your yard. Sellers claim that the smell the torch fuel emits as it is burned wards off mosquitoes, repelling them from outdoor spaces like your yard or deck. In actuality, you may as well use regular torch fuel because adding citronella oil to torch fuel does very little to repel mosquitoes. Just like many of the other products on this list, citronella torch fuel contains very little citronella oil in the first place. What oil it does contain burns away or evaporates very quickly. In addition, the smoke the torch fuel emits is quick to disperse and is so weak that most mosquitoes won’t have any issues flying straight through it to seek out a human snack. To learn more about why I don’t recommend citronella torch fuel or Tiki Torches to repel mosquitoes, please read this article on the subject. I go more in-depth about why this type of product doesn’t work and other solutions you can use instead.

Citronella Coil

Citronella coils are created with the intent to be burned, which puts off smoke that will supposedly repel mosquitoes. You can purchase citronella coils for specially designed lamps that are supposed to allow you to safely burn the coil without reducing its impact. The smoke released is supposed to kill or incapacitate mosquitoes, making them less likely to bite you. However, they suffer from many of the same drawbacks that citronella torch fuel does. Citronella coils are only really effective when they first begin to burn and even during that window of peak performance they still don’t repel as many mosquitoes as certain non-citronella mosquito repellents do. Even if the citronella coil smoke does incapacitate a mosquito for a period of time, it will quickly regain its ability to fly and continue trying to feast on your blood. Windflow renders citronella candles near useless and the cleanup from burning the coils makes it tough to justify when better mosquito repellent methods are widely available.

Citronella Wrist Ankle Bands

To take advantage of a market that seeks mosquito repellent solutions without the need to constantly apply bug spray or make use of expensive insect traps, citronella bands were created. Citronella bands are supposed to be an easy-to-wear, convenient mosquito repellent method. They are simple plastic bands that are infused with citronella and other oils that claim to repel mosquitoes. However, like many of the other products I’ve already discussed, these bands contain very little citronella oil. Citronella oil simply evaporates too quickly to be of any use and using a plastic band with the oil does not mitigate this drawback. It is also incredibly easy to break or lose the band. Furthermore, many citronella bands on the market are improperly infused with oil: they may smell like citronella to begin with, but don’t even contain enough of the oil to make a difference!

Citronella Lotion

Like many citronella-based mosquito repellents, citronella lotion is supposed to be easy to use and entices consumers with its pleasant aroma. Many citronella lotions (like this one) also claim to have all-natural or organic ingredients so that they can appeal to a wider customer base. If you need lotion anyway, why not spend a few extra dollars to buy one that claims to help repel mosquitoes? Simply put, citronella lotion does not work because it is an ineffective way to use citronella oil and it only has short-term effectiveness. Many citronella lotions also contain only trace amounts of any oils that would make them useful mosquito repellents. What oils it does contain evaporate quickly and if you are sweating or swimming, the citronella lotion rubs off quickly. Citronella lotion is incredibly ineffective in warm weather for this very reason and as we all know, the warmer months are the only months mosquitoes are really out and about!

Citronella Candles

Citronella candles are wonderful for creating a warm, inviting atmosphere. They also emit a pleasant aroma, so it can be tempting to purchase them to use on your deck during mosquito season. However, they are incredibly ineffective at repelling mosquitoes. For many of the same reasons Tiki Torches are ineffective, citronella candles are ineffective. As this is the last product on the list, let’s take a closer look at citronella candles and explore just why they aren’t recommended for repelling mosquitoes.

Are Citronella Candles An Effective Mosquito Repellent?

Just like the citronella plant, citronella candles emit a pleasant aroma that is rumored to help you repel mosquitoes. However, there have been studies conducted to test citronella candles against mosquitoes and they have all concluded the same thing: citronella candles may smell nice, but they do very little (if anything at all) to repel mosquitoes.

Generally speaking, citronella candles contain very little citronella oil. Although citronella oil isn’t powerful against mosquitoes, it does have some repellent qualities that could be useful in a pinch. However, most citronella candles only contain five percent or less citronella oil concentration. The little citronella oil they do contain is often mixed with other fragrances or is simply overpowered by the amount of wax the candle needs to function properly.

Burning citronella candles releases very little of the already miniscule amount of citronella oil they contain. Citronella candles just don’t put off much smoke, so there’s not really anything to repel mosquitoes. The candles also take an incredibly long time to burn off any amount of oil. In order to effectively repel mosquitoes, you should be using a strong repellent that does its job from the very beginning and doesn’t need a long period of time to work. Citronella candles just can’t hold a flame to other sources of mosquito repellent.

If you won’t trust my word, let’s look at what the experts say. A study published in the Journal of Insect Science details an experiment proving that citronella candles are ineffective at repelling mosquitoes. Researchers were intending to test several popular mosquito repellent products and see just how well they did what they claimed to do. One of the products tested was a citronella candle. During the experiment, a volunteer was sat at one end of a wind tunnel to act as “bait”. The other end of the tunnel contained a taxis cage full of mosquitoes. The windflow coming from behind the volunteer was directed at the mosquitoes, so they would be able to pick up the volunteer’s scent and any mosquito repellent product that was being used.

When researchers tested the citronella candle with the volunteer, they found that the citronella candle offered very little to no protection from the mosquitoes. The number of mosquito bites the volunteer received was almost the exact same as if they had been using no mosquito repellent at all.

What does this tell you? Well, it tells me that my money would be better spent on mosquito repellents other than citronella candles!

Citronella Uses

By now, I hope you have realized that citronella is not an effective mosquito repellent. The citronella plant, in particular, should not be used as a repellent, but that’s not to say that you should turn your back on the citronella plant entirely. In fact, citronella plants have many positive benefits and uses that they deserve to be recognized for. To recognize their potential uses, first we must realize that there are two main types of citronella plants: citronella grass and citronella flowers. Let’s examine the positive benefits and ways that you can use both types of citronella plants.

Citronella Grass

  • Aromatherapy: The scent of citronella grass is considered very pleasant and can have a very desirable soothing effect. Some people who suffer from migraines have found planting citronella grass in their yard helps ease their headaches. Citronella aroma may also help boost your mood, helping to fight depression and anxiety.
  • Antibacterial and Antiseptic: If you ever find yourself without a first aid kit and you have a gash, reach for your citronella grass. Applying citronella grass as a salve or using the oil on open wounds can help prevent infection and keep them free of any harmful bacteria.
  • Muscle Relaxer: When you apply the oil from citronella grass to aching or sore muscles, it creates a warming effect that can help ease any tensions and prevent muscle pain or spasms.
  • Anti-Inflammatory: Just like when you use citronella as a muscle relaxer, you can use it on injuries to reduce any swelling.
  • Kill Head Lice: If you ever find yourself with an unfortunate head lice infestation, rest assured that citronella can help. Applying the oil to your scalp will help kill the nasty buggers and leave you itch-free in no time.
  • Pet Training: If you mix citronella oil with water and spray it on your furniture, it can help in training your pets to not chew or scratch.
  • Odor Neutralizer: Citronella has a pleasant aroma, so it’s no surprised that it can be used as nature’s Febreze. Just like with the pet training spray, combine the citronella oil and water then spray wherever there is an unpleasant aroma.

Citronella Flower

  • Garden Plant: Citronella flowers are beautiful and their aroma mingles well with other aromatic flowers. Planting some will help bring your garden to life.
  • Potpourri: You can dry the petals and leaves of citronella flowers to make your own homemade potpourri! Fill a decorative bowl and add in other pleasant potpourri.
  • Food Garnish: The citronella flower is safe to be eaten, so you can harvest it and garnish dishes with citronella flower to add the citronella aroma to your cooking. It doesn’t have much taste, but it can help bring out the flavor profile through scent.

Did any of these uses surprise or inspire you? Citronella plants can be a wonderful addition to your yard when used properly instead of being used as a mosquito repellent. Both types of citronella plants are also perennial, so they will return year after year so long as they are properly cared for. If you are a beginner gardener or just looking for another plant to add to your collection, consider these plants! Their pleasant aroma alone should be enough to seal the deal, but when you consider all of their other alternate uses, I’m sure you can find a reason to purchase a citronella plant soon!

Citronella Essential Oil Benefits

Citronella essential oil is broken into two types: Ceylon and Java. Ceylon is obtained from the Citronella nardus and is a product from Sri Lanka that has a warm, citrusy, woodsy aroma. Java is obtained from the Citronella Winterianus plant and its aroma is very fresh and similar to that of a lemon. When looking to purchase citronella essential oil, java is considered to be of higher quality. If you’re a fan of essential oils, I highly recommend trying citronella essential oil due to its wide array of uses. Let’s explore some of the ways you can use citronella essential oil:

  • Heal insect bites: Citronella essential oil has strong antifungal properties. Next time you are bitten by an insect (like a mosquito, for instance) apply diluted citronella essential oil to the site to make sure it heals properly.
  • Use in aromatherapy treatments: We already mentioned how citronella grass can be used for aromatherapy, but citronella essential oil may be an even more potent aromatherapy tool. It can be used during massages to relieve arthritic pain and it can also be diffused to help with colds and fevers. It can also help relieve headaches and migraines, depression, and anxiety.
  • Perfume and fragrance: The essential oils often have a very pleasant, citrusy aroma. Because of this, it is a popular ingredient in perfume. It is also commonly added to other personal hygiene products like soap and lotion.
  • Food color: It has a very distinct yellow-orange color that is perfect to add as a natural food coloring. It can be used to color beverages, baked goods, frozen dairy, gelatin, pudding, and candies.
  • Calm dog barking: Citronella essential oil spray is a wonderful tool when training your dog not to bark. The unfamiliar aroma will confuse and teach them that barking is undesired behavior.
  • Antibacterial, antiseptic, astringent properties: This makes them a useful addition to your medicine cabinet. There are also many other uses for citronella essential oil, so please don’t feel that this a complete list by any means. Next time you go to pick up some essential oils, considering giving citronella a try!

The Verdict: A Good Mosquito Repellent?

Although citronella doesn’t bring much to the table in terms of repelling mosquitoes, it does still have many beneficial uses. The lists above are by no means complete! If you’re interested in what citronella can do for you, I urge you to spend some time researching how you can use citronella in your daily life

I hope that this article has helped debunk the myth that citronella is an effective mosquito repellent. Don’t be caught paying more for products just because they use citronella. Instead, look for other mosquito repellents that rely on stronger ingredients (like DEET) or research natural solutions that are actually proven to work. Citronella simply doesn’t have enough strong mosquito repellent properties to justify its use when trying to protect you and your loved ones from mosquitoes. Next mosquito season, ditch the citronella and purchase other mosquito repellents that will keep you protected from aggravating mosquito bites.

If you still need to find products that will repel mosquitoes and keep your family protected, please head over to my recommended products page. Everything listed there is tried and true. Remember to stay protected this mosquito season and don’t let those flying pests ruin your time spent enjoying the great outdoors.

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