Do Diffusers Attract Bugs – Scent Receptors And Essential Oils

Diffusers are devices that periodically dispense essential oil into the room after breaking it down into small molecules. Since insects are attracted to fragrances, it is natural to question if diffusers draw bugs inside our homes.

Diffusers do not attract bugs. Insects are mainly attracted to the sugars (sucrose) present in scent. However, essential oils do not contain sucrose, and therefore do not attract bugs.

This article looks at how insects interact with fragrances and why essential oil scents do not draw bugs. We also discuss preventative measures that allow you to enjoy a fragrant, comfortable, and pest-free environment.

Why Does Scent Naturally Attract Insects?

Studies reveal that coordinated signals of color and scent draw insects towards a plant. While picking nectar (nutrition) from the flower, insects brush against pollen (a powdery substance containing male or female gametes, required for reproduction).

The pollen sticks to insects, and when the bugs move to another plant with the collected pollen, it results in cross-pollination.

The exact mechanism of why insects are drawn towards certain fragrances is still under investigation. Research suggests that bugs have adapted to finding quality hosts by detecting compatible host cues (plant’s scent, color, shape) over the years. This is made possible by a highly-evolved insect sensory system.

However, there’s still some evidence of insects being accidentally attracted to poor plant hosts ( plants that don’t provide sufficient nutrition).

Apart from nutrition, insects also draw toward plants to acquire pheromones.

Pheromones are chemicals used by animals and pests to mark paths and suitable nutrition sources or to attract mating partners. Some insects use plant compounds as pheromones or use them to make their own. These pheromones are specific for each type of insect, and therefore, particular fragrances only attract a certain group of pests.

The odor (smell) receptors, gustatory (taste) receptors, and glutamate receptors of insects work in conjunction to detect specific plant compounds (for pheromones).

Why Do Diffusers Not Attract Bugs?

Even though diffusers release floral fragrances, they do not attract insects. In fact, essential oil diffusers are used as an insect repellent. However, before we elaborate on this, let’s first understand what essential oil diffusers are and why they are widely used.

What Are Diffusers?

Diffusers are appliances that emit essential oils at home or in the office. They break oil molecules down into microscopic particles so that the scent can be easily dispersed in the room.

Essential oils are aromatic compounds derived from plants. They contain fragrant plant extracts and are used for a variety of purposes, such as:

  • Stress relief
  • Boost enhancement
  • Kill bacteria, viruses, and fungi
  • Reduce anxiety and inflammation
  • Reduce nausea and headaches
  • Toning, tightening, and rejuvenation of skin
  • Heal eczema and acne

Although the medicinal effects of essential oils are often debated, there is now plenty of evidence to show several oils have antibacterial, antifungal or even anti-inflammatory benefits.

Plentiful Air has more detailed information on which essential oils have antibacterial and antifungal properties available here.

Aromatherapy is also conventionally believed to be relaxing and is widely practiced. Therefore, diffusers are now a common domestic appliance.

Why Do Essential Oils Not Draw Bugs?

Insects are not drawn to all scents but rather specific constituents of nectar.

Nectar is a plant secretion within flowers that attracts insects for pollination. It can be defined as a liquid solution, mainly comprising sugars like sucrose, fructose, and glucose. However, traces of essential oils, proteins, salts, and acids are also present in nectar.

Sucrose (the most abundant sugar in nectar) is the primary attraction for insects. It is rich in energy content (3.94 kcal/gm) and serves as a vital source of nutrition for bugs.   

Essential oils are extracted from nectar and other parts of the plant like leaves and bark. After separating from the plants, essential oils are introduced to solvents through CO2 extraction, steam distillation, water distillation, solvent extraction, etc.

The processed form of essential oils obtained industrially does not contain pheromones or sugary substances and thus, does not attract insects.

Essential Oils As Insect Repellent?

One of the main reasons people use diffusers is to deter insects.

Why Do We Need To Get Rid Of Insects?

Bugs and microscopic pathogens often invade homes and are a common problem in humid areas. Roaches, ants, spiders, silverfish, fleas, ants, gnats, etc., are some of the insects found at homes. Apart from causing general discomfort, they also lead to several health complications, such as:

  • Pain and swelling
  • Cause nausea and headache
  • Spiders, centipedes, etc. have poisonous bites that can be fatal
  • Can act as vectors for many pathogens
  • Allergic reactions
  • Food contamination
  • Cardiac ischemia
  • Neurotoxicity
  • Transmission of several diseases like leishmaniasis, malaria, yellow fever, and dengue)

They also inhibit plant growth and are toxic to pets.

How Do Essential Oils Kill Insects?

Essential oils contain various natural pesticide substances like terpenes, terpenoids, phenol-derived components, etc., that are toxic to insects. It is important to note that these oil constituents act on different insect life stages (egg, larvae, adults).

Also, note that the combination and concentration of these constituents vary for different oils. This explains why particular oils are effective against only a specific group of insects.

Here’s the primary mode of action of essential oils against insects:

Dry Out Insect Exoskeleton

One of the main ways essential oils kill insects is by drying out their exoskeleton. Insects have a hard external surface (exoskeleton) that protects their bodies. It acts as a water-tight barrier (made of the cuticle) that improves its integrity and is also critical for insect protection.

Apart from protection, the exoskeleton also serves as a surface for muscle attachment and is crucial for insect movement. 

The pesticide substances in oils like lavender damage and dry out the exoskeleton, making the insect prone to environmental damage. This also limits their movement as their muscles lose points of attachment.

Disrupts Respiration and Metabolic Function

Respiration and metabolic functions are essential for insects to obtain nutrition, survive and reproduce. The primary metabolism in insects comprises the digestion of lipids, triglycerides, and glycogen to release energy. Once released, this energy is used to drive vital processes in the body. Some of this energy is also stored for future use.

Essential oils like eucalyptus disrupt the vital systems of insects leading to their eventual death.

Inhibit Insect Mental Abilities

Inhibition of an insect’s mental ability is one of the effects of the broad spectrum of toxicity caused by essential oils. Although the research on the exact mechanism is still underway, we know that this effect is related to the anti-cholinesterase impact of essential oils like basil sweet oil.

Cholinesterase is a group of enzymes required to break down a neurotransmitter (acetylcholine). This is crucial to regulate the transmission of neuronal signals. The anti-cholinesterase activity of essential oils terminates nerve impulses, eventually resulting in insects’ death.

Kill Larvae

Apart from repelling insects, some components of essential oils can kill larvae and eggs of insects. When used regularly for an extended period of time, thyme, basil and clove oil can offer a permanent solution to pest invasion.

Which Essential Oils are Best For Deterring Bugs?

Following are some of the essential oils and the bugs they are believed to deter:

Essential OilInsects They Repel
Peppermint oilFleas, moths, flies, wasps, bed bugs, cockroaches, spiders, ants
Lemongrass oilGnats, fruit flies, fleas, ticks, mosquitoes
Cedarwood oilFlies, moths, ticks, silverfish, mites
Lavender oilFruit flies, bed bugs, gnats, ticks
Tea tree oilMosquitoes, dust mites, lice, ticks. Ants, spiders

Can Insecticidal Properties Of Essential Oils Harm Humans?

Insecticidal properties of essential oils can potentially be toxic to human health. Low-quality oils can result in mild to severe allergic reactions. Upon inhalation, they can also trigger asthma and exacerbate pre-existing respiratory disorders. Therefore, cautionary measures are recommended when using diffusers.

Currently, FDA or other agencies in the USA do not regulate essential oils; therefore, no certificates can be verified to ensure a product is safe to use. Preventive measures like testing small amounts of essential oil before using it are thus crucial for health and safety.

Oils like camphor, clove, thyme, and tea tree have shown many toxic effects and, therefore, should be avoided if a person has sensitive skin or a history of allergies. Note that some people are only allergic to a specific scent and may not show symptoms with all essential oils. 


What Scents Attract Bugs?

Floral scents (due to sugar in nectar), sweat, beer, carbon dioxide, and blood are some of the typical smells that attract bugs.

Does Lavender Scent Attract Bugs?

The scent of lavender does not attract bugs. It, in fact, works as an insect-deterrent and is used to keep mosquitoes, ants, fleas, flies, moths, etc., away from homes.

Apart from using essential oil diffusers for lavender oil, you can directly spray it on curtains and walls to prevent insect invasion. Oil pads and lavender steam cleaning can also be done for pest control.

What Can I Diffuse To Keep Bugs Away?

Various essential oils like tea tree, lavender, rosemary, peppermint, thyme, sage, etc., can be used to keep bugs away. Since different oils act as a deterrent for a specific group of insects, you should evaluate the type of pests at home before deciding on an essential oil (to use as an insecticide).

Out of the many types of oils, peppermint is considered effective against most types of insects.

Theresa Orr

Theresa Orr holds a PhD in Earth Science and specializes in determining past climates from rocks using geochemistry. Her passion for clean water, soil and air drives her to provide easy to understand information for everyone to read.

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