What every best Insect Repellent has:
- Effective ingredients.
- Long-lasting protection.
Consumer Reports evaluates 23 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. Nine products, with a variety of active ingredients, perform well enough to earn recommendations.
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.
A team of scientists tests five bug 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.
Annie B. Bond, Good Housekeeping's natural health expert, offers her recommendations for repelling mosquitoes naturally. However, most of her picks are for protecting the home and yard. The only personal insect repellent she names is Cutter Lemon Eucalyptus, citing its good performance in the Journal of Insect Studies.
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.
This test of mosquito repellents focuses specifically on sprays containing around 25 percent DEET. Boerner says this ingredient is "tops in both safety and efficacy" according to "gigantic stacks of papers and articles," and a spray formula is easiest to apply to both skin and clothing. Boerner does not actually test the products' efficacy; instead she rates their "skin feel and scent" and checks their safety for fabrics and plastic.
Amazon offers thousands of products to repel mosquitoes and other insects, but they're spread across multiple pages, and 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.
The outdoor gear retailer REI sells a variety of insect 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, oil of lemon eucalyptus (or para-menthane-diol, its active ingredient), and 2-undecanone. 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 magazine 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 Avon Skin So Soft Bug Guard Plus Picaridin, but testing, if done at all, is not described.
Cathy Wong, a naturopathic doctor, recommends three natural ingredients – lemon eucalyptus oil, geranium oil, and citronella – as the best for repelling mosquitoes. However, her evidence for these recommendations is rather vague. She links to a couple of studies on these ingredients but doesn't actually discuss their findings in any detail. Wong also appears to be unclear on the nature of oil of lemon eucalyptus, describing it as a "combination of essential oils."
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.