Best Bug Spray
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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, experts recommend treating clothing and gear before you go out 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 Pig Pen 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 chemicals can melt certain plastics, so you'll want to avoid using on plastic and 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 create serious health problems and even death to felines exposed to the chemical. 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 cats may come by. If you have kitty concerns, we recommend using DEET 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 can be used for your clothing and outdoor gear.
Ease of Application
As bug spray is often a necessity to avoid illness, it should be easy to apply so you won't avoid using it. During testing, we found sprays are the easiest when it comes to ease of application. 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 products that combine repellents and sunscreen. While you may be in an area that requires the use of both, using an all-in-one product means exposing yourself to more bug repellent chemicals than necessary or recommended as you need to apply sunscreen more often than bug spray. Using two different products might feel like a hassle, but it is better for your health to limit your exposure to too many repellent chemicals.
While sprays are typically easy to apply by spray directly onto your skin, you may still need to rub them in for even coverage. For children, we recommend spraying your hands first and then rubbing the repellent on to help ensure coverage and avoid getting the liquid into their eyes or mouth. Some sprays can also useful for treating clothing and gear, making them multi-purpose in a way that wipes and lotions aren't. Alternatively, not all sprays are suitable for skin, so be sure to read the label before using any new product. 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. This pre-treatment chemical can last on equipment for up to 6 weeks and clothing through 6 wash cycles.
Staying bug-free can require more than a single tool in your arsenal of protection. Most experts suggest a combination of layering repellents and clothing (treated or not) and/or netting to truly keep the bugs away. Especially, if you plan to be in areas with known concentrations of insect-borne diseases.
- Check online to determine the disease contagion risk for your trip
- Apply your sunscreen first
- Use the spray 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 net clothing to ensure safety
- Consider pre-treating all gear and clothing for extra protection
- Avoid taking young children into areas where there are known insect-borne diseases
- Discuss ways to protect your child with their pediatrician before heading outside
Odor and Feel
Outside of safety concerns, some people avoid bug sprays because they don't like the smell or the way it makes skin feel. DEET, in particular, seems to bother more users than other effective ingredients. Which some manufacturers have answered by adding fragrances and skin moisturizers, like Cutter Skinsations Insect Repellent with aloe. 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 repelled by it. It didn't seem to offer adequate protection from serious bug problems and isn't recommended by top professionals for areas with known insect-borne illness.
The crucial factor to remember is you need to choose the most effective product ingredient for your outing before you worry about how it smells or feels. Protecting yourself from insect-borne diseases and staying itch-free should factor higher than how something smells or feels. Luckily, 20% picaridin is effective for most bug types, and it is generally considered safe for most people when used according to the directions. As a bonus, the smell of picaridin evaporates when it dries, so it has no lingering odor. This evaporation means products like Sawyer Insect Repellent are essentially smell-free in the long-run. If you'd prefer a little fragrance, our testers enjoyed the light smell of OFF! Family Care, which most described as pleasant. Cutter Skinsations Insect Repellent has a stronger scent, but many testers still found it non-offensive.
Choosing a safe and effective bug spray doesn't have to give you nightmares. Using our extensive research and results from testing, you can choose the right spray for your goals and activities, whether you're planning to hike in the deep woods or spend time in the water. We bought and analyzed some of the top sprays on the market. Plus, we consulted top experts on which ingredients are considered safe and for whom. We believe there is an option for everyone and every outdoor activity in our selection of award winners and high-ranking contenders.
— Wendy Schmitz