Concerns about the safety of DEET have led many shoppers to search for safer, natural mosquito repellents. However, ingredients that sound natural don't necessarily come straight from the plant. For instance, lemon eucalyptus oil, one of the four insect-repelling compounds recommended by the CDC, is really a synthetic chemical derived from the natural plant oil. But although it's made in a lab, sources say it's generally less toxic than DEET. It can still be dangerous if you get it in your eyes, but it's pretty much harmless when applied to the skin. Products with lemon eucalyptus oil aren't approved for children under three years old, but for adults and older children, they offer a safer alternative to DEET and, according to lab tests, they're fairly effective.
We saw some terrific recommendations for Repel Lemon Eucalyptus (Est. $5 for 4 oz.). It scores highly in one independent test, providing 8 to 9 hours of protection against mosquitoes (depending on the species) and over 7 hours of protection against deer ticks. Testers also found that unlike products with DEET, Repel Lemon Eucalyptus doesn't damage cloth or leather -- although it can remove nail polish.
Cathy Wong, an alternative medicine expert at About.com, notes that Repel Lemon Eucalyptus was also a top performer in two other tests, one published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) and one conducted by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). In both these studies, Repel Lemon Eucalyptus outperformed products with low levels of DEET though in the first study, it couldn't beat Off! Deep Woods VIII, our BR pick for best mosquito repellent overall.
We found more than 1,700 reviews for Repel Lemon Eucalyptus on retail sites, including Amazon.com, REI.com, and Drugstore.com. Overall, users are enthusiastic about this mosquito repellent, saying it's highly effective on mosquitoes and ticks. They also like the fact that, unlike DEET-based sprays, it can also repel other insects, including flies, gnats, and fleas.
However, some users say that, despite its stellar performance in scientific testing, it's just not as long-lasting as a DEET-based spray and needs to be reapplied after a few hours. This could be a problem if you're out all day, since the instructions on the label warn against applying Repel Lemon Eucalyptus more than twice in 24 hours. Some users find the product lasts longer if you apply it to your clothes as well as your skin. Another common complaint is that the pump bottle for this product doesn't work well. As for the smell of the lemon eucalyptus oil, users are split. Many find it inoffensive, or at least less offensive than DEET-based products, and some say they actually like it. However, others describe the odor as awful.
For those who prefer a genuinely all-natural insect repellent, we found the best reviews for Bite Blocker Herbal (Est. $16 for 4.7 oz.), which contains geranium, soybean, and coconut oils. This product hasn't been included in any recent lab tests, but Wong reports it did well in the NEJM and USDA studies, beating products with low concentrations of DEET. However, according to Parents magazine, this mosquito repellant only provides between 90 and 120 minutes of protection, so it needs to be reapplied frequently. Both Parents magazine and Good Housekeeping recommend it as safe for kids and pregnant women.
The reviews we found for Bite Blocker Herbal at Amazon.com are very mixed. Some users say this product works even when DEET-based products fail, but others say it's not as effective as DEET and needs to be reapplied often. Users also disagree strongly about Bite Blocker's smell, which some say is pleasant and others describe as horrid. The only thing they agree on is that it has no harmful side effects.
Another Bite Blocker Product, Bite Blocker Organic Xtreme (Est. $16 for 6.7 oz.), supplements the geranium and soybean oils of Bite Blocker Herbal with 8 percent castor oil. Bite Blocker Organic Xtreme is one of the top-rated insect repellents at Drugstore.com, where users describe it as effective, fast-acting, and gentle. However, reviews at Amazon are less enthusiastic. Although most users say the mosquito repellent works, many say it must be reapplied often. It also gets even more complaints than other herbal products about its odor, which some users colorfully compare to vomit, moldy towels, and rotting corpses.