Concerns about the safety of DEET have led many shoppers to search for safer, natural bug 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. $9 for two 4 oz. bottles). It scores highly in a test at ConsumerReports.org, providing 7 to 8 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.
Cathy Wong, an alternative medicine expert at VeryWell.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 (Est. $16 for two 6 oz. cans), our Best Reviewed pick for best mosquito repellent with DEET.
We found more than 3.000 reviews for Repel Lemon Eucalyptus on retail sites, including Amazon.com and REI.com. Overall, users are enthusiastic about this insect repellent, saying it's highly effective on mosquitoes and ticks. Some claim that it can also repel other insects, including flies, gnats, and fleas. Reviews are split on whether the product also works on bees; while some users say it keeps them away, others claim it actually attracts them.
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. 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.
Another natural bug repellent that performs well in tests is Cutter Lemon Eucalyptus (Est. $5 for 4 oz.). It's not covered in the tests at ConsumerReports.org, but it's one of the best performers in two studies in the Journal of Insect Science. The first study, published in 2015, found that spraying a hand with this insect repellent reduced the percentage of mosquitoes drawn to it from 61 percent to only 9 percent. After four hours, it was still quite effective, attracting only 18 percent of mosquitoes as compared to 68 percent for an untreated hand. This actually makes Cutter Lemon Eucalyptus more effective than OFF! Deep Woods VIII.
In the second test, which was done in a wind chamber, this spray's performance wasn't quite as spectacular. It cut the number of mosquitoes that approached the test subject from 89 percent to 30 percent when the tester sat 1 meter from their cage. However, when the tester sat 3 meters away, the percentage of mosquitoes that approached increased to 52 percent. That's still better than the other herbal product in the test, but not as good as a concentrated DEET-based spray.
Users who review Cutter Lemon Eucalyptus at Amazon.com give it mostly positive reviews. The majority say it's effective and long-lasting, providing at least 5 hours of protection. They also say it doesn't feel greasy or stain clothes the way DEET can. However, reviewers are very divided over the smell of this product. While many find it pleasant, others say it's overpowering, repelling humans as well as bugs. And while most users say the spray works well on mosquitoes and ticks, we saw some complaints that bees seem to be attracted to it.
For those who prefer a genuinely all-natural bug repellent, we found the best reviews for Bite Blocker Herbal (Est. $9 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 bug spray 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 disgusting. The only thing they agree on is that it has no harmful side effects.