What the best insect repellent has

  • Long-lasting protection. Unless you only plan on being outside for a few hours, and aren't in an area heavily infested with ticks and mosquitoes, consider buying a longer lasting bug repellent so that you don't have to constantly reapply.
  • Slow-release formula. When comparing products with the same active ingredient, you can expect a highly concentrated product or slow-release formula to last longer. Keep in mind, products containing more than a 30 percent concentration of DEET aren't recommended for children, and experts say even natural products with oil of lemon eucalyptus aren't recommended for children under 3 years old.
  • Light formulas and scents. Scent and texture are important considerations, though unfortunately most of the powerful insect repellent formulas (like DEET products, and most oil of lemon eucalyptus) will have a strong smell or feel sticky. Try to test a product before using it.

Know before you go

Do you need wide-ranging or targeted bug protection? Depending on the ingredient, some types of insect repellents protect against certain insects better than others, last for a longer duration, or can cause damage to other materials that you touch while they're on your skin. If you're heading to a tick-prone area, get a product that is effective against Lyme disease; if you're going on safari, a DEET-based mosquito repellent to protect you from malaria is probably your best bet.

Spray, lotion or wipe? Sprays are easy to apply, but may require reapplying more frequently because they evaporate faster than lotions. Sprays can also be used on clothing, but should not be aimed at the face because they can irritate the eyes (instead, spray repellent on your palms, and then rub it into your face). Applying wipes or lotions can leave a greasy feel on the palms of the hands.

Is scent important to you? Most bug repellents have a scent, some are more tolerable than others. Before buying, get a good whiff of the repellent to see if it's something you can stand to wear for several hours

What's the active ingredient? When choosing a mosquito repellent, consider the primary active ingredient. Most pesticides used in bug repellents are registered with the Environmental Protection Agency, including DEET, picaridin, IR3535 and oil of lemon eucalyptus.

Are you buying for children of different ages? Your first thought might be to go for the natural repellent when looking for something for a baby, but not all repellents (natural or not) are recommended for small children. Make sure the repellent you go for is suitable for all family members.

Best practices

  • Use caution when applying bug repellent to children. Wait until an infant is 2 months old before applying a DEET product, and never use a concentration of higher than 30 percent. Oil of lemon eucalyptus isn't recommended for children younger than 3 years old. Don't apply repellent to children's hands because they may put their fingers in their mouth or rub their eyes.
  • Don't spray aerosols in an enclosed area or near the face. Instead, spray the bug repellent in a well-ventilated area onto your hands, and then rub it gently onto the face (avoiding areas near your eyes).
  • Test any new bug repellent on a small area of skin first. The inside of the elbow is a good testing spot.
  • Only apply to exposed skin, not underneath clothing. The ingredients in some bug repellents may damage synthetic fabrics.
  • Don't apply insect repellents over cuts, wounds or irritated skin.
  • Apply sunscreen before using bug repellent. A 2004 study conducted by University of Florida researchers determined that using DEET combined with sunscreen could increase DEET's skin absorption. If you need both sun protection and bug repellent, reviews say you should apply sunscreen first, wait for it to dry, then apply repellent. For sunscreen suggestions, see our separate report on sunscreens.
  • Wash DEET-treated skin with soap and water after returning indoors. Remove and wash treated clothing as well.

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