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Best Insect Repellent for Kids

By: Amy Livingston on March 20, 2018

Picaridin is the safest and most effective insect repellent for kids

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. $15 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.

According to Consumer Reports, products with picaridin -- a chemical based on piperine, a compound in black pepper -- are a safer alternative. Although it's not that widely used in the United States, Consumer Reports notes that 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. Among picaridin-based products, we found the best reviews for Natrapel ($6 for 3.4 oz.). Consumer Reports says that this 20 percent picaridin spray is very good at repelling mosquitoes and ticks. However, they note that, like products with DEET, this picaridin-based mosquito repellent can damage cloth and leather. Ashley Weatherford of New York Magazine says a single application of this bug spray 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 4.4 stars in over 700 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 some say it's too cloying. However, users warn that you have to be careful to cover every inch of your skin with this product for it to work well; any untreated areas are likely to end up covered in bites. A few users gripe that it didn't work well for them at all, no matter how carefully they applied it. We also saw several complaints that it leaves an oily, slimy residue on the skin.

Sawyer Picaridin ($7 for 3 oz.), sold in a pump spray bottle rather than an aerosol, performs even better in tests at Consumer Reports, earning top marks for its effectiveness on ticks and mosquitoes. The reviewers describe its odor as a "mild corn-chip aroma mixed with citrus."

Sawyer Picaridin earns a 4.4-star rating from over 2,500 users on Amazon. Owners at REI are a little less impressed, giving it only 4.1 stars, albeit in far fewer reviews (around 25). Most users 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 significant minority say that the product either didn't work well for them or didn't last long. Another common complaint is that the available pump bottle doesn't work well. The product is also available in lotion form, but this version does much worse in Consumer Reports' tests than the spray; reviewers say Sawyer Picaridin Lotion is barely effective against mosquitoes and ticks and is also more likely to damage materials.

A final picaridin-based product that's worthy of a mention is Avon Skin So Soft Bug Guard Plus Picaridin (Est. $10 for 4 oz.). Parents magazine recommends this as a gentle choice that can "protect your kids from bugs and bites for up to eight hours." It doesn't fare as well in professional tests as Sawyer and Natrapel, however. Consumer Reports rates it only "Good" for fighting off mosquitoes and ticks, and in a study at the Journal of Insect Science, it only slightly reduces the percentage of mosquitoes attracted to a tester's hand. Nonetheless, reviewers at Amazon are generally very pleased with this insect repellent. Most say it works well against mosquitoes, ticks, and other biting critters, and it's both non-greasy and pleasant-smelling.

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