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Are Citronella Candles a Gimmick?

Citronella candles are popular backyard accessories, especially in the summer months. You can find them in the gardening section of your favorite hardware store, grocery store, or online.

Supposedly, the scent of citronella repels mosquitos. Their popularity sends a clear signal that they will protect you. But how well do they work?

Together we’ll find out if citronella candles are a backyard must or a backyard bust.

Let’s jump in!

What Are Citronella Candles?

Citronella candles are typically made of wax and contain a natural ingredient to keep bugs away. The essential oil comes from the lemongrass plant called Cymbopogon Nardus. As they burn, citronella oil evaporates into the air, masking surrounding smells.

The odor masks human scent, so mosquitos and other insects don’t find us as quickly. In essence, the candles act like barriers. Consequently, event planners use citronella candles to surround outdoor receptions and create ambiance. 

Some think citronella candles make for cool and trendy additions at evening summer hangouts. If you find the citrus smell pleasant, then it’s a win-win.

Citronella candle in yard
Keep bugs away by using citronella candles.

Do Citronella Candles Keep Mosquitoes Away?

The Environmental Protection Agency claims that citronella’s use as an insect repellent dates back sixty years. Although the oil is a somewhat effective repellent, there’s only so much in each candle.

Also, citronella candle manufacturers use different ratios of ingredients. Each formula changes its effectiveness. It would be best if you let the candle burn for fifteen minutes outside before you kick back and enjoy the night.

Ironically, one thing mosquitoes can’t cope with is wind. The breeze from a fan can do wonders in keeping them away. But it’ll also blow out your candles. 

The bottom line is citronella candles are incredibly unreliable. They may keep some away, or they may not.

Pro Tip: Get the inside scoop on Essential Oil Versus Bug Spray: The Camper Real Test.

Do Citronella Candles Work?

Unfortunately, they aren’t effective enough to rid your yard of mosquitoes. Although they can repel some mosquitoes and may reduce dreaded bug bites, the odds aren’t in our favor.

According to, Entomologist Howard Russel says citronella is an ineffective repellent. Although some studies found that the oil reduced mosquito numbers by 35% and bites by 42%, Russell states it’s not enough. If twenty mosquitos are around and only ten bite you, what’s the point?

Your average citronella candle can distract some bugs for about two hours. But let’s be real. To make a difference, you’d have to surround yourself with so many candles you’d create a fire hazard.

Although they’re promoted as natural insect repellants, all the buzz is kind of a bust. 

citronella candle
From citronella candles to essential oils, there are plenty of ways to keep the bugs away.

7 Alternatives to Citronella Candles

Essential oils have been used to repel insects for centuries. But we think there are better alternatives out there than citronella. Our list includes some everyday items that might surprise you.


Picaridin is a manufactured alternative to citronella made from piperine, a natural plant compound. Plants that contain the piperine compound also produce black pepper. So it makes sense that pesky mosquitos might not like biting into a giant beach of spicy pepper!

Most pests don’t like peppers. But it’s not like we can break open jalapenos and rub them all over our skin. Picaridin, on the other hand, is an easy-to-use lotion. And it’s odorless!

You can find picaridin insect repellent at outdoor stores like REI and major chain stores like Target and Walmart. If you don’t like lathering up with lotion, you can try things like sprays and towelettes.


Mosquitoes don’t like the smell of lavender. But a little lavender oil on your neck won’t keep them away from your legs and hands. The best way to use lavender is to plant it all around your backyard. You can even grow it inside and keep it by the window. Bugs are much less likely to cruise on in if they smell this purple flower.

If you’re feeling crafty, you can make some effective lavender repellent at home. Grab a carrier oil, like jojoba, and mix it with lavender oil, witch hazel, and water. Be sure to look up the measurements, though. 

If that sounds like too much work, douse a sachet filled with dried lavender flowers and press it on exposed skin. 


DEET is the only citronella candle alternative developed by the U.S. Army on our list. The good news is this chemical is the most effective mosquito repellent. The not-so-great news is DEET’s odor is strong and somewhat unpleasant. And it leaves a greasy residue on your skin.

Another fact to consider before using DEET is it can be dangerous if used incorrectly. Always apply DEET outside and avoid contact with cuts or scrapes. Keep it away from your eyes, nose, and mouth. As for kids, the EPA says it’s safe as long as a parent or supervising adult applies it to them. 

For best results, spray DEET when outside directly onto your clothing. 


Mosquitoes and other biting bugs sour at the scent of peppermint. If you don’t grow the herb in your backyard yet, go ahead and get started! You can crush bunches of fresh leaves up and rub in on your skin. And the bonus is the leaf oils will help relieve any bites you already have.

Essential oil of peppermint can also work better than citronella candles. Dab some on each side of your forehead or the nape of your neck. And then maybe a drop or two on the ankles. The smell is said to be relaxing and even help mental function. Use sparingly, though – the stuff is strong!

Bog Myrtle

Bog myrtle is a flowering plant found mainly in the United Kingdom, Europe, and North America. It’s an old standby for campers. Place some in your tent, and mosquitoes will stay out.

You can find several kinds of repellent made from bog myrtle oil. Try the sprays instead of the candles. Or, you can try our personal favorite, The Wee Midge Body Butter.

Lemon Eucalyptus Oil

This essential oil is probably the most pleasant smell for humans on our list. Eucalyptus has a natural calming effect on most people. But not for mosquitos!

Nowadays, you can find plenty of natural insect repellent made with lemon eucalyptus oil. You can also get creative and make your own concoction of fresh lemon, water, eucalyptus oil, and carrier oil – as with lavender.

This one doesn’t last as long as the others on our list, though. Frequent applications are a must.

Dryer Sheets

Our last citronella candle alternative is something you may already have at home. Dryer sheets repel most insects, including mosquitos. Bugs like mosquitos and wasps don’t like the odor of the linalool compound found in many brands. Some swear by brands like Bounce and Gain for this reason.

If you’re hosting a cookout or outdoor buffet party, place the dryer sheets in nearby shrubs or tape them under the table. Get creative! You can even save your used ones and put them in your pocket. They still work. 

Are Citronella Candles Worth It?

If you want to be bite-free when hanging out in your backyard, citronella candles alone won’t cut it. So, they’re not worth it if you only buy them to keep biting bugs away. However, they do create a lovely outdoor ambiance.

As soothing as candles may be, you’ll have to double up on your mosquito defense to get real relief.

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