Essential oils have anti-inflammatory and anti-infection properties that can ease the swelling and itching of bug bites and stings. [Photo: Bigstock]

Q&A: Which essential oils work best for bug bites

31 October, 2017

Q – Can you recommend some essential oils to treat bug bites? I don’t know if the bites are getting worse or I am getting more sensitive to them, but I’d like to find a natural way to stop the itching and heal them faster.


A – Red, itchy insect bites are a common experience and while most will eventually clear up on their own, for some people, especially those with who have sensitive or dry skin, they can cause a local allergic-like reaction that persists for a fairly long time.

In fact, we have heard many reports from people saying they think bug bites are getting worse or that they are more sensitive to them these days. Whether that is true or not is hard to say, but we do know that essential oils have properties that can help calm the inflammation and itching that can drive you to distraction.

By removing the itch you also remove the temptation to scratch, which can break the surface of the skin allowing infection to take hold. But if a mild infection does take hold, there are antimicrobial essential oils that can help heal it.

Obviously, if you have a severe reaction or infection you should seek medical help as soon as possible.

Try these first

Essential oils are highly concentrated oils extracted from plants, such as herbs, flowers, or trees. While many need to be diluted, some can be used neat and it’s worth keeping a range in your natural first aid kit to deal quickly and easily with bites and stings.

Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)

Lavender is extremely useful for wounds, ulcers and sores of all kinds. It is soothing and has a local anti-inflammatory and analgesic action to relieve the swelling and pain associated with bug bites. Lavender also has antiseptic properties to prevent and treat infections. As a first-aid remedy it can be used neat on the skin to treat not just insect bites and stings, but cuts and abrasions as well.

Tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia)

Best known for its antiseptic properties, tea tree is a good all-rounder to keep in your first aid kit for healing all kinds of wounds and sores. It has a broad spectrum of antimicrobial activity may help prevent bug bites from getting infected.

There is also research that shows that tea tree oil is a natural antihistamine. Histamine is released by the body when it comes into contact with an allergen. Although it is part of your body’s natural defences, too high levels can cause inflammation. Try washing bites in a 10% solution (1 part tea tree to 10 parts water) to reduce swelling and itchiness.

Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)

Chamomile’s anti-inflammatory properties makes it useful for soothing problem, allergic or sensitive skin. It is another oil that can be applied neat for immediate relief of itchy and inflamed rashes and bites. It has also been shown to promote faster healing and tissue regeneration than corticosteroids.

Peppermint (Mentha piperita)

Peppermint oil has cooling and toning effects on the skin and can be particularly soothing for skin that is irritated for instance by bites, stings, hives and other allergic skin reactions. Peppermint is also antiseptic and antimicrobial to help reduce the risk of infection. Peppermint can be applied directly to skin, but those with sensitive skin should dilute it. A 2% dilution would be 12 drops of peppermint oil to 30ml (2 tbl) of a carrier oil such as almond, grapeseed or coconut.

Lemongrass oil (Cymbopogon citratus)

Commonly used as an insect repellent, lemongrass is also an antibacterial, pain relieving and strongly antiseptic oil. Research has shown that is has anti-inflammatory properties which can help reduce pain and itching following insect bites and stings. Use in a 2% dilution as with peppermint (above).

Camphor oil (Cinnamomum camphora)

Camphor oil has a warming action due to its ability to increase local circulation. This may provide some relief to itchy bites. For bites that burn, however, choose a more soothing oil such as chamomile or lavender (above). Camphor should be well diluted and one way to get its benefits without worrying about dilutions is to keep some white Tiger Balm, which contains camphor and menthol (an active ingredient in peppermint oil), on hand.

What else can you do?

Sometimes you will need to use more than one strategy to treat bug bites. Other natural remedies may be useful to support the healing process including:

Witch hazel is distilled from the leaves and stems of the Hamamelis virginiana plant. It has a cooling, soothing, toning effect on skin and is mildly antiseptic. You can make an infusion from the leaves and bark or simply buy a good quality distilled witch hazel and use it to clean the area around the bite or sting, or dab on or use in a compress as needed to cool the area.

Aloe vera is another good remedy to keep on hand. Store the gel in the refrigerator and dab onto bites as soon as possible to relieve red, itchy inflamed skin.

Pyrethrum spray is a traditional homeopathic remedy for bites and stings. Keep a small bottle of pyrethrum handy and use immediately to help reduce inflammation and itching. If you are travelling to places where the risk of bites is high, this is a good remedy to pack.

Baking soda or Epsom salts can be added to the bath to address large areas of bites that are itchy and inflamed. Both can help reduce the swelling, which will eases the itching sensation. Add a cupful of either one to a tepid bath and soak the affected area(s).

Make an oatmeal bath bag. Oatmeal produces a soothing liquid that calms skin inflammation and itching. Cut the foot off an old pair of tights. Put a handful of dry oatmeal into it and tie it off. Soak it well and squeeze; use the soothing cream this produces to cleanse instead of soap. Alternatively simply use a larger length of tights (large enough to take 1-2 cupfuls of oats) like a giant ‘teabag ’to infuse the water with soothing oat extract.

Finally, old standbys like calamine lotion can be really useful to ease itching and help dry up weepy sores while a clay pack or poultice can help draw out stings.

To make a clay pack, mix powdered clay (bentonite clay, has the strongest drawing action) with just enough water to make a paste which has the consistency of toothpaste. You can also if you like add up a few drops of essential oil of your choice. Apply directly to the affected area, cover with a clean waterproof dressing that generously covers the area around the sting. You may need to leave it on for several hours or overnight or until the clay is dry. Rinse off with tepid water.