It’s well known that citronella oil can repel many types of pesky and creepy insects. So, if the oil can keep bugs away, it follows that the candle should do an even better job, right? After all, burning a citronella candle sends the smell out into the air, plus it creates some smoke (which bugs hate).
But, if you’ve ever been slapping at mosquitoes while sitting three feet from a burning citronella candle, you may be wondering: Do citronella candles really work?
Unfortunately, the effects citronella candles have on mosquitoes and other bugs is minimal, and even then the conditions have to be just right. Best case scenario, you can expect to repel only half of the mosquitoes and other insects that come your way. The other half will be secretly sucking your blood and leaving itchy little bumps.
So, for all intents and purposes, citronella candles don’t work. Read on to find out why.
The Idea Behind Citronella Candles
Many people think that citronella candles are supposed to work to repel insects away. However, this isn’t the case. Instead, citronella oil, which is derived from a plant closely related to lemongrass, has been shown to mask our scent. So, it’s not actually supposed to repel the mosquitoes. It’s supposed to hide the smell of humans from mosquitoes and other insects.
Mosquitoes use the carbon dioxide that we exhale to find us. This can happen while the mosquito is as far away as 30-feet. Once they get a little bit closer, scientists think they start to use smells from our sweat to hone in on us. This is where citronella candles could be effective. Unfortunately, there are a few conditions that need to be met in order for a candle to work well. Let’s take a quick look at the studies done on citronella candles and then we’ll discuss the ideal conditions for those who want to try a candle to ward off mosquitoes.
How Effective is a Citronella Candle?
In general, citronella candles don’t give much protection. On average they can provide about 50% protection under the right circumstances. It’s rarely more than 50%. In other words, they have a success rate of around half. Personally, that’s not enough for me. Particularly when there are other products out there that provide much better protection. We’ll get to those below.
Why Aren’t Citronella Candles More Effective?
There are several reasons why citronella candles don’t work very well. These include wind, distance from the candle, the amount of citronella oil used in any given candle, the type of mosquitoes you’re trying to repel, and the effectiveness of citronella oil itself.
Since the idea behind citronella candles is to mask a human’s smell, a little bit of wind can have an unwanted effect. Even a small breeze can send the citronella smell away from you, leaving your scent open to any and all mosquitoes around.
One study showed that citronella candles were most effective within about 3-feet. When the distance increased, the effectiveness of the candles dropped dramatically. And it wasn’t all that great to begin with. But, if you’re able to stay within 3 feet of a citronella candle, you may find a decrease in mosquito and other bug bites. But not a complete decrease.
Concentration of Citronella Oil
Another reason citronella candles aren’t very effective is due to the fact that most of them have 5% or less of total citronella oil in them. This low concentration, combined with the factors above, means that whatever benefits citronella oil does have are diluted when used in candles. In fact, one major insect repellent brand sells a citronella candle with 0.5% total citronella oil.
Type of Mosquito
Finally, the type of mosquito you’re trying to repel may not be bothered by a citronella candle at all. According to some studies, different types of mosquitoes rely more on sensing exhaled carbon monoxide than they do on the smell of human sweat. These types of insects are less likely to be deterred by the smell of citronella since it does little to cover up carbon monoxide that we naturally exhale.
Citronella Oil as a Repellent
Citronella oil has been shown effective at repelling mosquitoes and other insects. However, this, too, comes with a caveat. When used as a topical ointment to repel mosquitoes, citronella oil loses its effectiveness quickly. For best results, you need to re-apply it every 30 to 60 minutes. It will mask the smells that mosquitoes are attracted to, but only for so long.
This is one of the reasons why it became popular for use in candles, despite there being little to no evidence that it is any more effective than other means. In the US, citronella oil is considered safe for use as a topical repellent, but it does tend to irritate some people’s skin. And these oils are made especially for keeping insects away. Citronella essential oils (or any other type) should never be put directly on the skin without diluting it first. And even then, you’ll need to reapply it once an hour, at least.
What Bugs Does Citronella Keep Away?
Citronella oil has been shown to keep a few pesky insects away. These include:
- Mosquitoes (Aedes aegypti)
- Stable fly (barn fly, biting house fly)
- Head lice
- Body lice
But these studies were done on citronella oil, not citronella candles.
Are Citronella Candles Safe?
The question of safety depends on who you ask and what else besides citronella oil the candles are made with. The FDA has rated citronella oil as a biopesticide, meaning that it is a natural repellent. They’ve also rated it safe for use on the skin when it’s used as directed. Citronella candles are a bit of a different story, though.
But this isn’t usually because of the citronella oil. While citronella candles are considered safe and non-toxic, it’s a good idea to pay attention to the other ingredients and read any warning labels on a candle before purchase. For the most part, they’re no more dangerous than any other type of scented candle. Breathing in smoke is never good for you, but if you use it outside in a well-ventilated area, you should be fine. However, infants and the elderly may have some minor breathing issues after inhaling citronella oil.
This is not medical advice. Always talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about citronella candles!
Better Ways to Repel Bugs
As you can probably guess, there are better ways to keep bugs away. Citronella candles can’t be counted on to keep mosquitoes away. But there are some things that can, and they may surprise you.
Yes, you read that right. A fan can help keep mosquitoes away. Mosquitoes are anything but strong fliers. Even a slight breeze can keep them from coming at you. And if you keep the fan on, it’s bound to be more effective than a citronella candle!
DEET is the name for a chemical that’s widely used in topical insect repellent sprays and lotions. Although DEET is considered safe by many health agencies, some people are concerned about it. Perhaps with good reason. In extremely rare cases, high concentrations of DEET can cause serious health issues. Many people don’t even want to risk it, even though there’s little to no risk from insect repellents since they don’t contain high concentrations.
However, DEET has also been known to damage vinyl, plastic, and rubber. The thinking goes like this: if it can damage plastic and rubber, what’s it doing to your body? And as if to add to the skepticism, many people find that DEET has a strange smell and a greasy feel that they don’t like.
Still, DEET bug sprays, like this one from Repel, are highly effective for up to 4 hours. But they’re not the only competition. There are some equally-effective DEET-free options, as well.
The two big names in DEET-free mosquito and insect repellents are picaridin and oil of lemon eucalyptus. Picaridin is a favorite because it seems to work just as well as DEET without the strange smell, feel, and worries about the chemicals. Here’s a popular brand made with 20% picaridin available on Amazon.
Finally, if you’re looking to keep your yard free of mosquitoes year-round, you can hire a professional service. They keep mosquitoes from breeding with a special spray. While the spray is drying you’ll have to keep your dogs and kids locked up inside. But once it’s dry, which takes about 30 minutes to an hour, the pets and children are free to run around outside. The chemicals that most companies use are considered safe.
That’s it for my article on citronella candles. I hope this helped. Remember that there are plenty of options out there. Unless you like the smell of citronella candles or you want to set the mood, choose another repellent.