In-depth reviews guided by a Pediatrician

Best Bug Spray for Kids

Insect repellent should be easy to use and non-offensive to help ensure you use it as directed for adequate protection.
By Wendy Schmitz ⋅ Senior Review Editor
Wednesday September 16, 2020
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Searching for the best bug spray to keep your family safe outdoors? We purchased and tested 8 top bug sprays suitable for use with kids to determine which were the most effective, safest, and the best smelling and feeling products in the group. We tested each spray side-by-side in a variety of locations to help you find the right option for your needs. Read on to find out all the buggy details.

1

Best Overall Bug Spray for Kids


Sawyer Insect Repellent


Editors' Choice Award
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$8.99
at Amazon
See It

Effective Ingredient: 20% Picaridin | Application Method: Spray
Wide efficacy
Easy application
Evaporating odor
Narrow spray stream
Dual lids hard to keep track of

Sawyer Insect Repellent is a versatile picaridin spray recommended by the CDC as safe and effective for most users. Our testers liked the evaporating smell and the way the spray feels after it dries. We found it effective against a wide variety of bugs, and testers thought it worked well on skin and gear. It comes with two lids to prevent leaking, and the bottle is small enough to fit almost anywhere.

Some chemicals shouldn't be used on or around certain pets. Be sure to read the labels before use near animals.
Some chemicals shouldn't be used on or around certain pets. Be sure to read the labels before use near animals.

While the dual lid is nice, it can be challenging to keep track of both when out on adventures. Also, the smaller bottle means you'll potentially need more than one for each trip, but it does come in a pack of 2, so at least you get your money's worth. Sawyers is an effective and easy to use product with no offensive smell and wide coverage for every member of the family.

2

Best Family Bug Spray on a Budget


OFF! Family Care Insect & Mosquito Repellent


Best Value Award
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$5.00 each (in 2-pack)
(50% off)
at Amazon
See It

Effective Ingredient: 7% DEET | Application Method: Spray
Impressive efficacy
Friendly price
Fragrance chemicals
Potential leaking

OFF! Family Care Insect & Mosquito Repellent is a pleasant-smelling option with a lower percentage (7%) of DEET for skin, 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 a variety of bugs, including biting flies around horses.

Most of the repellents  like the OFF shown here  are easy to apply and have nice even sprays.
Most of the repellents, like the OFF shown here, are easy to apply and have nice even sprays.

DEET isn't known for its good smell or skin-friendly texture, and this option is no different, but the added fragrance was well-liked by testers. However, fragrances equal more chemicals, so you'll want to spot test this option to ensure it isn't irritating to your skin. Overall, this budget-priced spray 2-pack is effective and works well.

3

Best for Skin Softness


Cutter Skinsations Insect Repellent


Top Pick Award
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$5.00
See It

Effective Ingredient: 7% DEET | Application Method: Spray
Effective
Includes aloe & Vit E
Nicer smell
Fragrances add chemicals
Bottle can leak

Cutter Skinsations Insect Repellent is a skin-friendly product with added aloe. Testers liked the smell and the way it left their skin feeling. 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 come across ticks during testing. This product contains the CDC recommended percentage of DEET that is shown safe for skin, and you can use the spray for hats and clothes as well.

Cutter spray has added aloe for a softer skin feel and most testers liked the smell.
Cutter spray has added aloe for a softer skin feel and most testers liked the smell.

In our tests, the bottle leaked during shipment and would leak if transported without the lid. It also has an added scent that some testers liked, and others felt was too strong. The scent adds more chemicals to the mix, so you'll want to spot check to ensure it isn't irritating. 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 don't like the after-feel of DEET.

4

Good for Gear or Outbreak Areas


Repel Sportsmen Max Formula


Top Pick Award
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$5.50 each (in 2-pack)
(50% off)
at Amazon
See It

Effective Ingredient: 40% DEET | Application Method: Spray
Effective
Longer duration
Layering protection
Not usually recommended for skin
Can melt some plastic

Repel Insect Repellent Sportsmen Max is a higher percentage of DEET formula indicated for areas where there are known insect outbreaks or for pre-treatment of gear and clothing. This product is good for spraying hats, backpacks shoes, socks, pants, and more. This can prevent bugs from crawling up your shoes or dropping into your hair. It worked well in our tests, and we didn't experience any staining.

The higher percentage of DEET in the MAX make it more suitable for gear than skin.
The higher percentage of DEET in the MAX make it more suitable for gear than skin.

A higher percentage of DEET is not generally indicated for your skin or children. This option also smells stronger and less pleasant than some of the competition, so you'll want to treat your gear and let it air out before you wear it. We think layering protection is a good thing, and treating your clothes can provide additional protection for you and your loved ones. If you head to areas with known infestations or past outbreaks, you'll be glad you're packing this big hitter to keep insects from feasting.

5

Ideal Clothing Pre-treater


Sawyer Permethrin Clothing Insect Repellent


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$12.40 each (in 2-pack)
(59% off)
at Amazon
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Effective Ingredient: Permethrin | Application Method: Spray
Last for weeks
Effective
Toxic to cats
Can stain
Potentially melts some plastics

Sawyer Permethrin Clothing Insect Repellent is a pre-treatment product for clothing and other gear like backpacks and tents. Pre-treating gear and clothing adds an extra layer of protection from insects by creating a first line of defense against bugs. 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 f protection or through 6 wash cycles.

Sawyer is a good choice for clothing as it offers protection that lasts up to 6 weeks or through 6 washes.
Sawyer is a good choice for clothing as it offers protection that lasts up to 6 weeks or through 6 washes.

Permethrin is a neurotoxin for cats and should not be used near pets or neighborhood cats to avoid health problems or death. Also, it has the potential to melt certain plastics, so you would do best to avoid spraying them. Testers also report potential staining on some materials, so you'll want to do a spot check before going crazy on your gear. Overall, an added layer of protection is a good thing, especially if you're in areas with known risks or you're staying overnight. A repellent tent is a great first layer of protection to stay bug-free while you sleep.

6

Oil-based Contender


REPEL Plant-Based Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent


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$10.85
at Amazon
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Effective Ingredient: Lemon Eucalyptus Oil | Application Method: Spray
Natural oils
Scented
Poor efficacy
Potential for rashes

REPEL Plant-Based Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent is an oil-based repellent that uses lemon eucalyptus oil to fight bothersome bugs. It comes in a palm-size bottle that didn't leak during our tests, and is brightly colored and smells nice.

Repel might be suitable for backyard games where bugs are less of a concern.
Repel might be suitable for backyard games where bugs are less of a concern.

In our tests, this repellent didn't work that well, and most users didn't see much difference between using it and not using it. Even if it does offer some efficacy, it doesn't appear to be enough to offer real protection in areas with known insect-related illness outbreaks. Given the questionable efficacy, it is hard to recommend it if you are deep in the woods or Lymes and Zika territories. Also, those with sensitive skin might find they get a rash when using this oil as it is a known irritant. Plus, experts agree it should not be used on children under three years old. While you might consider this a potential contender for backyard fun, we don't see this as a real solution for more extended adventures in insect filled environments.

7

Potential Choice for Low Risk


Cutter Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent


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$8.67
(28% off)
at Amazon
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Effective Ingredient: Lemon Eucalyptus Oil | Application Method: Spray
Easy application
Nicer smell
Contains allergens
Limited efficacy

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.

Most of the natural options like this Cutter choice  are less effective and not suitable for areas with known insect-borne diseases.
Most of the natural options like this Cutter choice, are less effective and not suitable for areas with known insect-borne diseases.

The lack of proven ability to repel bugs makes this option a no-go for areas where there are 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 children. Overall, we weren't impressed with this option, but understand why some might try it anyway.

8

Not Recommended: Not Effective


Babyganics Bug Spray


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$10.09
at Amazon
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Effective Ingredient: Natural oils | Application Method: Spray
Pleasant smell
Pocket-size
Ineffective
Potential irritants

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.

While the ingredients may be more natural  this formulation is not proven effective and was relatively useless in our tests.
While the ingredients may be more natural, this formulation is not proven effective and was relatively useless in our tests.

In our tests, we 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 have been shown to cause skin irritation. If parents are concerned about keeping baby safe from bugs, experts recommend netting over chemicals, even natural ones.

The top bug sprays on the market go head to head in this review.
The top bug sprays on the market go head to head in this review.

Why You Should Trust Us


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 a variety of outdoor situations and adventures to determine how well they work with a variety of insect types and outdoor conditions.

Testing the products included many outdoor activities where bugs might be prevalent.
We tested each product for efficacy  ease of application  smell  and feel.

Analysis and Test Results


We bought and tested each bug spray in this roundup of top products. We considered efficacy, safety, ease of applying, and how they feel and smell to analyze which sprays are the best.

Off! is a budget-friendly option that most testers felt worked well and smelled great.
Off! is a budget-friendly option that most testers felt worked well and smelled great.

Effective & Safe


There are a plethora of potential repellents on the market ranging from sprays to wristbands and personal air fans that create a bubble of repellent air around you. Unfortunately, only a few products are effective and considered safe, so while you may have lots of options, some are virtually useless, and others are potentially unsafe. Which option you should choose will depend on your location, the duration of your outing, and who you are trying to protect. It is important to remember that no product can repel all bugs all of the time, so keep your expectations realistic and practice safe layering of protection. If you are planning to be in an area with known insect-related issues, we recommend skin repellent, pre-treated clothing, long sleeves and pants, hats, and potential netting protection to up your protection game.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) and other experts agree there are three bug repellent chemicals generally considered to be safe and effective. The recommended concentration of these ingredients can change depending on the area you plan to visit and the stats of insect-borne illness in that area. For instance, if visiting an area with high levels of tickborne illness like Lyme's Disease, you'll likely want to use a higher percentage concentration of deterrent as contracting Lymes can be more hazardous than the potential health concerns related to some repellents.

Is There a Baby Safe Repellent?
You should never use any chemical repellent on your baby. None of the options have 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 contain known irritants that can cause rashes and irritation. We recommend you discuss your outdoor plans with your baby's doctor before you head outside.

DEET and Picaridin are the top two most popular repellent types recommended by the CDC as effective against bugs.
DEET and Picaridin are the top two most popular repellent types recommended by the CDC as effective against bugs.

The Top Expert Recommended Repellents


These active ingredients exhibit low-risk levels combined with effective coverage.

  • DEET in concentrations typically under 10% in most locations*
  • Picaridin in concentrations of 20% or less when used on the skin for 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 greater 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 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 be irritating the eyes but overall has less 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.

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. We know many people have concerns about health implications for certain chemicals and wanted 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 report skin irritation and rashes after using the products.

We purchased and tested top bug spray contenders.
We purchased and tested top bug spray contenders.

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 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. 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.

Picaridin is effective against a wide variety of bugs including biting flies.
Picaridin is effective against a wide variety of bugs including biting flies.

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 leave behind. Both options are scented, and can seem strong at first, but most testers didn't think the odors were a deal-breaker.

The Center for Disease Control offers a plethora of information about insect-related illness to help you plan your activity and protection.
The Center for Disease Control offers a plethora of information about insect-related illness to help you plan your activity and protection.

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 in areas of high concern.

"Natural repellents" in our tests weren't very effective. Specifically, Babyganics Bug Spray wasn't effective on pretty much every 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 3 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 at all 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 applying the spray to the skin only, experts recommend treating clothing and gear to create another layer of protection. Treated clothing or gear 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 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 saunter by. If you have kitty concerns at all, 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 normally recommended for skin in most situations, it is useful for your clothing and outdoor gear.

Sprays are better than lotions for reaching those hard to reach locations.
Sprays are better than lotions for reaching those hard to reach locations.

Ease of Application


Because bug spray is often a necessity to avoid illness, you want something that is easy to apply so you'll use it when needed. During testing, we found sprays are the most straightforward application when it comes to 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 version that is not aerosolized, 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 have a need for 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.

Most of the options in this review felt good on the skin.
Most of the options in this review felt good on the skin.

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 skin, so be sure to read the label before using any product, so you fully understand the uses and limitations. 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 skin and is also toxic to cats. However, this chemical can provide a useful layer of protection that lasts on equipment for up to 6 weeks and clothing through 6 wash cycles.

Protection Suggestions

Staying insect-free can require more than a single tool in your toolbox of protection. 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 safet to do so, pre-treat all gear and clothing for more protection
  • Avoid areas where there are known insect-borne diseases when traveling with children
  • Discuss protecting your little one with their pediatrician before you go

To avoid over spraying or getting repellent in the eyes or mouth  adults should help children apply spray whenever possible
To avoid over spraying or getting repellent in the eyes or mouth, adults should help children apply spray whenever possible

Odor and Feel


Outside of chemical-related safety concerns, some folks avoid repellents because they hate the way most products smell or the way they 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 smell that lingers, and some testers thought bugs were more attracted to the spray than actually 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 illness.

Choosing the right kind of repellent for your adventure is key in creating a bug-free fun zone.
Choosing the right kind of repellent for your adventure is key in creating a bug-free fun zone.

The important thing to remember is you must choose the most effective ingredient for your specific outing before you let the smell or feel influence your decisions. Protection from insect-borne diseases and staying itch-free should always factor higher than how a product smells or feels (minus an obvious allergic reaction of course). Thankfully, 20% picaridin is effective for most types of insects, and it is generally considered safe for most people when used according to the directions. Plus, the odor associated with picaridin evaporates once the product is dry, so there is no annoying smell left behind. This smell evaporation means options like Sawyer Insect Repellent are virtually smell-free in the long-run. If you like a little scent with your spray, our testers liked the light smell of OFF! Family Care, which most described as pleasant or "not bad." Cutter Skinsations Insect Repellent seems to have a stronger scent, but many testers still felt it less offensive than most of the competition in this lineup.


Conclusion


Selecting an effective and safe bug spray for your family doesn't have to be a confusing hassle. You can use our extensive research and test results to guide you in the right direction to find the best products for your activity and goals. Whether you plan to hike in the deep woods or spend time near the water, there is something for you in this review. We bought, tested, and analyzed some of the top sprays on the market. Plus, we consulted with experts about which ingredients are considered safe and for whom. We feel there is an option for almsot everyone and every activity in our roundup of award winners and high-ranking contenders.

Wendy Schmitz