Mosquito Repellent Use in Africa: Benefits and Dangers



By: Ruth Abi, B. Pharm. Freelance Health Writer and Datelinehealth Africa Volunteer. Medical review and editorial support provided by the Datelinehealth Africa Team

A black lady applying mosquito repellent essential oil from a dropper to her wrist

A black lady applying mosquito repellent essential oil from a dropper to her wrist.






  • Mosquito repellents contain chemical substances that repel mosquitoes away from the body especially when outdoors, thereby preventing bites and the possibility of mosquito-borne diseases.
  • They can be evenly applied to the body as lotions, creams or spray. They can also be attached in containers to clothing as clip-ons or when formulated on wearables, worn as wrist or ankle bracelets. Non-wearable mosquito repellents also exit especially in sub-Sahara Africa as coils and in heated diffusers.
  • Mosquito repellents occur in two varieties; synthetic types like DEET, Picaridin and Permethrin or natural types made from essential oils like Eucalyptus, Lemongrass, and Peppermint. etc.
  • Both synthetic and natural mosquito repellents have relative benefits and dangers and making a choice between them boils down to specific needs, personal preferences, as well as the degree of mosquito activity in your locality.  





If you live in Africa, one of the most annoying things that can happen when you sleep is hearing the never ending sound mosquitoes make while they hover. Instead of drowning in their music, I guess you silently wished they would take a bite, and get lost! The only difference may have been how you responded, but we have all been in this situation. Did you put on the fan to literally blow them away? Did you decide on something drastic - like spraying insecticide in the middle of the night? Did you reach out for some mosquito repellent? This article intends to let you know all about mosquito repellents, including their benefits and dangers.



The Burden of Mosquito-Borne Diseases in Africa


Any disease spread by the bite of an infected mosquito (the vector) is termed a mosquito-borne disease (MBD). Mosquito-borne diseases are a major threat to public health. The diseases spread to people by mosquitoes include: malaria, yellow fever, dengue, Zika virus, West Nile virus, and Chikungunya virus. [1]


Africa carries the heaviest global burden of mosquito-borne diseases (MBDs). Annually, there are more than 400,000 deaths attributable to malaria out of the total 700,000 deaths caused by vector-borne diseases. [2]



What are Mosquito Repellents?

Varieties of mosquito repellents

Varieties of mosquito repellents. Click on image to enlarge.


Mosquito repellents are known as volatile chemicals which, when applied on the human skin [3], or emitted into the air from a variety of wearable and non-wearable devices, repel mosquitoes in the opposite direction from its source, thus discouraging contact and bites. They exist in various forms, such as: creams, lotions, sprays, roll-ons, clip-ons, bracelets, thermal-diffusers oils, wipes and some varieties of mosquito coils. [4]


Before mosquito repellents became popular, various protective measures were used by humans to avoid mosquito bites. These included wearing long cloths to cover exposed skin, shutting the doors when it is evening to prevent their entry, sleeping under treated mosquito nets, and spraying insecticides. [5]



Do Mosquito Repellents Work?


The answer is yes, mosquito repellents do work. It was discovered that certain chemicals (carbon dioxide, excretory products and lactic acid) from human skin attract the female mosquitoes. Hence, mosquito repellents were made to work by either masking human scent, or giving off a scent that is offensive to mosquitoes. [6]



Types of Mosquito Repellents


Basically, mosquito repellents are of two types: synthetic and natural repellents.


  • Synthetic Repellents


Synthetic mosquito repellents are derived from chemicals such as DEET (N, N-diethyl-meta-toluamide), Picaridin, or IR3535 (3-[N-Butyl-N-acetyl]- aminopropionic acid, ethyl ester).

Amongst synthetic repellents, DEET, is the most effective. It is essentially poisonous and masks the natural odor and carbon dioxide that is released from the human body. [5]


  • Natural Repellents


Natural mosquito repellents are derivatives of plants. These repellents contain essential oils extracted from plants that have mosquito-repelling abilities. Eucalyptus, Lemongrass, Peppermint and Citronella are examples of such plants. [7] Natural repellents work by making you unattractive to mosquitoes. [6]



Benefits and Dangers of Mosquito Repellents


Both synthetic and natural mosquito repellents have their benefits and dangers. Let’s look at each in turn.


Synthetic Repellents




  • Synthetic repellents that contain either DEET or Picaridin work better than repellents made from natural based ingredients.
  • According to research, synthetic repellents are said to last longer in comparison to natural repellents. [5]




  • DEET must be used cautiously as it has the potential to cause cancer or birth defects.
  • For people with sensitive skin, there is a tendency of coming down with severe skin irritation.
  • DEET can cause dizziness.


Natural Repellents




  • For sensitive skin, they are a safer alternative.
  • Some can be used on kids as young as three months of age. 
  • Natural repellents like Citronella have an appealing scent. 
  • They are friendly to the environment.
  • They are not sticky.
  • They are non-toxic.




  • Some natural repellents may trigger allergies.
  • There is a tendency of skin irritation.



How are Mosquito Repellents Used?


Here are a few things to keep in mind when using mosquito repellents:

  • With respect to lotions and creams, apply only on exposed skin. Applying underneath clothing can increase the level of exposure your skin gets.
  • Apply an even layer on the skin. To make this easy, you can apply on your hands before rubbing on the skin for creams or lotions.
  • Wearable repellents like clip-ons, wrist and ankle bands can be clipped on clothing accessories or worn on the body when outdoors.
  • Remember that not all repellents can be used by kids below three months. Be sure to read the information that is supplied with your mosquito repellent on this matter.
  • For kids, it is safer when adults do the application. Avoid exposure to the eyes or palm of the hands (this can cause the child to consume some of it).



Making the Choice between Synthetic and Natural Mosquito Repellents


Here are some things to consider when making the choice about whether to use a synthetic or natural mosquito repellent: [7]


  • Age and safety: Natural repellents are considered safer for children than synthetic repellents, which may have age restrictions for children.
  • Effectiveness: Synthetic repellents, particularly those containing DEET or Picaridin, are generally considered more effective and longer-lasting than natural repellents.
  • Duration of protection: Synthetic repellents often offer longer-lasting protection, requiring fewer applications than natural repellents. This is advantageous especially during a longer stay outdoors.
  • Environmental consideration: For the environmentally conscious, natural repellents are generally thought to be more environmentally friendly than synthetic repellents. This may be illusory, as the process of sourcing and producing the plant-based essential oils in natural repellents can also impact the environment. 
  • Adverse effects: The active ingredients in both natural and synthetic mosquito repellents can cause potential adverse effects like skin allergies. Adverse effects are more associated in some individuals with synthetic repellents like DEET. Avoid using mosquito repellents on broken and irritated skin areas. Test the product on a small skin area for allergic reaction before applying generally. Follow label instructions for first aid instructions if you encounter adverse effects or go to the emergency room or see your doctor promptly if the reaction is severe and concerning.
  • Pregnancy: Natural repellents are generally considered safe to use during pregnancy; but it is always advisable to talk with your healthcare provider before using any product during pregnancy.
  • Personal preferences: Skin and odour sensitivity considerations and concerns about exposure to chemicals can influence personal choice to use natural repellents in preference to synthetic repellents.


Ultimately, the choice that you make between natural and synthetic mosquito repellents would depend on your specific needs, preferences, and the level of mosquito activity in your area. Both options have their advantages and disadvantages as discussed earlier. 





Mosquito repellents are a critical weapon in our fight against mosquito bites. Two things that matter most in the use of mosquito repellents is knowing which is most suitable for your skin, and appropriate application – not too much, not underneath clothes, and never in the wrong places. It is advisable to apply mosquito repellents to a little area of skin and watch for a reaction before applying on larger areas.



1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Mosquito-Borne Diseases. [Internet. Last reviewed 2016 March 12]. Available from: Accessed 6th May, 2024. 

2. Tovi L, Cedric K, Joshua W, Mawlouth D, Richard W, Yvonne-Marie L. The African mosquito-borne diseasosome: geographical patterns, range expansion and future disease emergence. Proc. R. Soc. B. 2023; 290:20231581. 

3. Mapossa AB, Focke WW, Tewo RK, et al. Mosquito-repellent controlled-release formulations for fighting infectious diseases. Malar J 20, 165 (2021). 

4. Alvarez LD, The 8 Best Mosquito Repellents & Bug Sprays of 2024, Tested and Reviewed. Real Simple. [Internet. 2024, May 2]. Available from Accessed 7th May, 2024.

5. Peng Z-Y, He M-Z, Zhou L-Y, Wu X-Y, Wang L-M, Li N, Deng S-Q. Mosquito Repellents: Efficacy Tests of Commercial Skin-Applied Products in China. Molecules. 2022; 27(17):5534.

6. Patel EK, Gupta A, Oswal RJ. A review on: Mosquito repellents methods. IJPCBS 2012, 2(3), 310-317. Available from Accessed 7th May, 2024.

7. Mr.Mister Mosquito Control. Natural or synthetic mosquito repellents: Which one should you choose? [Internet. 2023 June 24]. Available from Accessed 8th May, 2024.

8. The State of Queensland. Queensland Health. Are you using mosquito repellent incorrectly? [Internet. 2017, November 27]. Available from Accessed 9th May, 2024.




African children holding hands while playing outdoors with image of anopheles mosquito in the foreground.



Mosquito Bites in Africa: How to Soothe, Treat and Prevent Them




Published: May 12, 2024

© 2024. Datelinehealth Africa Inc. All rights reserved.

Permission is given to copy, use and share content freely for non-commercial purposes without alteration or modification and subject to source attribution.





DATELINEHEALTH AFRICA INC., is a digital publisher for informational and educational purposes and does not offer personal medical care and advice. If you have a medical problem needing routine or emergency attention, call your doctor or local emergency services immediately, or visit the nearest emergency room or the nearest hospital. You should consult your professional healthcare provider before starting any nutrition, diet, exercise, fitness, medical or wellness program mentioned or referenced in the DatelinehealthAfrica website. Click here for more disclaimer notice.

Untitled Document