What every best Insect Repellent has:
- Effective ingredients.
- Long-lasting protection.
In this free guide, Consumer Reports evaluates 16 insect repellants by putting testers' treated arms into a cage filled with mosquitoes and counting the number of bites they get every five minutes. They also test against ticks by placing five uninfected ticks on the tester's arm to see how many enter the treated area. Six products, with a variety of active ingredients, perform well enough to earn recommendations.
A team of scientists tests five mosquito repellent sprays against alternative pest-repelling methods such as bracelets, wearable devices, and a citronella candle. A cage full of mosquitoes is placed in a wind tunnel, a volunteer sits a short distance upwind, and the scientists measure how many mosquitoes are attracted toward the volunteer. A concentrated DEET-based spray works best, but one clip-on device is also effective.
A team of scientists test seven commercial mosquito repellents, along with two fragrances and a vitamin B patch, by releasing mosquitoes into a sealed chamber with a tester's treated hand. Products with DEET are generally the most effective, but one spray containing lemon eucalyptus oil is also a top performer. The vitamin B patch had no effect at all.
Cathy Wong, a naturopathic doctor, sums up the evidence on several natural mosquito-repelling ingredients. She says lemon eucalyptus oil is both safe and effective, noting it actually outperforms DEET-based sprays in two studies. Bite Blocker, with geranium oil, also beats some DEET-based products in studies. Wong says most other natural insect repellants, such as citronella, don't have enough evidence to support their use.
Ashley Weatherford, a reporter who says she's "especially prone to mosquito bites," tests eight different bug sprays in outdoor settings to see which ones keep her bite-free. She tests products with all four EPA-approved ingredients – DEET, picaridin, lemon eucalyptus oil, and IR3535 – as well as natural products with citronella and eucalyptus oils. Six products manage to keep the bugs at bay, but only three are both effective and agreeable to use.
Amazon.com offers thousands of products to repel mosquitoes and other insects, but it's difficult to sort out the sprays and creams from items like wristbands and electronic traps that experts say are unlikely to work. Still, the effort is worthwhile as most of the top-rated mosquito repellents are listed, and many get enough feedback -- hundreds of reviews in some cases -- to be meaningful.
Cabela's, a store specializing in outdoor gear, offers about 70 products to repel insects—including clothing, traps, and mosquito nets as well as typical sprays and creams. The products with the most positive reviews include permethrin-based sprays and area repellents, which we don't cover in this report. However, we found one personal bug spray that gets strong reviews from about 50 users.
Annie B. Bond, Good Housekeeping's natural health expert, offers her recommendations for natural insect repellents, both commercial and homemade. She names Bite Blocker Herbal, Buzz Away Extreme, and California Baby Natural Bug Blend, but she doesn't cite any tests or explain why she prefers these products to other natural mosquito repellants.
The outdoor gear retailer REI.com sells a variety of bug repellents for extended outdoor activities. In addition to rating these products, many REI reviewers include valuable insights as to how they perform in more rugged environments. However, only a handful or products earn high ratings from more than a dozen users.
This article from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identifies effective mosquito repellents and explains how to use them safely. It says the only ingredients currently recognized as effective are DEET, picaridin, IR3535, and oil of lemon eucalyptus. All are said to be safe for people of all ages except for oil of lemon eucalyptus, which should not be used on children under 3.
This slideshow from Parents.com covers ingredients in kid-safe insect repellants and how to use them. It endorses several specific products, including Bite Blocker Herbal, Repel Lemon Eucalyptus, and EcoSmart Organic, but it doesn't appear that Parents.com has actually tested any of them.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency provides information about the safety and effectiveness of all the chemicals it approves as insect repellents, including DEET, picaridin, and oil of lemon eucalyptus. The site also has a searchable guide for finding products to repel mosquitoes, ticks, or both, based on their active ingredients and how long they can be expected to last. However, this information comes from the manufacturers, not from unbiased comparison tests.
In this older article, health reporter Martin Downs speaks with experts and examines medical literature to explain how mosquito repellents work and which ingredients are most likely to be safe and effective. He also notes that a repellant only works if it's applied directly to the skin.