Types of insect repellents
For many years, people seeking protection against mosquitoes, ticks, and other bugs faced a dilemma. The only truly effective insect repellents contained a chemical called DEET – a chemical that had raised serious concerns about its safety.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has repeatedly reviewed DEET's safety and concluded that it's safe for both adults and children, so long as it's used correctly. However, not all experts agree, especially when it comes to youngsters. For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics says DEET shouldn't be used on babies under 2 months old, and products with more than 30 percent DEET shouldn't be used on any child under 12. Canada's federal health department is even more cautious: it recommends that children between 6 months and 12 years old should avoid products with more than 10 percent DEET.
Until recently, this left concerned parents with no good ways to protect their kids from mosquitoes and ticks – or from the diseases they carry. The only mosquito repellents without DEET were natural products made with citronella and other plant oils, which tests showed didn't do much good. Today, however, consumers have far more options.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now recognizes several mosquito-repelling ingredients as effective weapons in the war against malaria, West Nile, Lyme disease, and other insect-borne diseases. In addition to DEET, there are three other chemicals – picaridin, IR3535, and oil of lemon eucalyptus – recommended for use on both skin and clothing. (Another chemical, permethrin, can be applied to clothing and camping gear to both repel and kill insects.)
There aren't that many mosquito repellents containing IR3535 as their primary ingredient, and the few that have been included in professional tests weren't among the top performers. As for the three other choices, they each have distinct pros and cons.
- DEET. Experts say DEET is highly effective against mosquitoes and ticks. It doesn't do much against other biting insects, such as black flies, fleas, and mites, but those insects usually don't carry potentially fatal diseases. However, DEET also has some major downsides. In addition to its health concerns, DEET has a strong chemical smell, and many users describe products with DEET as having an unpleasant greasy feel. You also need to wash it off right after returning indoors to minimize the amount that's absorbed into your skin. In addition, DEET can melt through plastics and damage fabric, leather, and painted surfaces.
- Oil of lemon eucalyptus. Although lemon eucalyptus sounds like a natural herbal ingredient, most products containing it don't use the natural oil. Instead, they contain a synthetic chemical that's derived from the gum eucalyptus tree, and that is more consistently effective against mosquitoes than the natural stuff. In tests, products containing 30 percent lemon eucalyptus oil are highly effective at repelling mosquitoes and ticks, and reviewers say these products can repel other insects as well. Although it has less severe side effects than DEET, oil of lemon eucalyptus isn't completely harmless. It can cause temporary eye injury, and it's not approved for use in children under 3 years old. And, like DEET, it has a strong odor that some users find unpleasant – although others say they actually like it.
- Picaridin. This is a synthetic chemical based on piparine, a compound that occurs naturally in black pepper plants. Products containing 20 percent picaridin do an excellent job of repelling mosquitoes and ticks in independent testing. Users also find these products effective against other insects, such as flies, chiggers, and no-see-ums. Experts say picaridin is safer than either DEET or lemon eucalyptus oil; its only known side effects are skin irritation, which is very rare, and eye irritation. Another thing users like about it is that it has virtually no odor. Its only real drawback is that, like DEET, it can damage fabric and leather. Picaridine is safe for children as young as two months.
It's also possible to buy truly all-natural insect and mosquito repellents, which rely solely on natural oils like citronella, geranium, and soybean to repel bugs. Many users like them because they're gentle and mild-smelling, but unfortunately, most of them don't perform very well in professional tests. However, they're still a reasonable option for babies, or for use in areas where insects aren't all that bad.
Finding the best insect repellents
To find the best mosquito and other insect repellents, we looked first at laboratory tests conducted by ConsumerReports.org and the Journal of Insect Science, which show how long different products can protect against mosquitoes and ticks. Then we examined background information from the EPA and the CDC to evaluate the safety of different bug-repelling ingredients. Finally, we looked at reviews from actual users at retail sites like Amazon.com and REI.com. These filled in the details on how mosquito repellents work in real-life conditions – how they feel, how they smell, and if people experienced side effects after using them. Based on all this information, we offer our picks for the best insect repellents with DEET, the best natural insect repellents, and the best choices for kids.