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Best Natural Insect Repellent

By: Amy Livingston on March 20, 2018

Repel Lemon Eucalyptus works without DEET

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 a plant or other "natural" sources. For instance, oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE), 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 generally say it's 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 OLE aren't approved for children under three years old, but for adults and older children, they offer a safe alternative to DEET -- and, according to lab tests, they're fairly effective.

We saw some terrific recommendations for Repel Lemon Eucalyptus (Est. $15 for two 4 oz. bottles). It scores highly in a test at Consumer Reports, earning top marks for its effectiveness against mosquitoes and ticks – and unlike products with DEET, it doesn't damage cloth or leather. Ashley Weatherford of New York Magazine also names this as one of her favorite bug sprays, saying it "swats away bugs" just as well as DEET-based alternatives. Cathy Wong, an alternative medicine expert at VeryWell, says that OLE is at least as effective as DEET and mentions "early studies" showing that Repel Lemon Eucalyptus protects against mosquitoes for a good two hours. However, she doesn't actually name or cite the studies in question, so there's no way to check her claim.

We found close to 850 reviews for Repel Lemon Eucalyptus on retail sites, including Amazon and REI. 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 no-see-ums. However, some users say that, despite its stellar performance in professional 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 the aroma – which Consumer Reports describes as "mostly eucalyptus with a hint of lemon" – inoffensive, or at least less offensive than DEET-based products -- and some say they actually like it. However, others describe the odor as sickening.

Another natural mosquito repellent that gets more mixed results in tests is Cutter Lemon Eucalyptus (Est. $5 for 4 oz.). This product – which, like Repel Lemon Eucalyptus, contains 30 percent OLE – is 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 Dry (Est. $6 for 4 oz.), our top-rated bug spray with DEET -- at least in this one test.

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. And in tests at Consumer Reports, Cutter Lemon Eucalyptus is completely unimpressive, with a score of only "fair" for repelling mosquitoes and ticks.

Users who review Cutter Lemon Eucalyptus at Amazon 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. The pump spray bottle it comes in also doesn't work well for some users. And while most users say the spray works well on mosquitoes and ticks, we saw a few complaints that bees actually seem to be attracted to it.

For those who prefer a genuinely all-natural mosquito repellent, your best bet is probably All Terrain Kids Herbal Armor (Est. $6 for 4 oz.). The only active ingredients in this insect repellent are natural oils, including soybean, citronella, peppermint, cedar, lemongrass, and geranium.

Testers at Consumer Reports give All Terrain Kids a fairly low score, saying it's not noticeably effective against mosquitoes and ticks. However, it performs somewhat better in a test at the Journal of Insect Science. Applying this bug spray reduces the number of mosquitoes that approach a test subject from 89 percent to 60 percent at a distance of 1 meter, and from 91 percent to 73 percent at 3 meters. This doesn't match the performance of products with 98 percent DEET and 30 percent lemon eucalyptus oil, but it's actually better than a product with only 40 percent DEET and another with 10 percent picaridin.

So, while All Terrain Kids isn't as effective as the best commercial products, it's a lot better than nothing. However, it won't work at all if you can't persuade your kids to use it – and according to reviews, that could be a problem. Many users at Amazon say the product has a very strong odor, which makes it difficult to use for some. Also, while many reviewers find it effective against mosquitoes, a significant percentage say it didn't work for them – and its creamy formula tends to clog the spray bottle.

Another nontoxic option is Bite Blocker Herbal (Est. $7 for 4.7 oz.). Like All Terrain Kids, this is an all-natural product, made with geranium, soybean, and coconut oils. Wong reports this product did well in earlier studies, keeping bugs off for anywhere from 1 to 7 hours. However, according to Parents magazine, this bug spray only provides between 90 and 120 minutes of protection, so it needs to be reapplied frequently. Consumer Reports is even less enthusiastic, ranking this product dead last out of all the insect repellents in its test.

Reviews for Bite Blocker Herbal at Amazon 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.

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