Searching for the best bug spray to keep your family safer outdoors? We purchased and tested 8 top bug sprays suitable for kids to determine which were the most effective, safest, and best smelling and feeling products in the group. We tested each spray side-by-side in various environments to help you find the right spray for your needs. Keep reading to discover all the anti-bug-tasic details.
Sawyer Insect Repellent is a versatile picaridin spray recommended by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) as safe and effective for most people. Our testers liked the evaporating smell and how the spray feels once it dries. Our tests showed it was effective against various bugs, and testers thought it worked just as well on gear as it does on skin. It comes with two lids to help prevent accidental leaks, and the bottle is petite enough to fit almost anywhere.
While the dual lid design stops a leaking mess from happening, it can be annoying to monitor multiple lids. Also, the smaller-sized bottle means you might need to pack both depending on the length of your trip or the number of kiddos. Sawyers is an effective and easy-to-use spray with no offensive smell and comprehensive coverage for every member of the family and most bugs.
OFF! Family Care Insect & Mosquito Repellent is a pleasant-smelling product with a lower DEET % suitable for skin applications, as recommended by the CDC. The bottle is easy to use, has a larger lid, and sprays evenly with a fine mist for good coverage. In our tests, it was effective against various bugs, including biting flies around horses, and some users liked the smell.
DEET isn't known for its lonely scent or skin-friendly after-feel, and this spray is no different, but the added fragrance was well-liked by testers or at least well-tolerated. However, fragrances always mean more chemicals, so you'll want to spot-test it before use to ensure it doesn't include anything that might irritate your skin. Overall, this budget-priced spray is effective and works well.
Cutter Skinsations Insect Repellent is a skin-friendly choice with added aloe to soothe irritated skin. Our testers generally liked the smell and how it felt on the skin. The bottle is easy to use, and the spray pattern is even, with no spitting. It seems effective against most bugs in our tests, though, in fairness, we didn't go to heavily tick-infested areas during testing. This product contains the CDC-recommended safe percentage of DEET for skin, and you can use the spray on your gear for another layer of protection.
The bottle we purchased leaked during shipment and continued to leak during testing if transported without the lid. It also has an added scent that some testers liked, but others felt strongly against. The smell adds more chemicals to the ingredient list, so you'll want to spot-check this spray to ensure your skin isn't irritated. Overall, we like this spray and think it is an effective solution for most people, especially if you are looking for something for dry skin or you dislike the DEET after-feel.
Repel Sportsmen Max Formula has a higher percentage of DEET indicated for use in areas with known insect outbreaks or for pre-treatment gear and clothing. This product is good for spraying hats, backpacks, shoes, socks, pants, etc. It can deter bugs from crawling up your shoes or dropping on your hair. It worked well in our tests, and we didn't experience any staining.
A higher percentage of DEET is generally not recommended for skin or children under typical circumstances. Plus, it smells more intense than much of the competition, so you'll want to "air out" your gear outdoors after treatment before you wear it. We believe layering insect protection is a good strategy for keeping bugs away. Treating your clothes can provide additional protection for you and your loved ones without increasing your skin's chemical load. If you're going out for adventures with known infestations or into an area with a history of outbreaks, you'll be glad you're packing this heavy hitter to keep insects away. However, it might be a bit overkill for a day at the park.
Sawyer Permethrin Clothing Insect Repellent is a pre-treatment spray for clothing and other gear. Pre-treating your gear and clothing adds an additional layer of protection from insects by creating a first line of defense that doesn't require putting more chemicals directly on your skin. This spray bottle is large, has an even spray pattern, and is easy to apply. The manufacturer claims it is effective for up to 6 weeks of protection or six wash cycles.
Permethrin is a neurotoxin for cats and should not be used near pets or neighborhood cats to avoid health problems or death. Also, it can potentially melt certain plastics, so you should avoid spraying plastics. Testers also report staining on some materials, so you'll want to do a spot check before spraying all your gear if staining is a concern. Overall, an additional layer of protection is a bonus, especially if you're in areas with known risks or staying overnight. A repellent tent is an excellent first layer of defense against bugs while you sleep, and every layer increases your level of overall protection from insect-borne illness.
In our tests, this repellent didn't work that well, and most users didn't see any significant difference between using and not using it. Even if it offers some efficacy, it doesn't appear to be enough to provide adequate protection in areas with known insect-related illness outbreaks. Given the questionable efficacy, it is hard to recommend it for locations deep in the woods or Lymes and Zika territories. Also, some people with sensitive skin report getting rashes when using this oil, as it is a known skin irritant, so you'll want to spot test before you go hog wild. Experts agree it should not be used on children under three years old for this reason. While you might consider this a potential contender for backyard fun, where serious efforts to keep bugs at bay are less important, we don't see this as a real solution for adventures in insect-filled environments.
Cutter Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent is a lemon eucalyptus oil option with a strong smell. It doesn't contain DEET or picaridin, which are chemicals some people are trying to avoid. It comes in an easy-to-use bottle with an even spray and a cap to help prevent leaks. Our testers didn't mind the smell of this product but didn't feel it did much to detract bugs.
The lack of proven ability to repel bugs makes this option a no-go for areas with known outbreaks of insect-borne illnesses. It might be suitable for backyard barbeques, but even then, you risk bug bites and more, as we did in our tests. While protection is questionable, the oil is a known irritant for those with sensitive skin, and we recommend doing a spot test before you spray this everywhere just in case it causes a rash. It is not recommended for children under the age of 3, so parents should look elsewhere for younger children. We weren't impressed with this option, but we understand why some might consider it.
Babyganics Bug Spray is a formulation of oils and other natural ingredients that claims to deter bugs. It comes in a travel-sized bottle with an easy-to-use spray cap. This spray smells nice, and the bottle fits almost anywhere, even in your pocket.
Our tests did not see any efficacy using this spray, and some testers felt that it even attracted bugs. None of the ingredients have been shown effective against bugs, and some of the ingredients are known to cause skin irritation. If you are concerned with keeping your baby bug safe, experts recommend netting products over chemicals, even natural products.
Why You Should Trust Us
Before making product selections, we did a lot of research on bug spray and insect repellants. It was really important to us that we understand which ingredients are safe and effective for each family member. We don't think there is a blanket solution for all outdoor bug needs, and we recommend you do your research as well. A strategy that works well for a 6-year-old will not be one you want to use for a 6-week-old. After much research, we settled on the products in this lineup. We assessed each spray side-by-side for feel, ease of use, smell, efficacy, and more to determine rank and award winners. Out award winners are those products that worked well at keeping bugs at bay and were well-received by wearers for smell and feel.
This bug spray review was led by Senior Review Editor, Wendy Schmitz. Wendy has a degree in biological sciences with a concentration in chemistry. She is a mother of 2 and has been analyzing gear since 2014. The sprays chosen for this review were tested hands-on and side-by-side in various outdoor situations and adventures to determine how well they work with various insect types and outdoor conditions. We did not travel to areas with significant tick activity.
Analysis and Test Results
We purchased and tested the bug sprays in this review of impressive contenders. We considered metrics such as efficacy, safety, ease of application, and how each feels and smells to determine the best options.
Effective & Safe
There are plenty of repellents for sale ranging from sprays and lotions to wristbands and personal air fans that create a bubble of repellent around you. Unfortunately, not all products are considered safe or effective. You might have many products to choose from, but some are virtually useless, and others are potentially unsafe. Which choice is right for you depends on where you plan to go, how long you plan to be there, and who needs protection from what. Not all products will repel every kind of bug all of the time, so we recommend having realistic expectations and practicing safe layering of deterrents when appropriate. Suppose your plans include areas with known insect-related issues. In that case, we recommend skin repellent (1st layer), pre-treated clothing (2nd layer), long sleeves and pants (limited access to the skin), hats (3rd layer), and possible netting protection (4th layer) to up your protection game.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and other experts agree there are three bug-repellent chemicals generally considered safe and effective. The recommended concentration of these ingredients changes depending on the area you plan to visit and the stats of insect-borne illnesses found there. For instance, if visiting a site with high levels of tickborne illness like Lyme's Disease, you'll the recommendation includes a higher percentage concentration of deterrent as contracting Lymes can be more hazardous to your health than the potential concerns related to some repellents.
Is There a Baby Safe Repellent?
You should never use any chemical repellent on your baby. No repellent has been proven safe for infants, and the CDC advises parents to use bug netting and clothing to protect little ones or avoid outdoor areas where bugs are a concern. Even "natural" or "organic" repellents should be avoided, as these typically contain known irritants that can cause rashes and irritation. We recommend discussing your outdoor plans with your baby's doctor before you head outside.
The Top Expert Recommended Repellents
These active ingredients exhibit low-risk levels combined with adequate coverage.
DEET in concentrations typically under 10% in most locations*
Picaridin in concentrations of 20% or less when used on the skin in most environments
IR3535 in concentrations of no more than 20% for children
*According to the CDC, if you plan to be in an environment with more significant concerns for Lyme bacteria or Zika, it could be appropriate to use higher concentrations of DEET (20-30%) for maximum protection against illness, as the risks from the disease outweigh risks related to the deterrents.
For details about insect-borne diseases and where they are prevalent, check out the CDC website. This information can help you plan your trip and the level or type of protection you need for each member of your outing.
In the past, there have been concerns about DEET and health, but recent studies indicate there is less risk than previously thought, and levels under 10% are generally considered safe for most people. Picaridin is typically viewed as less irritating to the eyes and skin. It works on all the major insect offenders and has a smell that dissipates when the spray dries, making it a popular choice with outdoor enthusiasts. IR3535 can irritate the eyes but has fewer known safety concerns than DEET or Picaridin. Unfortunately, this ingredient is typically found in combination products paired with sunscreen, which we don't recommend as you need to reapply sunscreen more frequently than bug spray. Discussing your particular situation or any underlying medical concerns with your doctor before making your choice is always a good idea to find the protection you need with your personal details in mind.
Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus and PMD
Repellents using these ingredients should never be used for little ones under 3 years old.
We included a handful of options with more natural ingredients for repellents. Many people have concerns about the health implications of certain chemicals and want to give these products a fair shake despite not being listed as effective by experts. Spoiler alert: They weren't very effective in our tests, and some users reported skin irritation and rashes after using the products.
Our Test Results
After testing, we felt Picaridin is the most effective on the broadest range of bug types while also being well-tolerated by most users. DEET options were also effective but were often combined with strong scents or left skin feeling dry, and some testers resisted using them for these reasons. You don't want to fight with your children about using bug spray. After extensive research, we found that Picaridin is recommended more often as a good option for almost everyone, making it an excellent product to keep on hand for families. Our favorite is Sawyer Insect Repellent, which has an even spray pattern, rubs in quickly, and doesn't smell once dry.
DEET products required re-application more frequently in our tests to keep bug activity under control. OFF! Family Care Insect & Mosquito Repellent seemed effective against biting flies around horses, and Cutter Skinsations Insect Repellent appears to be the same as OFF! for efficacy, but it includes aloe for softer skin and less of the dry feeling DEET can cause. Both options are scented and can seem intense at first, but most testers didn't consider the smells as deal-breakers.
If your outing is in a tick-infested area or where illness rates are high, you'll want to consider products with higher concentrations of DEET. Repel Insect Repellent Sportsmen Max has 40% DEET and should be used on gear or clothing, or areas of great concern. Layering repellent methods is also a good idea, like lower levels of DEET on the skin with higher percentages on the clothing layer over top. Tick-borne illnesses are no joke, we recommend following medical advice and manufacturer's instructions to avoid coming out of the woods with more than just good memories.
"Natural repellents" in our tests weren't very effective. Specifically, Babyganics Bug Spray wasn't effective on any bug of concern, and some felt the smell even attracted mosquitoes. The ingredients in all of the oil-based products could be irritating and potentially cause rashes and should not be used on children under three years old. In our tests, REPEL Plant-Based Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent and Cutter Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent were also less effective. While arguably more effective than Babyganics, users didn't see much difference between using the repellents and using nothing, with equal insect activity or bites. The CDC does not recommend using these options if you are going to areas with known risks of insect-borne diseases, as the risk is too high to go with unproven ingredients.
Clothing & Gear Pre-treatment
For more protection than you can get by applying the spray to the skin only, experts recommend treating clothing and gear to create another layer of protection. Treated clothing or equipment like hats, backpacks, and tents can help create a protective bubble of repellent that prevents bugs from landing on you or crawling over you to find open skin. It makes us think of the Peanuts cartoon character Pigpen and his cloud of dirt. Higher concentrations of DEET or Permethrin can be sprayed on items before your outing and can last longer than your adventure to help provide more layers of protection. While generally considered safe, both ingredients can melt certain plastics, so you'll want to avoid using on plastic surfaces, and we recommend spot-checking fabric to avoid staining. Though we think staining is preferable to bug bites and serious illnesses.
Toxic to Cats
The active ingredient Permethrin is a neurotoxin to cats and can cause serious health issues and even death to felines with exposure to it. For this reason, if you have cats or live close to others who have cats, you should avoid using this chemical in any form, especially outdoors, when pretreating, as you never know when a cat might stroll by. If you have kitty concerns, you can still find adequate protection. We recommend using a higher percentage DEET option as a pre-treatment instead of Permethrin. We strongly suggest you think of others if your neighbors have outdoor kitties who may wander by to inspect your treated tent.
Repel Insect Repellent Sportsmen Max Formula is an excellent product for gear with a higher concentration of DEET (40%). While this percentage is not generally recommended for skin in most situations, it is helpful for your clothing and outdoor gear.
Ease of Application
Because bug spray is often necessary to avoid illness, you want something easy to apply, so you'll use it when needed. During testing, we found sprays are the most straightforward application for ease of use. Lotions can be difficult when trying to reach every body part, and aerosols can create a cloud with particles so small you can inhale them. We don't think it is a good idea to inhale aerosolized repellent chemicals, so we didn't select aerosol versions for this review. Given that every effective ingredient comes in a not aerosolized version, there is no need to worry about what you are inhaling, along with infectious bugs.
Bug Spray with Sunscreen
We don't recommend combination products that are both repellent and sunscreen. While you may need both, using an all-in-one product means exposing yourself to more bug-repellent chemicals than might be necessary or recommended, as you typically need to apply sunscreen more often than bug spray. Using two products might feel like a hassle, but it is better for your health to limit your exposure to repellent chemicals as directed.
While sprays are usually easy to apply by spraying directly on your skin, they may still require rubbing in to ensure even coverage. For children, it is often easier to spray your hands first and then rub the repellent on your child for even coverage and to avoid getting the product in their eyes, nose, or mouth. Some sprays are also useful for treating clothing and gear, making them multi-purpose in a way that wipes and lotions can't manage. Alternatively, not all sprays are suitable for the skin, so be sure to read the label before using any product to understand the uses and limitations fully. Sawyer Permethrin Clothing Insect Repellent is one such product that is great for gear and pre-treating your clothing, but it isn't suitable for the skin and is also toxic to cats. However, this chemical can provide a valuable layer of protection that lasts on equipment for up to 6 weeks and clothing through 6 wash cycles.
Staying insect-free can require more than a single tool in your protection toolbox. Most experts recommend a combination approach of layering repellents and clothing (treated or not) and/or netting to truly protect yourself from bugs, especially if your plans include areas with known concentrations of insect-borne diseases.
Check online to determine the disease contagion risk for your trip
Apply sunscreen to your body first
Use the spray only as directed and set an alarm for reapplication
Wear lightweight clothing to cover exposed skin
Tuck your pants into tall socks to avoid ticks crawling up your legs
Layer repellent, pre-treated clothing, and netting to ensure protection
Whenever safe to do so, pre-treat all gear and clothing for more protection
Avoid areas where there are known insect-borne diseases
Discuss protecting your little one with their pediatrician before you go
Odor and Feel
Outside of chemical-related safety concerns, some folks avoid repellents because they hate the way most products smell or feel on the skin when they dry. DEET, specifically, seems to annoy more users than other effective ingredients. Some manufacturers have responded by adding fragrances and skin moisturizers to their formulations, like Cutter Skinsations Insect Repellent with aloe. Testers felt these were hit or miss, though most appreciated the effort. Picaridin typically feels better on the skin and has no smell when dry, making it an excellent choice for anyone sensitive to odors. Products with lemon eucalyptus oil have a stronger scent that lingers, and some testers thought bugs were more attracted to the spray than repelled by it. In our tests, it didn't seem to offer adequate protection from serious bug problems and isn't recommended by experts for areas with known insect-borne illnesses.
It is critical that you choose the most effective ingredient for your specific outing before you consider the smell or feel. Protection from insect-borne diseases and staying itch-free should always factor higher in your final product selection than how a product smells or feels (minus an allergic reaction). Thankfully, 20% picaridin is effective for most insects, and it is generally considered safe for most people when used according to the manufacturer's directions. Plus, the odor related to picaridin evaporates when the product dries, so there is no lingering scent to contend with. This smell evaporation means products like Sawyer Insect Repellent are virtually smell-free. If you like a slight scent with your spray, our testers enjoyed the lighter smell of OFF! Family Care, which most testers described as pleasant or "not bad." Cutter Skinsations Insect Repellent seems to have a more pungent scent (in our opinion), but many testers still felt it was less offensive than most of the competition.
Finding an effective and safe bug spray for your family shouldn't be a nit-picking experience (see what we did there?). We've done exhaustive research and hands-on testing to help you find the best options for your outdoor anti-bug needs and adventuring plans. Whether you're embarking on a hike deep into the forest or chilling by the water where mosquitoes love to breed, we've got an option in our lineup that can help keep bugs away. We purchased and tested some of the top repellents on the market. We also researched expert advice about ingredient efficacy and safety. We believe there is a spray for every family member and most outdoor adventures in this review, not matter what type of ingredient you need. .