If you're a parent seeking safer alternatives to mosquito repellent with DEET for your kids, your first instinct might be to reach for a natural insect repellent such as our Best Reviewed pick, Repel Lemon Eucalyptus (Est. $9 for two 4 oz. bottles). However, ingredients that come from nature aren't necessarily safer than chemicals made in a lab. According to the EPA, oil of lemon eucalyptus is not harmful if swallowed or applied to the skin, but it's very harmful to the eyes and can cause "substantial but temporary eye injury." This is probably one reason why the Food and Drug Administration hasn't approved products with lemon eucalyptus oil for use in children under three years old, while products with DEET can be used on children as young as two months.
A safer alternative, according to ConsumerReports.org, is products with picaridin -- a chemical based on piperine, a compound in black pepper. Although it's not that widely used in the United States, ConsumerReports.org says it's just as effective at repelling mosquitoes as DEET, and significantly safer. The EPA says picaridin can cause low levels of eye and skin irritation, but it doesn't pose the serious problems linked to DEET, such as seizures. And, unlike most insect-repelling chemicals, it's virtually odorless.
None of this would matter if picaridin didn't actually stop bugs from biting, but according to tests, it does. In fact, Sawyer Picaridin ($9 for 4 oz.), also known as Sawyer Fisherman's Formula, is the top performer in tests at ConsumerReports.org, repelling both ticks and mosquitoes for at least 8 hours. Its odor was described as a "mild corn-chip aroma mixed with citrus." The only drawback testers noticed was that, like products with DEET, this picaridin-based mosquito repellent can damage cloth and leather.
The majority of users posting at Amazon.com say that Sawyer Picaridin does a great job repelling not just mosquitoes and ticks, but also flies, chiggers, and no-see-ums (biting gnats). They also say it doesn't have the greasy feel of many DEET-based products, and it has virtually no odor. However, a minority say that the product was not effective. Another common complaint is that the available pump bottle doesn't work well, but the product is also available in lotion form. A few users say they developed mild to severe rashes after using Sawyer Picaridin, but this appears to be a rare problem, and using sunscreen underneath the spray helps prevent it. The overall rating of 4.5 stars based on more than 1,900 reviews at Amazon.com indicates that most folks that try Sawyer Picaridin are satisfied with it.
Another picaridin-based product that fares well with reviewers is Natrapel (Est. $7 for 6 oz.). ConsumerReports.org finds this bug spray repels mosquitoes just as well as Sawyer Picaridin, but it's not as effective against ticks, keeping them off for only 6 hours. Ashley Weatherford of New York Magazine says a single application of this bug repellent kept her skin "untouched" at a backyard barbecue all afternoon and into the night.
Users at Amazon.com are mostly pleased with Natrapel, awarding it an overall rating of 4.3 stars in over 400 reviews. Most users find it effective, with several noting that it worked for them when DEET-based products failed. Most of them also find its vaguely floral scent mild and even pleasant, although a few say it's too cloying. We also didn't see any of the complaints about skin irritation with this product that we found for Sawyer Picaridin. On the down side, there's a larger proportion of reviewers who say this bug spray didn't work for them. We also saw several complaints that it leaves an oily, slimy residue on the skin.
If you're looking for a product that's completely non-toxic, your best bet is probably All Terrain Kids Herbal Armor (Est. $9 for 8 oz.). The only active ingredients in this insect repellent are natural oils, including soybean, citronella, peppermint, cedar, lemongrass, and geranium.
Testers at ConsumerReports.org give All Terrain Kids a fairly low score, saying it's reasonably effective against deer ticks, but it keeps mosquitoes off for an hour at most. However, it performs somewhat better in a test at the Journal of Insect Science. Applying this bug spray reduces the number of mosquitoes that approach a test subject from 89 percent to 60 percent at a distance of 1 meter, and from 91 percent to 73 percent at 3 meters. This doesn't match the performance of products with 98 percent DEET and 30 percent lemon eucalyptus oil, but it's actually better than a product with only 40 percent DEET and another with 10 percent picaridin.
So, while All Terrain Kids isn't as effective as the best commercial products, it's a lot better than nothing. However, it won't work at all if you can't persuade your kids to use it – and according to reviews, that could be a problem. Many users at Amazon.com say the product has a very strong odor, which makes it difficult to use for some. Also, while many reviewers find it effective against mosquitoes, a significant percentage say it didn't work for them – and like other natural products, it can tend to attract bees.
Another nontoxic option for kids is Bite Blocker Herbal (Est. $9 for 4.7 oz.). Like All Terrain Kids, this is an all-natural product, made with contains geranium, soybean, and coconut oils. It's performed well in a couple of older studies, but it only protects against mosquitoes for an hour or two, so if you use this product on your kids, you'll need to reapply it often. See our discussion of natural insect repellents for more details.