Best Bug Spray for Kids
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 the way the spray feels once it dries. Our tests showed it effective against a variety of 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 does stop leaking, it can be annoying to track two lids. Also, the smaller-sized bottle means you might need more than one for each trip. However this is a multi-pack, so at least you will have a backup on hand. Sawyers is an effective and easy-to-use spray with no offensive smell and wide coverage for every member of the family and most creepy crawlies.
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 a variety of bugs, including biting flies around horses, and some users liked the smell.
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 or at least well-tolerated. However, fragrances equal more chemicals, so you'll want to spot-test it prior to use to ensure it doesn't include any chemicals that 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 the way it feels on 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 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 too 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, while others felt was offensive. The scent 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 Insect Repellent Sportsmen Max has a higher percentage of DEET indicated for use in areas with known insect outbreaks or for pre-treatment of gear and clothing. This option is good for spraying hats, backpacks, shoes, socks, pants, and more. 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 stronger 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.
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 through 6 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 has the potential to 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 for you. Overall, an additional layer of protection is a bonus, especially if you're in areas with known risks or you're 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.
REPEL Plant-Based Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent is an oil-based repellent that uses lemon eucalyptus oil to combat bothersome bugs. It comes in a palm-size bottle that didn't leak during our tests, and is brightly colored, and smells nice.
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 offer adequate protection in areas with known insect-related illness outbreaks. Given the questionable efficacy, it is hard to recommend it for areas 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 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 at all, for this reason. While you might consider this a potential contender for backyard fun, 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 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.
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.
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 your baby safe from bugs, experts recommend netting over chemicals, even natural ones.
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.
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 applying, and how each feels and smells to determine which options are the best.
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 lots of products to choose from, but some are virtually useless and others potentially unsafe. Which choice is right for you depends on where you plan to go, how long you plan to be there, and who exactly needs protecting from what. Not all products will repel every kind of bug all of the time, so we recommend having realistic expectations and practice safe layering of deterrents when appropriate. If your plans include areas with known insect-related issues, we recommend skin repellent (1st layer), pre-treated clothing (2nd layer), long sleeves and pants (limited access to the skin), hats (3rd layer), and potential netting protection (4th layer) to up your protection game.
The Center 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 illness found there. For instance, if visiting an area 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.
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 you discuss 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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
It is critical that you choose the most effective ingredient for your specific outing before you allow smell or feel to impact your buying decisions. 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 little scent with your spray, our testers enjoyed the lighter smell of OFF! Family Care, which most described as pleasant or "not bad." Cutter Skinsations Insect Repellent seems to have a stronger 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 frustrating experience. We've undertaken extensive research and hands-on testing to help guide you towards the best products for all your outdoor buggy needs and adventure goals. Whether you're planning a hike deep into the woods or relaxing by the water where mosquitoes like to meet, we've included a product in our review that should work for you and your children. We purchased and tested some of the top repellents on the market. Plus, we researched the expert advice about which ingredients are effective and considered safe and for whom. We think there is a spray for every family member and most outdoor activities in our lineup of impressive competitors.
— Wendy Schmitz