Do Essential Oils Really Work For Bed Bugs?

Finding more earth-friendly ways to deal with common problems is great, but not when dealing with bed bug infestations. Pesticide-free options do exist for battling bed bugs, but it is still mostly unknown what essential oils work for bed bugs and bed bug eggs. The best essential oils for bed bugs are weapons that, if used, need to be part of a large arsenal against these uninvited guests.

Do Essential Oils Really Work for Bed Bugs?

Sadly, the evidence suggests that the answer is, “No.” Essential oils like tea tree oil can kill adults and larvae only when they are in prolonged contact with the bugs. No essential oil for bed bug eggs is known. Some essential oils help ease itchy bed bug bites.

What Are Essential Oils?

Sometimes called aromatherapy oils, essential oils are thick, often powerfully smelling liquids made from parts of natural substances like flowers, fruits, leaves, bark, or spices. It takes a large amount of each substance to make even just one ounce of oil, which means that essential oils for bed bugs or for anything else can get costly.

There are several ways companies get the essential oil from these natural objects:

  • Distilling with water
  • Steam extraction
  • Cold press extraction
  • Extraction using carbon dioxide
  • Solvent extraction, used for any oil made of citrus fruits like bergamot or orange
  • Cutting up into teeny-tiny bits, known technically as maceration, then soaked in a carrier oil for a week or more, being shaken occasionally.

All these ways are complicated to explain and not really necessary to know in this case. However, it does show how hard it is to get even just one ounce of essential oil. The harder the process and more of the substance needed, the more expensive the oil. Buying diluted oils is far more economical than pure oils.

Related Question: What Are Diluted Oils?

Essential oils are usually too strong to use on skin, bedding, fabrics, or just about anywhere else. So, a little of a particular oil is placed in a carrier oil. The carrier oil helps deliver the properties of the essential oil without many of the bad properties. When you buy diluted oil, it will be mostly carrier oil and only a little bit of the essential oil.

Common carrier oils include:

  • Vegetable
  • Olive
  • Jojoba
  • Apricot kernel
  • Grapeseed
  • Sweet almond
  • Coconut

Some essential oils like tea tree oil are inexpensive in pure form. Tea tree helps soothe insect bites, including the bites from bed bugs. It's too risky to place tea tree oil on the skin. The solution is to dilute it with a carrier oil.

Essential oil with lemon and chamomiles
Image credit: Vialhalabuzar, Deposit Photos

Essential Oil Spray for Bed Bug Bites

Here's how to dilute essential oils to spray bed bugs bites: Use a ratio of one part tea tree oil to twenty parts carrier oil. Then it is safe enough to place on the skin. Never use on broken skin.

What Essential Oils Are Good for Bed Bugs?

Some essential oils possess a deserved reputation for repelling insects like mosquitoes and flies. Unfortunately, some people assumed that if the oil could work at repelling one bug, it could repel bed bugs, too. The essential oils for bed bugs prevention include:

  • Tea tree
  • Lemongrass
  • Blood orange
  • Cedarwood
  • Citronella
  • Thyme
  • Peppermint
  • Cinnamon
  • Eucalyptus
  • Clove
  • Lavender

Some products like doTerra essential oils for bed bugs are made up of different combinations of essential oils and carrier oils.

No matter what essential oil or essential oil spray you use, the chances are very high that it will have little to no effect on the bed bugs in your home. Rutgers University and the United States Department of Agriculture published a major study in 2017 that tested out many natural ways of killing bed bugs and eighteen essential oils, too. None of the essential oils tested worked.

Related Question: Does Any Scent Repel Bed Bugs?

Bed bugs do have a sense of smell. They use smell in order to find prey for us and our pets. They are highly attracted to the smells of carbon dioxide (what we breathe out) and dirty laundry. Unfortunately, we cannot as of yet using the bed bugs' fine sense of smell against them. For the most part, bed bugs are not bothered by smells in the way that moths are bothered by the smells of cedarwood, peppermint oil, or mothballs.

Related: What scent keeps bed bugs away?

Incidentally, mothballs have been tested on bed bugs, according to Rutgers University. The mothballs or naphthalene had no effect. Also having no effect are common repellents like DEET, notes University of Kentucky entomologist Mike F. Potter. Something that repels mosquitoes is not going to deter a bed bug. Unfortunately, there is nothing known that you can place on your skin to prevent bed bug bites.

Repellents for your luggage is another matter. A 2018 study done by Bedoukian Research, Inc. and the Connecticut Experimental Agriculture Station found that DEET on a cloth kept in luggage did keep away bed bugs. Another naturally occurring scent that unfortunately deters people, as well as bed bugs, is para-menthane-3,8-diol. These two scents worked in the small confines of a suitcase but do not work in a large area like a bedroom because the scent soon dissipates in a large space.

Related: How to get rid of bed bugs in clothes and luggage

How Do Essential Oils Kill Bed Bugs?

It's unknown just how essential oils for killing bed bugs works. The oils do weaken a bed bug's exoskeleton, but whether it weakens the skeleton enough to kill the bug is anyone's guess. Exoskeletons contain many advantages but a major disadvantage is the body's fluids all evaporate when the exoskeleton is badly damaged. If we mammals get a cut, we do not have to worry about suddenly shriveling up like a dried leaf. Our skin is able to keep moisture in even if the body suffers many cuts. No bandages or tourniquets exist for bed bugs.

essential oil and lavender flowers
Image credit: duskbabe, Deposit Photos

Another theory states that essential oils cause bed bugs to suffocate. Bed bugs drown easily since they lack the ability to swim, but it is unproven if the constant exposure to one or more essential oils will cause the bed bug to choke to death. Parrafin and silicone oils are thought to kill bed bugs by suffocation.

This brings up a huge point essential oils are NOT harmless. Just because an oil is natural does not automatically make it safe. Some people get very sick when they have to smell essential oils all of the time. Some people also experience problems breathing. If you are going to use essential oils, use a very tiny bit FIRST and wait 24 hours to see if you or anyone else in your home gets sick.

You may be interested in: I have bed bugs in my hair!

There Are Natural Ways to Fight Bed Bugs

Although essential oils often give disappointing results, there are many other green ways of getting rid of bed bugs. These include things you can do as well as services you may have to pay for. Rutgers University recommends:

  • Cleaning up the house in order to give bed bugs fewer places where they can hide.
  • Placing cleaned items in plastic boxes or sealable plastic bags so bugs cannot get back in.
  • Launder your clothes, bedding, and just about anything else that can survive a trip through your washing machine and drier.
  • Vacuum wherever you can, including your car, and then immediately getting rid of the contents in an outside trash container.
  • Steam clean whatever you can, especially your furniture.
  • Whatever you cannot launder, vacuum or steam clean AND can survive being in zero degrees for at least four days, place in a plastic bag and then in a freezer.
  • Place mattresses in encasements so that any bed bugs in there cannot get out to feed and then starve to death.
  • Get rid of furniture, couches, or mattresses that have holes in them because it's impossible to remove all of the bugs from them.
  • Use bed bug traps, which kill some bugs and let you know how your other methods are working out.

In really bad infestations, use DEET on pant legs, shoes, and socks. It will help deter more bites but not get rid of bed bugs in the home.

Other natural ways to fight bed bugs include using diatomaceous earth, placing small objects in heat chambers, placing more delicate objects in black garbage or construction waste bag, and leave in the hot sun for a week. More than enough heat is generated to cook the bed bugs to death.

In Conclusion

Essential oils possess many great abilities but getting rid of bed bugs is not one of them. Although essential oils can kill bed bugs and repel them in small areas like suitcases, they are just not effective enough, safe enough, or reliable enough to eliminate a bed bug infestation. Some essential oils like tea tree oil help with bed bug bites.

There are many ways to fight bed bugs naturally, but you still may need to call an exterminator. Many exterminators use natural ways to kill bed bugs like using heat instead of pesticides.

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