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Buying Guide: Insect Repellent

By: Amy Livingston on March 20, 2018

What the best insect repellent has 

  • Effective ingredients. Most pesticides used in bug spray are registered with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), including DEET, picaridin, IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus, and 2-undecanone. The CDC recommends these five ingredients as the most effective for repelling disease-carrying mosquitoes. Natural products with ingredients such as citronella or geranium oil don't tend to work as well, if they work at all, or last as long.
  • 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 reapply it constantly. In general, the higher the dosage of the product's active ingredient, the longer it will last. Consumer Reports says products with 15 to 30 percent DEET, 20 percent picaridin, or 30 percent lemon eucalyptus oil are strong enough to last all day.
  • Safety. All of the insect repellants in this report use ingredients that the EPA has deemed to be effective and safe -- when used as directed. However, care should be taken to avoid overuse. Consumer Reports says there's some evidence that high concentrations of DEET can cause health problems, so it's safest to avoid products with more than 30% DEET – especially for children. Experts also caution not to use products with oil of lemon eucalyptus on children under 3 years old or any insect repellent on babies younger than two months.
  • Light formulas and scents. A product can't protect you from bugs if it smells or feels so awful you can't stand to wear it. Unfortunately, insect repellents with effective ingredients, like DEET or oil of lemon eucalyptus, often have a strong smell and a sticky or greasy feel. If you know strong smells bother you, consider a product with picaridin, which has very little odor. If possible, test a product before using it to make sure you can tolerate it.

Know before you go

Do you need wide-ranging or targeted bug protection? Some insect repellents only work on mosquitoes, while others can repel a wider range of insects, such as flies, chiggers, and biting gnats. If you're heading to an area where Lyme disease is prevalent, look for a product that repels deer ticks.

Spray, lotion or wipe? Sprays are easier to apply than lotions, but may need to be reapplied more often because they evaporate faster. Sprays can also be used on clothing, but you need to take care not to aim them at your face because they can irritate the eyes. (Instead, spray repellent on your palms, and then rub it onto your face.) Applying wipes or lotions can leave a greasy feel on the palms of the hands.

How does it smell to you? Different people react very differently to the same scent. For instance, some reviewers say products with oil of lemon eucalyptus have a pleasant herbal scent, while others describe them as nauseating. It's best to get a good whiff of any repellent before you buy it and make sure it's something you can stand to wear for several hours.

What are you wearing and carrying? One problem with bug repellents containing DEET is that they can eat right through certain plastics and synthetic materials, such as vinyl. Several reviewers complain about having clothing and expensive gear damaged by spilled insect repellent. Products with picaridin can also damage cloth, leather, and vinyl. Oil of lemon eucalyptus and other natural oils are the least destructive.

Are you buying for children of different ages? Your first thought might be to go for a "natural" repellent for young children, but that's not always the wisest choice. Products with picaridin or modest concentrations of DEET are considered safe for children as young as two months, while those with "natural" oil of lemon eucalyptus aren't safe for children under three. Make sure any repellent you go for is suitable for all family members.

Best practices

  • Use caution when applying bug repellent to children. Although most insect repellents are safe for children to use, small children shouldn't apply it themselves. Instead, apply it to your own hands and rub it on. Don't apply too much on children's hands, since they might rub their eyes or put their fingers in their mouths.
  • 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 and mouth, and going easy around your ears). Wash your hands thoroughly as soon as you're done applying the product. Also, never spritz bug spray around anywhere near food.
  • Protect your skin and clothing. Don't apply mosquito repellent over cuts, wounds or irritated skin. If you're using a new insect repellent, test it first on a small area of skin, such as the inside of the elbow, to make sure it doesn't give you a rash. Don't put repellent on underneath your clothes; apply it only to exposed skin or clothing, as directed on the label.
  • Apply sunscreen before using bug spray. If you need both sun protection and insect repellent, experts 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 in a separate load before wearing it again.
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