Permethrin is considered the best insect repellent for clothing and outdoor gear; it's the only anti-bug chemical used in factory clothing, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. It's popular with outdoor adventurers, hunters, campers and anglers. Permethrin is not only known to repel but also kill insects such as ticks, mosquitoes, chiggers, mites and many others. We found a number of comments from consumers who say mosquitoes and other insects dropped dead after gear sprayed with permethrin was hung in a garage.
Sawyer Permethrin Clothing Insect Repellent (Est. $16 for 24 oz.) earns the best reviews. It lasts for six weeks or six washes; it is odorless when it dries (between two and four hours after it's applied) and there aren't any comments indicating that it irritates the skin. While we didn't find clinical studies to prove its effectiveness, Sawyer Permethrin Clothing Insect Repellent is highly regarded by outdoor enthusiasts and receives exceptional reviews.
While Sawyer's repellent is highly effective, it shouldn't be used on skin and is best combined with a skin lotion or spray like 3M Ultrathon Insect Repellent 12 (Est. $7 for 2 oz) or, for those wanting a natural product, Repel Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent (Est. $9 for 4 oz.)
A more expensive option is to purchase clothing already treated with permethrin. ExOfficio, a Seattle-based clothing company, manufactures a line of clothing for men and women using a special process to melt waxy permethrin molecules into the fibers of the clothing. The manufacturer claims the protection from flies, ticks, mosquitoes, chiggers, midges and ants can withstand up to 70 washings. Clothing for men and women includes khaki pants and button-down shirts for about $100, long-sleeved shirts for about $90 and hats for about $50.
Some DEET alternatives are widely used and effective, others don't work at all. Picaridin, another synthetic chemical, is often used as a repellent against mosquitoes, ticks and biting flies. Insect repellents containing picaridin have been available in the U.S. since 2005, but a higher concentration of 20 percent wasn't available until 2008. Effectiveness increases with higher concentrations of picaridin -- 20 percent lasts roughly two hours. Like DEET, this chemical is registered with the EPA as safe for people of all ages.
Even though mosquito repellent with picaridin doesn't last as long as DEET, some people prefer it because the compound is odorless, doesn't need to be washed off your skin, it feels lighter, and doesn't damage synthetic materials. Generally, we found fewer expert reviews for this type of insect repellent, most likely due to the limited number of products available that contain it.
Cutter Advanced Insect Repellent (Est. $8 for 6 oz.) , a pump spray containing 7 percent picaridin, is the top pick by About.com's guide to alternative medicine, primarily because it's odorless. It can be applied up to three times a day and is safe for children. It's safe enough that it doesn't need to be washed off, but readers recommended doing so anyway. Most consumers who reviewed the product find it effective, but wish it lasted longer.
Another synthetic ingredient, IR3535, is reasonably effective as a bug repellent, providing up to about two hours protection against mosquitoes, but it's easier to find in Europe. In the United States, Avon combines it with sunscreen in the product Avon Skin So Soft Bug Guard Plus IR3535 (Est. $8 for 4 oz.) , which is available in pump spray or lotion.
However, the CDC doesn't recommend using a product containing both mosquito repellent and sunscreen because sunscreen needs to be reapplied more frequently than repellent. Plus, a University of Florida study recently found that the repellent in combination products tends to get absorbed into the skin more than in repellent-only products.
ThermaCELL is one EPA-approved device that reviewers say works very well; it uses a chemical called allethrin in lamps and other devices to ward off mosquitoes.
Outside magazine says insect-repellent cell phone apps, which use sounds to keep the bugs away, aren't effective: in fact, in at least one study they actually attracted bugs. If you're caught in the woods without insect repellent protection, however, Outside's editors say building a fire will help stave off bugs. Canadian health authorities don't recommend electronic devices either, and say insect zappers, odored mosquito traps, vitamin B1 and citronella wristbands with repellents are ineffective.