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 BR pick, Repel Lemon Eucalyptus (Est. $5 for 4 oz.). 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 "practically non-toxic" if swallowed or applied to the skin, but it's "very highly or highly toxic" to the eyes and can even cause 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 piperine can cause low levels of eye, skin, or lung 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 Fisherman's Formula) is a top performer, repelling both ticks and mosquitoes for at least 8 hours. The only drawback testers noticed was that, like products with DEET, this picaridin-based mosquito repellent can damage cloth and leather and remove nail polish.
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 mosquito repellant is also available in lotion form. A couple of users say they developed a rash after using Sawyer Picaridin, but this appears to be a rare problem, and using sunscreen underneath the spray helps prevent it. Still, the overall rating of 4.4 stars based on more than 720 reviews at Amazon.com indicates that most that try Sawyer Picaridin are satisfied with it.
If you're looking for a product that's completely non-toxic, California Baby Natural Bug Blend (Est. $18 for 6.5 oz.) is a reasonable choice. Natural health expert Annie B. Bond of Good Housekeeping recommends this spray, which uses only pure essential oils of citronella, lemongrass, and cedar. According to the manufacturers, Natural Bug Blend is safe for children of all ages, although they recommend asking your doctor before using it on babies under 6 months old.
Unfortunately, in independent testing, California Baby Natural Bug Blend was one of the least effective products. Though it warded off ticks for 6.7 hours, it couldn't even last an hour against mosquitoes. Even users at Drugstore.com and Amazon.com, who generally like this product for its nontoxic ingredients and pleasant smell, admit that it's not all that effective. Some reviewers say it works reasonably well, but it needs to be applied liberally and reapplied often. On top of that, we saw a couple of complaints that this product caused a rash -- so even all-natural ingredients aren't guaranteed to be harmless for everyone.
Another nontoxic option for kids is Bite Blocker Herbal (Est. $16 for 4.7 oz.). Like Natural Bug Blend, 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.