Yarrow: Insect Repelling Herb Stronger than DEET

by Sarah Green Living, Natural RemediesComments: 54

Yarrow made into a tincture

My family recently spent the day at the Blizzard Beach waterpark at Disney World. Although we had a great time (I highly recommend Blizzard Beach over Typhoon Lagoon, by the way), the shady spot we chose to leave our towels and cooler seemed to be attractive for a few horse flies as well. I really wished I’d brought along a small spray bottle of yarrow as my Plan B.

The annoying appearance of these horse flies was surprising to me as Disney World is nothing short of incredible at keeping insects of all kinds away from areas where guests congregate. We’ve never had to use any sort of insect repellent anywhere on the enormous Disney World property in all the years we’ve visited, even for nighttime activities at the woodsy campground.

My husband and I have speculated for a long time on how this is accomplished so effectively because Florida is definitely in the running for insect capital of the world. Given that Disney World was basically constructed on a swamp, this makes the feat even more impressive. No doubt a chemical cocktail of immense proportions is used, but it isn’t near where the people hang out, as I’ve never even smelled the residue of spraying, and I have a pretty good nose for those sorts of things.

For whatever reason, however, this one spot where we were at Blizzard Beach seemed to elude the Disney World bug eradication police. Horse fly bites are extremely painful in my experience, and if you wish to avoid the very effective, but highly neurotoxic effects of insect repellents made with DEET to keep them at bay, I highly recommend an easy homemade tincture of yarrow.

Note that crushing yarrow leaves and stems and rubbing them on yourself does not really work very well (neither does citronella, by the way). The yarrow potency needs to be concentrated via tincture.

Herbalist extraordinaire Susun Weed of the Wise Woman Herbal series of books says that the United States Army studied yarrow and found a tincture of this herb outperforms DEET in repelling ticks and mosquitoes. The one drawback is that it did not remain effective as long, so it needs to be reapplied often. I was unable to find a source for this study, so you will have to try it and see if you agree.

One thing is for sure: avoiding the use of DEET containing insect repellents on yourself and your children no matter what is a wise parenting decision. This stuff is so highly toxic that it isn’t worth it to ever use it in my opinion. It has been known to cause seizures in young children even at low potency. In addition, a review of the scientific literature turns up 17 cases of DEET-induced toxic encephalopathy in children (1).

How Often Yarrow Should be Used to Repel Insects

Ms. Weed suggests spraying yourself with yarrow tincture every 20-30 minutes if the insects are heavy. If not, every couple of hours should be sufficient. Yarrow works for repelling horse flies and other insects that are bothering your horse when you are riding too.

Yarrow Made into a Tincture

The best tinctures are made with freshly picked plants. Buying a commercially prepared tincture from the store made with dried plants is not as potent.

Fortunately, finding fresh yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is not that hard as it is a common plant that grows wild all around the world in temperate regions.  It has lovely, long lasting flowers that may be white, yellow, red, or pink. Susun Weed suggests the white or pink yarrow varieties as the best ones to tincture. She recommends picking the flowers, flower buds, seeds, stalk, and leaves from the top third of the plant.

Preparing the yarrow tincture is performed as follows:

  1. Discard any damaged yarrow plant material
  2. Do not wash any of the yarrow with the exception of the roots and only with water and if necessary.
  3. Coarsely chop the yarrow plant parts except the flower and buds.
  4. Fill a jar to the top with the chopped yarrow. You don’t leave an inch like when you are fermenting food and drinks.
  5. Pour in 100 proof vodka or vinegar. I would suggest vodka as a better choice because a tincture made with a vinegar base will make you pretty smelly if you spray yourself with it. Also, use potato vodka if there is a gluten sensitivity in your home.
  6. Cap the jar.
  7. Label the jar with the date and type of plant used (yarrow).
  8. The next day, top up the liquid as the level will go down slightly as the plant material absorbs the liquid.
  9. Leave for a minimum of 6 weeks.
  10. Strain the tincture into a spray bottle and it is ready to use.

How to Use Dried Yarrow for a Tincture

If you absolutely cannot source fresh yarrow to make this insect repellent tincture, you can use dried yarrow. Just know that it will not be as potent and you will most likely have to respray yourself more often to achieve satisfactory results.

Note that powdered yarrow is not suitable for tincturing. You can only use the dried yarrow root, as the dried flowers, buds, stems, and leaves will not retain enough potency after drying.

Place two ounces of the dried yarrow root in a pint jar.  Add 10 ounces of 100 proof vodka.

Cap and label as described above.

Top up with more vodka over the next week as necessary.

Leave for 6 weeks and then strain it for use.

Note that a properly made yarrow tincture is appropriate as a broad spectrum insect repellent, but especially for mosquitoes, ticks, horse flies and deer flies.

Sarah, The Healthy Home Economist


Sources and More Information

Wise Woman Herbal Series
Herbal Adventures with Susun Weed
Herbal Pharmacy: Making a Tincture
Nontoxic Pest Control Ideas that Work
Natural Fire Ant Killer that Works FAST
Fast and Effective Fly Repellent
Attracting and Using Ladybugs for Garden Pest Control
How to Resolve a Flea Infestation Naturally
Quick and Easy Homemade Fly Trap
Spider Repellent Guaranteed to Work
Fast Acting Mosquito Bite Remedy That’s Probably Already in Your Kitchen

Comments (54)

  • Sarah

    I can’t wait to try this! Thank you so much for sharing!

    May 25th, 2016 5:34 am Reply
  • Ricki S

    Hi, Yarrow is a good additive, but best combined with some other natural products for best and lasting effect, tried to make up a few myself, without much success, and hubby loves vodka way too much ‘to dab on the outside’, so did some searching and came up with this great combination that works real good on the ids too: http://thesolidbarcompany.com/collections/bug-bars

    Don’t know about Florida but we sure have had a bad season, and it’s still ongoing with, all sorts of flying bugs over here on the NM/TX

    Best of luck y’all, R x

    October 26th, 2015 3:47 pm Reply
  • Russ W

    Hi – I’m giving this a try… I ran into a retired chemist that said Everclear (190 proof) is more effective and quicker at creating tinctures. He said the folks he knows creating various tinctures use that all the time with success.
    One question I have is it appears the color of my tincture after only 2 days is quite green. Will this color mellow out, or be an issue with clothing; or even temporarily stain the skin?

    July 11th, 2015 6:26 pm Reply
  • Lisa

    I have just gathered a whole bunch of yarrow but I only have vodka that is 40% alcohol. 100 proof is 50%. Can I still use this vodka?

    July 2nd, 2015 4:02 pm Reply
  • Jocelan

    Is there any way to speed up the process for making the yarrow tinture seeing the summer is here or will I have to wait next spring so I have it ready for next summer.I love all your posts you share a lot of info
    Thank You
    Blessings Jocelan

    June 30th, 2015 10:37 pm Reply
  • Carri

    Can you use rubbing alcohol? If this is topical and not to be ingested.

    June 24th, 2015 1:59 pm Reply
  • Hollie

    Does this work for ticks as well? That’s my main concern these days!

    June 17th, 2015 9:51 pm Reply
  • allison

    Could you substitute witch hazel (purchased from the drug store) for the vodka?

    June 9th, 2015 12:44 pm Reply
    • Sarah TheHealthyHomeEconomist

      That might work. I’ve never tried it to be sure though. If you make it this way, please check back and let us know how it goes.

      June 9th, 2015 2:18 pm Reply
  • Chris

    The Yarrow here is still budding. Should I wait for some flowers for more potency?

    June 9th, 2015 10:12 am Reply
    • Sarah TheHealthyHomeEconomist

      No, would make it now as it takes a few weeks to achieve proper potency and summer is a-beckoning 😉

      June 9th, 2015 11:36 am Reply
  • Olga

    Can I use a tincture brough in a pharmacy ?

    June 9th, 2015 9:18 am Reply
    • Sarah TheHealthyHomeEconomist

      Probably not strong enough … but worth a shot to try it.

      June 9th, 2015 11:37 am Reply
  • Sagiia

    I will try this, but i am going to use vinegar because I discovered many years ago by accident that there is nothing better for discouraging those nasty black beach flies than a spray of vinegar on your skin. It also needs to be reapplied frequently but works wonderfully.

    June 9th, 2015 2:42 am Reply
    • Sarah TheHealthyHomeEconomist

      Vinegar will work great to tincture the yarrow .. you will just smell a little funny :) If you’re camping, though, no worries.

      June 9th, 2015 11:39 am Reply
  • Torrie

    Can i use everclear instead of vodka? thoughts on that?

    June 8th, 2015 5:38 pm Reply
    • Torrie

      also just to clarify, don’t use fresh flowers / buds – just other parts of the plants – right?

      June 8th, 2015 5:39 pm Reply
  • Amy

    Great recipe!
    One of the best Mosquito spray recipes I’ve tried myself from a website on Susun Weed’s also is the following:
    8 oz. water to spray bottle
    Add 1 tablespoon of Vodka
    Add 1 Teaspoon of Geranium Essential Oil (expensive oil but a little goes a long way)
    Mix well and spray as needed.
    In my own experience, best mosquito repellent that I’ve tried every. We live in NY and we get a lot of mosquitoes.

    June 8th, 2015 7:25 am Reply
  • Marianna

    Hi! I began making my own tinctues for the first time last month! I made yarrow and feverfew. The only rule i did not follow was to cut the upper third of the plant. I am so excited about this! I grew the yarrow for stomach issues. But bug repellent is extremely practical! Let me just say that if I can do it, anyone can. I love herbs! What an overlooked gift from God!

    June 7th, 2015 6:12 pm Reply
    • Sarah TheHealthyHomeEconomist

      Yes indeed. We need to rediscover this traditional wisdom. Too many people are poisoning themselves and their children with DEET unnecessarily.

      June 7th, 2015 9:15 pm Reply
  • Laura

    I made this with organic vodka. Is vodka safe for topical application on babies and children?

    June 7th, 2015 3:51 pm Reply
    • Sarah TheHealthyHomeEconomist

      Yes … just the same as alcohol based hand sanitizer really. Spraying clothing is very effective too in order to limit skin exposure.

      June 7th, 2015 9:16 pm Reply
  • Mary

    Do you have access to the study conducted by the Army? I would like to give it a read if it is available. Thanks!

    June 7th, 2015 3:48 pm Reply
  • wildcucumber

    Just as an aside, yarrow tincture will also stop bleeding. I knew about fresh yarrow leaves for the purpose but last winter, not having any on hand and having a nice gash from a kitchen incident, I tried it instead. It worked very well (although the alcohol did sting a bit!).

    Sarah, maybe you should do a post on the marvellous plantain? (plantago spp., not the banana) The leaves, mashed or chewed and put on any bug bite will bring down the swelling and relieve the pain and itch. Not that you’re likely to find the lowly plantain growing in super-clean Disney properties I suppose .. but it’s such a useful plant, I’m sure your readers would love to know all the ways it can be used.

    June 6th, 2015 9:22 am Reply
  • Hannah

    I don’t have time to make this before I leave in one of two backpacking trips in the next 4 weeks. Can you advise a product that is similar in effectivenes that I can purchase please? I’ve had no luck with any natural varieties of repellant thus far and I absolutely hate using deet. Thanks!

    June 4th, 2015 1:41 pm Reply
    • Jo

      better then essential oils…

      SULFER hands down period…nothing better!

      sulfur repels chiggers ticks and all the creepy crawlers plus ring worm….fungus.. bacterial etc..

      sulfer soap or sulfer butter…sulfer powder works too but I wouldn’t recommend it on a back aneed a mask to sprinkle this fine powder. It can be used in yard and walkways.


      BRAUFELS LAB (usa made) sulfur soap with tee tree oil…

      (I don’t work for them)…been using the soap and the butter for 2 yrs now..Check out the reviews for yourself on amazon.


      June 6th, 2015 5:29 pm Reply
      • Jo

        don’t know what happened to my spelling, but to recap 4th line

        sulfur soap or sulfur butter…sulfer powder works too but I wouldn’t recommend it on a backpacking trip plus you need a mask to sprinkle this fine powder. It can be used in yard and walkways.

        June 6th, 2015 5:32 pm Reply
  • Katherine

    Any research or information you could offer on the use during pregnancy? I am 11 weeks and looking for a good tick repellant – in hopes of still enjoying our Maine summertime!

    June 2nd, 2015 7:33 pm Reply
    • Susan Keith

      Everything I read about yarrow and pregnancy says to avoid it due to stimulating effects on uterine muscles. Or is this pertaining to oral use, not topical?

      May 29th, 2016 2:23 pm Reply
      • Sarah

        This is topical use ONLY. Not internal.

        May 29th, 2016 6:07 pm Reply
  • Kevin

    When you leave it for six weeks does it matter if it is in a place where light can get at it or should it be in a dark place?

    June 1st, 2015 12:55 pm Reply
    • Sarah TheHealthyHomeEconomist

      It doesn’t really matter.

      June 1st, 2015 1:17 pm Reply
  • Natalia Olivia

    Thanks for the great information! Side note: I read that yarrow is best to avoid with dogs if anyone is interested and wants to research further.

    June 1st, 2015 12:08 pm Reply
  • watchmom3

    Wow, I will be trying this! Now, not trying to be neg, Sarah, but I have done some research on Disney, and they are not the “good” guys they portend to be…everyone has to make their own decision, but it is good to let people know to do some research. Thanks for the good info!

    May 30th, 2015 2:31 pm Reply
    • Sarah TheHealthyHomeEconomist

      I know Disney isn’t what it seems, but we love going there. We go several times a year (to different parks or just to hang out in Downtown Disney and shop/see a show etc) and have a great time every single time.

      May 30th, 2015 7:10 pm Reply
  • Carrie

    People!!! Please read the article, wow all the questions you are posting for poor Sarah when she has already explained all of them in the article. Try reading first and reading also all comments to see if somebody else had the same question answered by Sarah. Sarah you have too much patience!!! Bless you.

    May 29th, 2015 3:18 pm Reply
  • Aimee

    I know Susan Weed says that white or pink are more potent, but I only have yellow yarrow in my yard, and they haven’t flowered yet. Being in Colorado, we aren’t horribly buggy, but it would be great to have something around. Do you think the yellow would be effective as well?

    May 29th, 2015 10:51 am Reply
    • Sarah TheHealthyHomeEconomist

      Yes, it would still work. If that’s all you have fresh, then definitely make it.

      May 29th, 2015 10:54 am Reply
  • shae

    Once the tincture is complete, how long is it potent for?

    May 28th, 2015 11:19 pm Reply
    • Sarah TheHealthyHomeEconomist

      Many, many months. You will likely use it up long before it’s no longer good. You will know it’s lost its potency though, when it no longer keeps the bugs away :)

      May 29th, 2015 7:50 am Reply
    • wildcucumber

      Actually, tinctures retain their potency for years.

      June 6th, 2015 9:14 am Reply
  • Margie

    Is there any fragrance from yarrow? I don’t ever remember one, but I was wondering as I don’t do well with even natural oil fragrances. If there is some, maybe the root powder recipe might be more neutral? Thank you. Sounds like a great alternative to toxic repellants. :-)

    May 28th, 2015 9:17 pm Reply
    • Sarah TheHealthyHomeEconomist

      Yes there is a fragrance. But, it is not unpleasant at least to me. Feel free once the tincture is prepared properly to add a drop or two of essential oils to add the fragrance you desire. I prefer as is. I don’t know if adding additional essential oils will affect potency, however. I don’t think it would.

      May 29th, 2015 7:53 am Reply
      • Kris Johnson

        Lavender would be good to add, as it too repels insects, and adds a refreshing fragrance.

        June 1st, 2015 11:13 pm Reply
  • Sue

    Do you know how long the yarrow tincture will last? Thank you.

    May 28th, 2015 8:50 pm Reply
  • Jeanette

    Unrefined virgin coconut oil with a few drops of lavender oil does the trick on the nasty mosquitos we have in the FL summer. Apply on skin and they won’t sting through.
    Thank you for sharing your knowledge.

    May 28th, 2015 5:11 pm Reply
  • Laurie

    Can you use dried herb and is it as effective?
    Thanks for the recipe!

    May 28th, 2015 4:43 pm Reply
    • Sarah TheHealthyHomeEconomist

      No… dried herb is not as effective and powdered yarrow won’t work at all. This is discussed above in the article if you need specifics.

      May 28th, 2015 6:05 pm Reply
  • Jenny

    This is great information!
    One question: So no flowers or buds to go into the jar, just plant and root?

    May 28th, 2015 1:56 pm Reply
    • Sarah TheHealthyHomeEconomist

      Flowers, buds, stems and leaves all go in the jar coarsely chopped (top third of the plant). They just can’t be used if dried … only fresh.

      May 28th, 2015 6:06 pm Reply
      • Donna

        The article “recommends picking the flowers, flower buds, seeds, stalk, and leaves from the top third of the plant”, but then goes on to say in the instructions, “Do not wash any of the yarrow with the exception of the roots and only with water and if necessary.” So why wash the roots if they’re not even supposed to be picked as part of the recipe?

        Also it says, “Coarsely chop the yarrow plant parts except the flower and buds”, but just above this comment you say, “Flowers, buds, stems and leaves all go in the jar coarsely chopped (top third of the plant).” So, which is it?

        June 7th, 2015 4:02 pm Reply
        • Sarah TheHealthyHomeEconomist

          If you notice in the instructions, the roots are used ONLY if dried yarrow is being used.

          June 7th, 2015 9:16 pm Reply
  • Audrey

    Just wondering…..could the alcohol in the Vodka be too strong for some people’s skin? If it is like regular rubbing alcohol, I don’t think it would bother me.

    May 28th, 2015 1:48 pm Reply
    • Sarah TheHealthyHomeEconomist

      I don’t think it would bother you at all … the alcohol would dry off very fast like with alcohol based hand sanitizers.

      May 28th, 2015 6:07 pm Reply

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