Everyone should avoid bug bites. For a bug repellent that’s safe and effective—and that won’t stink or leave a puddle of oil on your skin—skip the DEET and get a picaridin formula, like Sawyer Products Premium Insect Repellent with 20% picaridin. It’s the best bottle of bug spray we found after testing 19 repellents and talking to everyone—from the EPA to the American Mosquito Control Association. One fact to establish up front: There’s no evidence that mosquitoes can transmit the coronavirus—but the diseases that biting insects do carry ain’t no picnic either.
Our research led us to seek a spray with a 20% concentration of picaridin, a repellent chemical that’s as effective as DEET but without the drawbacks. Sawyer is our favorite, but any repellent with 20% picaridin should have the same effectiveness. We zeroed in on Sawyer Products Premium Insect Repellent with 20% picaridin in particular because its smart bottle design makes it easy to apply evenly and accurately. Its pump spray is less likely than aerosol competitors’ to overspray or leave a puddle on your skin, and its secure, two-capped design prevents accidental leaks inside a backpack or other bag. Sawyer’s repellent is widely available in a variety of sizes—smaller ones for the backpack and a larger size to keep by the front door.
Proven Mosquito and Tick Spray is another 20% picaridin repellent, and it should work just as well as the others. We like the clear bottle, but the spray can be a little spitty. Proven’s bottle comes in only one size and has a single cap. It’s available in odorless or Gentle Scent.
You can get effective results from Natrapel Tick and Insect Repellent—with 20% picaridin in a pump-spray bottle, it has the same effectiveness against ticks and mosquitoes as the others. But its wetter spray puddles on the skin, and its floral scent sticks around once it dries.
Ranger Ready Picaridin Tick + Insect Repellent has a pump spray, but it’s really spitty. There were times when it just shot out a little stream of liquid with almost no spray cloud at all. Still, the 20% picaridin provides the same protection as the others. It’s available in a variety of sizes (3.4 ounces to 24 ounces) and scents.
Although marketed for ticks, Ben’s Tick Repellent contains 20% picaridin, making it just as effective against mosquitoes as the other brands we are recommending. It comes in an aerosol can that delivers a heavy load of repellent and is prone to overspraying. But it also sprays well upside down, so it’s easier to apply to feet.
Natrapel Tick and Insect Repellent is very similar to Ben’s Tick Repellent, and it has the same 20% picaridin effectiveness as the others.
Off! Defense Insect Repellent is like the other 20% picaridin formulas. It has a light floral odor which dissipates over time and is available in a 5-oz aerosol or a 4-ounce pump spray.
Cutter Backwoods Tick Defense contains 15% picaridin, not 20% like the others. This means it has the same repellency strength, but the effective duration is not as long—up to 10 hours instead of up to 12 hours. It goes on with a strong smell, but once dried, it’s odorless. Up to 10 hours is plenty of protection, so we see this as a worthy competitor to the 20% formulas, like Sawyer.
Repel Tick Defense is another 15% picaridin formula. It’s very similar to Cutter’s Backwoods Tick Defense, down to the size, shape, and red color of the spray nozzle.
DEET isn’t our first choice because it smells bad, feels oily, and can damage plastic and synthetic fabrics. There’s no question it’s effective—decades of tests and studies have established it as the gold standard in bug repellents—but it’s no more effective than picaridin. If you can only find (or you prefer) this classic formula, the best version we’ve found is Cutter Backwoods Dry. Its 25% DEET formula protects against mosquitoes and ticks for up to 10 hours, and it smells milder and feels less oily than other DEET repellents we tried. Its locking cap is a design improvement many aerosol sprays lack.
To give your clothing and gear (but not your skin) an added level of protection against ticks, we recommend Sawyer Products Premium Insect Repellent Clothing & Gear, a formula with 0.5% permethrin. Like the other permethrin sprays we looked at, each application of this one provides about six washings (or six weeks, whichever comes first) of protection. This bottle’s trigger spray is easier to control and apply evenly than others we tried; the 12-ounce size is enough to treat two outfits (shirt, pants, socks). A 24-ounce size is also available. We have more tick advice including what to do if you find one on you here.
Everything we recommend
Why you should trust us
While researching this guide, we spoke with Joe Conlon, then the technical adviser of the American Mosquito Control Association. Prior to his retirement in 2020, Conlon had been a medical entomologist since 1981, and in that time he has published dozens of articles and presented more than 350 invited papers to various universities, public health associations, and mosquito control groups. He has conducted mosquito control operations or on-site consultations in 34 countries.
We also spoke with the Environmental Protection Agency to learn more about its extensive approval process for repellent chemicals. This process is so thorough that nearly every word on a can or bottle of repellent is under the purview of the EPA. As an EPA spokesperson explained, “As part of the registration process, we review a wide range of data on safety and ecological effects before making a decision on registration. We then develop a label that tracks with the data conclusions and the safety standards in the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act.” In addition, we relied on the findings of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization regarding the safety and effectiveness of various repellents.
We also relied on the National Pesticide Information Center, a joint effort between Oregon State University and the EPA. The NPIC is a treasure trove of fully referenced repellent information, with comprehensive directories for each chemical and extensive links out to relevant EPA documents and peer-reviewed studies.
The Environmental Working Group, a non-profit research and advocacy organization focused on environmental and health issues, also offers detailed, well-supported research on repellent chemicals, which we reviewed.
For questions specific to DEET’s effect on plastics, we spoke with Judi Anderson, director of DEET Education Program, an organization supported by the companies that make and sell DEET-based products. We also talked to Travis Avery, sales and marketing director of Sawyer Products. Avery talked with us about DEET and plastic, in addition to answering some general questions about picaridin and the EPA approval process.
Who this is for
It’s a good idea for anyone spending time outdoors to use bug spray (or a spatial repellent) to ward off biting insects. Mosquitoes and ticks are not only annoying, but a single bite can cause some serious problems. “It can be a matter of life and death,” Conlon says. “There are lethal diseases out there, or ones that ... cripple you for life if you’re not using the right type of repellent.”
According to this 2018 CDC report, tick-borne diseases—like Lyme disease, and also spotted fevers, babesiosis, and anaplasmosis/ehrlichiosis—more than doubled in the US between 2004 and 2016, and they’ve occurred in new, expanded risk areas. I live in New Hampshire, and in the past 15 years, I have been treated for Lyme five times. I was lucky to spot it by the telltale bullseye rash (not everyone does). And on two of the occasions, I had to undertake the four-week course of the antibiotic treatment doxycycline, which is awful in its own right. I also have family members who have been deeply affected by Lyme. Seeing what this disease is capable of is a sobering experience; I can’t stress enough how important it is to protect yourself against tick bites.
The CDC also reports epidemics of the mosquito-transmitted West Nile Virus in the US. This map of West Nile incidence in 2019 shows cases in 40 states and the District of Columbia. Because these findings rely on a person seeking care and the medical provider actually reporting the case, the prevalence of bug-borne disease is likely worse than even the CDC says.
Can mosquitoes transmit the coronavirus?
“Mosquitoes are not flying hypodermic needles,” Conlon said. Mosquitoes transmit viruses through their saliva, which flows “through a separate tube from that through which it imbibes blood.” For a mosquito to transmit a virus, Conlon explained that it would have to replicate in the mosquito enough that it could attach to the gut wall, find its way into the body of the insect, and end up in salivary glands, where it could be injected into a host. “It’s a complex process, taking a great deal of time for the viruses to adapt to their vectors and hosts. The fact that mosquitoes can, indeed, transmit a number of pathogens is extraordinary.”
In addition, says WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic, in a ProPublica article, “[COVID-19] does not widely circulate in blood and is more prevalent in lungs and the respiratory tract.”
Instead, Conlon told us, the coronavirus is actually digested by the mosquito. This is in no way unique: Ebola, HIV, rabies, and other viruses are not transmitted by mosquitoes. (On the “maybe” list: the flu and hepatitis C.)
But even though mosquitoes and ticks are not direct vectors of the coronavirus, they can play a role in its severity. Conlin explained, “Studies have shown that factors contributing to potentially serious or fatal outcomes attendant to COVID-19 infection involve underlying medical issues, such as neurologic conditions that weaken ability to cough or an already-stressed immune system due to concurrent infection by mosquito-borne viruses.”
To create a bug-free bubble outdoors
How we picked and tested
The heart of any bottle of bug spray is the repellent chemical, so we started there before digging into specific products. To cut to the chase, our research led us to picaridin, a repellent chemical endorsed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. Independent tests prove that a 20% concentration can repel mosquitoes and ticks for up to 12 hours. But we began our search considering all options, using expert guidance to determine what mattered most when seeking a formula to recommend. Here’s an overview of the factors we considered:
EPA approval: This requirement left us with a short list of skin-applied repellents focusing on picaridin, DEET, IR3535, and oil of lemon eucalyptus (as well as PMD, its synthetic form). To meet EPA approval, a chemical must undergo extensive testing and evaluation for efficacy, safety, and the potential for environmental hazards.
“Is garlic repellent? Yes, it is. Is it a good repellent? No, it isn’t.” —Joe Conlon, technical adviser of the American Mosquito Control Association
Because these chemicals are classified as pesticides, the EPA not only approves each repellent chemical for use but also each specific product that includes that chemical. This approval extends all the way to the specific labeling on the bottle, including efficacy times, application procedures, and storage and handling. In fact, according to the EPA website, this labeling is “legally enforceable… In other words, the label is the law.”
Store shelves are loaded with repellents that are not approved by the EPA. Most of these are based on essential oils, including cedar oil, lemongrass oil, peppermint oil, and citronella oil. The fact is, essential oils make terrible bug repellents. Conlon told us that many of these have some effectiveness, but that it lasts for a very limited time. “If you spread garlic all over your body, you’re going to get 20 minutes of repellency, then you’re going to have to do it again,” Conlon says. “Is garlic repellent? Yes, it is. Is it a good repellent? No, it isn’t.” The EWG states, “While effectiveness varies, and there may be a few exceptions, most botanicals repel bugs for a short time, if at all.”
Safety: Picaridin was created in the 1980s, so it hasn’t been studied as much as DEET, which has been around since the 1940s. But like DEET, picaridin does have a proven track record of safety. According to the NPIC, skin irritation due to picaridin is “very uncommon,” and the chemical “is considered practically nontoxic if inhaled.” Further, the EPA has approved the chemical for use in children as young as 2 months old. For pregnant women, the EWG recommends a picaridin concentration of 20% and a DEET concentration of no more than 20% to 30%. Conlon told us, “What studies have been done have found no connection between picaridin use and any neurotoxicity, carcinogenicity, mutagenicity, or anything like that.”
Effectiveness: A 2018 study by The Journal of Travel Medicine analyzed 11 studies comparing DEET and picaridin, concluding that there is “little potential difference between DEET and picaridin applied at the same dosage, with some evidence pointing to a superior persistence for picaridin.” According to the EPA-approved labels, a repellent with 20% picaridin can provide protection for up to 12 hours, while one with 25% DEET provides up to 10 hours. The studies mentioned in the Journal of Travel Medicine analysis offer varying results, with the majority of the studies showing 20% picaridin effectiveness up to and beyond nine and 10 hours.
We should also note that the percentage of an active ingredient doesn’t necessarily translate to it being more effective. It appears that after a certain concentration, a maximum effectiveness is reached and additional concentration only leads to a longer protection time. According to the CDC, “DEET efficacy tends to plateau at a concentration of approximately 50%.” They also recommend using a DEET concentration of at least 20% to ward off ticks, implying that lower concentrations have reduced effectiveness against hardier insects like ticks.
Minimal drawbacks: Aside from picaridin, the other EPA-approved repellents that we considered have at least one major drawback.
DEET (PDF), the most well known, is effective, but it tends to be oily and smelly. There are “dry” formulas available that remedy this some, but another issue with DEET is that it can damage some synthetic fabrics as well as watches, fishing line, cameras, glasses, and anything else made of plastic. Judi Anderson, director of the DEET Education Program, told us that “DEET-based products are not recommended for use directly on certain fabrics such as rayon, spandex, acetate, or other synthetic fabrics,” and that “it can affect the finish of many hard surfaces such as plastic, vinyl, paint, or lacquer.” To demonstrate this effect, Philip Werner, a writer for SectionHiker.com, used DEET to dissolve the synthetic fabric of a pair of pants. The American Academy of Pediatrics says DEET is safe for children over 2 months old, and recommends washing off DEET after children return indoors.
Oil of lemon eucalyptus (PDF) (also available as the synthetic PMD) is an extract of the eucalyptus tree and not approved for use on anyone under the age of 3 (picaridin and DEET are both approved for babies as young as 2 months of age). According to the EPA-approved labeling, it doesn’t last as long as DEET and picaridin. After testing, we realized that the biggest drawback to OLE-based repellents is that they smell really, really, really bad. The very strong odor doesn’t go away.
IR3535 (PDF), like DEET, also affects plastics. The EWG writes, “The manufacturer recommends avoiding contact with plastics other than polyethylene and polypropylene.” IR3535 is typically combined with a sunscreen, which is not recommended because sunscreen is applied at a higher rate than repellent, leading to needless overexposure to the repellent chemical.
We also evaluated a number of products containing permethrin, which is particularly useful against ticks and is also EPA-approved. Unlike the others, permethrin is meant to be used on clothing and gear (like a backpack or tent), but not directly on skin. Permethrin should be used in addition to a skin-applied repellent, not in lieu of one. Once properly applied to clothing, permethrin remains effective for roughly six washings. When used correctly, permethrin is extremely effective. A study published in The Journal of Medical Entomology found that “subjects wearing permethrin-treated sneakers and socks were 73.6 times less likely to have a tick bite than subjects wearing untreated footwear.” High concentrations of permethrin, when wet, can be toxic to cats, but once it dries, there’s no issue.
A decent spray bottle: A good repellent is wasted in a bad bottle. The best ones apply repellent in an even coat with limited overspray. Kids are squirmy, so getting repellent on them takes precision, as does applying spray to the neck and shoulder area. Locking caps are also a plus, prohibiting an accidental spray and providing one more barrier for a curious child to overcome. We looked at both pump sprays and aerosols. Some manufacturers offer repellent lotions. We have more thoughts on these below.
We did not test for efficacy of the individual repellents for a few reasons. First, there are simply too many variables to account for in order for us to make sweeping statements on repellency. The US alone has over 176 species of mosquitoes, and, as Conlon writes, “The process of a mosquito questing for a blood meal involves a complex, interconnected cascade of behaviors, each probably having its own cues, be they visual, thermal, or olfactory.” In other words: The way someone smells, what they’re wearing, how much they’re sweating, or the weather conditions can all have an effect on mosquito attraction.
We did test for usability, looking at competitors’ different bottles and comparing design details that we noticed when applying (lots of) bug spray firsthand. Is the spray nice and even? Does the repellent bottle have any safety features? Is it likely to activate when stuffed into a backpack? Are there any overwhelming odors?
Our pick: Sawyer Products Premium Insect Repellent
After testing 20 spray repellents, we’ve concluded Sawyer Products Premium Insect Repellent is the best. It has a 20% picaridin formula, making it effective against mosquitoes and ticks for up to 12 hours. Compared with the other picaridin-based repellents we looked at, the Sawyer pump spray applies repellent the most evenly, with the least amount of overspray.
The most important aspect of the Sawyer insect repellent is that it has a base of 20% picaridin. As we outlined above, this chemical has the most positives and the fewest negatives of any EPA-approved repellent.
All 20% picaridin repellents should provide similar protection, but the Sawyer pump spray stands apart due to a couple of usability features. Compared with other pump sprays, the Sawyer offers the most even cloud of repellent. The others were too wet and even a little “spitty” in our tests, leaving little puddles and thick droplets on the skin. With the Sawyer repellent, it was easiest to get even coverage on an arm or a leg. Aerosol sprays are much harder to control and result in a lot more overspray. They also make it difficult to spray areas near the face, like the shoulders.
Sawyer’s nice, two-cap design ensures it won’t activate in a stuffed backpack. Photo: Michael Murtaugh
Sawyer Products’s Premium Insect Repellent comes in a great bottle and provides a nice, even spray, but the most important part is that it contains 20 percent picaridin. Photo: Michael Murtaugh
Photo: Michael Murtaugh
Another benefit to a pump bottle is that it’s easy to tell how much you have left; just give the bottle a little shake. This is much harder with an aerosol can. That’s more like shaking a can of whipped cream.
Once applied, the Sawyer picaridin has minimal odor (well, there’s a very slight odor if you put your nose right to your skin), and it’s not oily. Once it dries, there are really no “tells” that you’re covered in bug repellent, other than a very slight tackiness on the skin that seems to go away within an hour. If you’re still using a DEET-based repellent, this is likely to be a very different experience for you.
Sawyer Products’s picaridin spray also has two caps, which is a big winner, especially if you have kids. Both caps click in tightly, and it’s really difficult to pull them straight off. We’re not saying they’re totally childproof, but the added difficulty might be enough to discourage the curiosity of a toddler (or buy you some time to confiscate the bottle). This second cap also guarantees that the repellent won’t accidentally be set off while stuffed in a backpack or beach bag. If you don’t want to deal with the second cap, it can be discarded.
As a pump spray, this repellent is sold in 3-ounce and 4-ounce sizes. We tested the 4-ounce size, and it’s not too big for a backpack pocket or to toss in the bottom of a tote. You might find a twin pack for a per-unit discount—retailers tend to rearrange the configurations, so poke around. It is also available in a 6-ounce aerosol (twin pack), which offers a continuous spray. We found it harder to use than the pump spray, but it offers the same protection if the pump spray is out of stock or if you simply prefer the aerosol format.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
The only real downside to the Sawyer picaridin repellent is that it had a slight off-smell to it when we first applied it. Once it dried, which took only a couple of minutes, the odor dissipated to nearly nothing, so this is only a minor gripe.
Also greats: the other 20% picaridin repellents
OFF!® Deep Woods® Insect Repellent VIII (Dry)
OFF! Deep Woods® Insect Repellent VIII (Dry) combines the benefit of long-lasting mosquito protection with a powder-dry formula that leaves skin feeling dry and comfortable.
Both OFF! Deep Woods® Insect Repellent VIII (Dry) and other OFF! Deep Woods® products provide long-lasting mosquito protection.
OFF! Deep Woods® Insect Repellent VIII (Dry) features a fresh fragrance that diminishes over time.
OFF! Deep Woods® Insect Repellent VIII (Dry) will not damage cotton, wool or nylon fabrics. Because of the cornstarch in the formula, a white residue may appear on clothing. This residue can be removed by brushing off or washing clothing. Do not use under clothing. Spray shirts, pants, socks, and hats. For ticks and chiggers, also spray cuffs, socks, and around other openings in outer clothing. OFF!® will not damage cotton, wool, or nylon. Do not apply on or near acetate, rayon, spandex or other synthetics (other than nylon), furniture, plastics, watch crystals, leather, and painted or varnished surfaces including automobiles.
OFF! Deep Woods® Insect Repellent VIII (Dry) can be found throughout the United States in the insect repellent section, lawn and garden section, or sporting goods section of most mass merchandise, grocery, drug, do-it-yourself, and hardware stores. Find out where you can buy OFF!® products.
OFF!® FamilyCare Insect Repellent I (Smooth & Dry)
OFF!® FamilyCare Insect Repellent I (Smooth & Dry) provides proven OFF!® mosquito protection that feels comfortable on your skin. The product has a powder-dry formula that leaves your skin feeling and smelling great.
OFF!® FamilyCare Insect Repellent I (Smooth & Dry) will not damage cotton, wool or nylon fabrics. Because of the dry powder in the formula, a white residue may appear on clothing. This residue can be removed by brushing off or washing clothing regularly. Do not use under clothing. Spray shirts, pants, socks, and hats. For ticks and chiggers, also spray cuffs, socks, and around other openings in outer clothing. OFF!® will not damage cotton, wool, or nylon. Do not apply on or near acetate, rayon, spandex or other synthetics (other than nylon), furniture, plastics, watch crystals, leather, and painted or varnished surfaces including automobiles.
Yes. To apply OFF!® FamilyCare Insect Repellent I (Smooth & Dry) on your face, apply the repellent to the palm of your hand and rub it onto your face. Parents should apply repellent to their children. Do not apply insect repellents to your eyes or mouth, or to the hands of young children. Remember to read and follow the use directions found on the label.
Yes. OFF!® FamilyCare Insect Repellent I (Smooth & Dry) protects against mosquitoes that may carry the West Nile Virus.
Yes. In addition to mosquitoes, OFF!® FamilyCare Insect Repellent I (Smooth & Dry) repels gnats, ticks, biting flies, chiggers and fleas.
OFF!® FamilyCare Insect Repellent I (Smooth & Dry) can be found throughout the United States in the insect repellent or lawn and garden section of most mass merchandise, grocery, drug, do-it-yourself, and hardware stores. Find out where you can buy OFF!® products.
8 best insect repellents of 2021: DEET and DEET-free bug spray
Along with beach reads, swimsuits and sunscreen, the summer is also traditionally known as mosquito season — and bug bites are a sometimes unfortunate consequence of spending time outdoors. But bites from mosquitoes, ticks and other insects can be much more than just irritating or itchy — they can carry illnesses like malaria and Lyme disease, too. Beyond removing water from the backyard or setting up electric fans outside, one preventative and protective measure you can take to avoid bites is applying insect repellent. Still, that might be easier said than done — if you’ve ever searched for an insect repellent, the labels can seem confusing, from the acronyms to the numbers. To help your shopping, we consulted experts about how to shop for an insect repellent and deciphered common jargon like” DEET,” “DEET-free” and “natural” when attached to a spray.
SKIP AHEAD Best insect repellents
How experts shop for insect repellents
All the experts we spoke to recommend finding an EPA-registered insect repellent, sharing the same sentiment as David Brown, the technical advisor to the American Mosquito Control Association. The Centers for Disease Control likewise recommends finding an insect repellent that’s registered with the EPA and features one of the following active ingredients.
- Oil of lemon eucalyptus
- Para-menthane-diol (also referred to as PMD)
Brown emphasized that you should use an EPA-registered product and carefully follow label instructions on a repellent “to ensure safe and effective use.” Unregistered insect repellents aren't necessarily following specific guidelines regarding efficacy, “which is why typically we do not recommend these products,” explained Sonja Swiger, an associate professor at Texas A&M University’s department of entomology. EPA-registered insect repellents, like all EPA-registered products, will have a one-of-a-kind number (normally on the back label) that lets you know it’s legitimate to use. You'll usually find one of them listed in the front label of a repellent.
Last year, the EPA registered a new active ingredient, nootkatone, the first one approved in over 11 years — it smells like grapefruit. While approved for use, there haven’t been any applications with nootkatone-based repellents that have hit the EPA’s desk yet — the only registered product with the ingredient in it is made for manufacturing use, an agency spokesperson told us.
DEET versus DEET-free versus natural insect repellents
Think of insect repellents within three main buckets: DEET, DEET-free and natural — it’s how many are marketed.
DEET insect repellents
Out of the three, DEET insect repellentsare arguably the most common and considered the “gold standard” in terms of ingredients, according to a few of the experts we talked to.
DEET was developed by the U.S. Army in 1946 and approved for public use in 1957, so it’s been around for a while. As such, it’s “one of the most well-studied repellents on the market,” said Neeta Pardanani Connally, a biology professor at Western Connecticut State University (WCSU). While there’s “some disagreement on exactly how DEET works, the general consensus is that it interferes with the pest's host-finding ability — basically, they can't smell you anymore,” mentioned Erika T. Machtinger, an assistant professor of entomology at Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences.
DEET is a controversial ingredient, largely because of misinformation.
Erika T. Machtinger, Entomology professor, Penn State University
By a wide margin, DEET is in most EPA-registered insect repellents —over 500 products feature it as an active ingredient (in second place is IR355 with about 45 products and third is picaridin with more than 40). More recently, DEET has gotten a bad reputation as being unsafe, which Consumer Reports traced back in 2019.
“DEET is a controversial ingredient, largely because of misinformation. Some folks confuse it with DDT, an unrelated and banned compound in the United States, and others worry about reported neurological issues associated with DEET use that have been disproven by the medical community,” Machtinger explained.
Despite the controversy, mostexperts we consulted agreed that DEET is the most effective active ingredient to look out for in an insect repellent.
DEET-free insect repellents
You may see labels on insect repellents that say the words “DEET-free” in larger letters but you’ll probably have to look down to find what the actual active ingredient is.
For example, if you look closely at this repellent from REPEL, it features oil of lemon eucalyptus. You can think of these as alternatives to DEET, experts explained. These include EPA-registered active ingredients like para-menthane-diol, 2-undecanone, IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus and picaridin — the latter is probably the one you’ll come across most often.
Like DEET, DEET-free insect repellents that have the aforementioned active ingredients are safe and effective, experts told us. They haven’t been around as long as DEET. Picaridin performs just as well as DEET when it comes to insects but hasn’t been studied as long, according to Eva Buckner, the medical entomology extension specialist at the University of Florida. Machtinger echoed this and added that picaridin can be a “reasonable alternative to DEET” but might “be more challenging to find in some places” — it can also be more expensive.
Natural insect repellents
The experts we consulted cautioned against insect repellents that are branded as natural.
“Many are simply not successful at repelling insects as well as products that have been tested and registered by the EPA,” Brown said. Yes, technically, these are DEET-free, but they tend to be free of chemicals, too, said Stan Cope, the vice president of technical products and services at pest management company Catchmaster. And that’s where the problem lies.
For its part, the EPA doesn’t allow the use of the terms “natural” or “naturally” on the label of any registered pesticide product “because the terms cannot be well defined and may be misconstrued as safety claims,” a spokesperson said. Natural repellents usually contain botanicals and essential oils, too.
“It’s kind of the ‘Wild West’ out there with natural products right now,” noted Connally, who oversees WCSU’s Tickborne Disease Prevention Laboratory. It can get especially complicated because some products with “natural ingredients” like clove and lemongrass oil are accepted as “minimum risk” pesticides, according to the EPA, but aren’t held to the same high standards as those that are registered to show “that a product does indeed have the repellency effects that the label claim,” Connally added.
“The products may be considered more ‘natural’ but often contain known allergens and may cause skin reactions,” Machtinger told us. Natural insect repellents can have allergens at higher concentrations than other products that are branded as natural, according to Consumer Reports, which has found them to be less effective, too.
Best insect repellents for mosquitoes and more
As experts recommended finding an EPA-registered insect repellent, we’ve included top-rated ones to consider. The EPA has an online search tool that lets you find registered repellents and we used it to check the registration numbers on each of the products below. All registered repellents offer protection against mosquitoes but only some work against ticks.
The EPA’s repellent database was last updated in 2019 — the EPA confirmed that the products listed all remain registered and more recently registered repellents haven’t been added. A product remains registered as long as:
- Registrants pay annual maintenance fees
- The EPA isn’t forced to change the registration given emerging factors like adverse effects
- The company doesn’t voluntarily cancel the registration
When it comes to concentration (or the percentage of active ingredient in a product), many experts explained that a higher number doesn’t mean more protection — contrary to what some might assume. The percentage “does not increase your level of protection, but it does increase the length of time of protection,” Brown said. In other words, the higher concentration, the longer the repellent will be effective, Buckner added. According to Machtinger, a 10-percent and 100-percent DEET repellent will work the same for the first couple of hours after putting them on, but the 100 percent will last longer. Cope, who previously served as president of the American Mosquito Control Association (AMCA), argued that a DEET concentration of 25 to 30 percent should usually be sufficient.
As DEET was the preferred active ingredient among the experts we consulted, we’ve included DEET insect repellents first. Recognizing that some shoppers might want DEET-free options, we’ve also included a few insect repellents that don’t use the ingredient but are still EPA-registered.
Best DEET insect repellents
OFF! Active Insect Repellent I
This repellent is formulated with a concentration of 15 percent DEET, which amounts to six hours of protection, and works against mosquitoes, biting flies, gnats, ticks, chiggers, and fleas, the company says. The sweat-resistant spray meant for outdoor activities like running and hiking. It’s earned an average 4.5-star rating over more than 680 reviews at Walmart.
Repel 100 Insect Repellent
It’s a popular pick on Amazon, boasting an average 4.6-star rating over more than 8,200 reviews. The bestselling repellent is made with over 98 percent DEET, which offers protection that lasts for 10 hours. It’s designed to work against mosquitoes, biting flies, gnats, ticks, chiggers, and fleas, the company says. The repellent also features a pump spray rather than the usual aerosol spray of other repellents.
Cutter Backwoods Insect Repellent
The repellent features 25 percent DEET in its formula, which the company claims protects for upto 10 hours. It’s sweat-resistant, too. Along with mosquitoes, the repellent is meant to ward off ticks, biting flies, gnats, no-see-ums, chiggers and fleas. Although it’s currently sold out at Amazon (you can find it at retailers like Target still), shoppers left it with an average 4.7-star rating over close to 1,400 reviews.
Sawyer Products SP533 Premium Ultra DEET Insect Repellent
This repellent is meant to protect against mosquitoes, ticks, and chiggers. It’s a lotion and formulated with 30 percent DEET — the company claims that the liposome (a fat you can find in some cosmetics too) base in the formula works to slowly release the active ingredient to extend the effectiveness of it, with protection lasting up to 11 hours. The lotion can be carried on your carry-on since it’s less than 3.4 ounces. It has an average 4.5-star rating over more than 380 reviews at Amazon.
Best DEET-free insect repellents
Repel Plant-Based Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent Pump Spray
Notably, this bestselling repellent boasts an average 4.4-star rating over more than 23,400 reviews on Amazon. It’s formulated with oil of lemon eucalyptus and protects against mosquitoes for six hours. The lemon eucalyptus in the repellent is meant to be non-greasy so your skin doesn’t feel sticky when applying it.
Sawyer Products Picaridin Insect Repellent
Another popular pick with Amazon shoppers, this repellent has earned an average 4.5-star rating over more than 11,900 reviews. The repellent features 20 percent picaridin in its formula with up to 12-hour protection against mosquitoes and ticks, along with eight hours of protection against flies, gnats, and chiggers, the company claims. It comes in a pack of two and is a pump spray. The spray is meant to be non-greasy, too.
Cutter Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent
Made with 30 percent oil of lemon eucalyptus, the repellent’s formula is meant to repel mosquitoes for up to six hours. It leaves a lemon eucalyptus scent but isn’t supposed to feel oily on the skin, the company says. It’s currently sold out at Amazon but earned an average 4.4-star rating over more than 2,100 reviews at the retailer.
OFF! FamilyCare Insect Repellent II
This repellent is formulated with 5 percent picaridin, which is meant to provide protection for three to four hours. The pump spray is meant to protect against mosquitoes. Notably, it’s designed to work on clothing as well and the company claims it won’t damage cotton, wool or nylon. It has earned an average 4.3-star rating over more than 146 reviews.
What is an insect repellent?
It’s important to understand what an insect repellent is and isn’t. The term might seem broad — there are a lot of insects in the wild — but insect repellents, also commonly called bug sprays, usually cover mosquitoes, ticks or both, experts told us.
I know bug is a catch-all term for things that bite, but entomologists get a little squirmy about calling everything a bug.
Neeta Pardanani Connally, Biology professor, Western Connecticut State University
“Most repellents are used against mosquitoes. The label will usually tell which species a certain product is effective against,” Cope said.
Technically speaking, a tick isn’t actually an insect. And that’s not all. “Just to be more accurate, not all insects are bugs. And not all critters that bite (ticks, for example) are insects,” Connally explained.
“I know bug is a catch-all term for things that bite, but entomologists get a little squirmy about calling everything a bug,” Connally said. It might be even better to think of an insect repellent as targeting arthropods — broadly covering ticks, spiders and beetles, among others — Machtinger mentioned. Insect repellents are really designed for blood-seeking insects — most insects aren’t actually trying to find a human host so they aren’t affected by repellents on people, explained Swiger.
An insect repellent essentially jams an insect’s radar“by altering the insect’s ability to find a host,” Cope said. “The ability of the insect’s sensory devices on the antennae to find a suitable host becomes compromised.” A repellent affects senses like smell and taste, too, but doesn’t usually kill the insect, according to Buckner.
Insect repellent regulation and registration
While it might seem surprising, insect repellents are considered pesticides — even though these sprays are meant to repel, rather than impair, insects. As such, most skin-applied insect repellents — yes, repellents can also include lanterns, candles and torches — have to be registered by the Environmental Protection Agency before being marketed to the public.
Since insect repellents are pesticides, it’s up to the EPA to regulate them, a spokesperson for the agency confirmed. The agency reviews each repellent independently to confirm its efficacy before registration, the spokesperson added.
A company applies for registration and the “EPA determines whether the product actually works and weighs the product’s benefits against its risks,” the EPA told us. Registration means that a product has passed safety standards, is approved for use as the directions on the label says and can be sold and distributed in the U.S.
Some insect repellents don’t actually have to be registered with the EPA. These unregistered products include ingredients like citronella and cedar — while the EPA found they didn’t pose any health risks, they weren’t proven to be effective, either.
Why mosquitoes are attracted to some more than others
If you’ve ever felt that mosquitoes bite you more than others around you, the experts said that some science backs this up.
Repellent off insect
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