Best Insect Repellent for Kids
Sawyer Insect Repellent is a versatile 20% Picaridin spray that is easy to use. We like the smell, which disappears when dry, and the insects it is effective on is vast. We find Sawyer to be effective against most creepy crawlies, and it is suitable for skin and gear. It has a double-lid system container to help prevent leaks, and the smaller bottle fits almost anywhere, i.e., cup holder or backpack.
This bottle has two lids to fight against leaks, but two things to keep track of is annoying, and we think you'll likely lose one or more of them before the bottle is empty (we did). The smaller bottle also won't last long if you use it for a family of four or more on a regular basis. While it comes in a two-pack, it would be nice to get a little more product for your money or at least larger bottles, so you don't need to carry two. Overall, we really like this effective and easy to use spray that leaves behind no strange feel and no scent. We are willing to work with the smaller bottle and dual cap to get the protection we need.
OFF! Family Care Insect & Mosquito Repellent is a lightly scented option that many of our testers love. With an easy to use spray top and a palm-sized lid, this bottle is easy to hold and spray even with slick, sunscreen covered hands. The low percentage DEET formula is deemed safe by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and it didn't leave our skin feeling tight and dry like some competing DEET formulations we've tested.
The DEET formula leaves skin feeling strange at first, and some users may not like the smell. While our testers prefer it over most of the competition, any added fragrance means more chemicals are included that they aren't required to list, which means a higher chance of it containing potential irritants or allergens. Overall, this two-pack of budget-priced repellent works well and travels without leaks making it one to consider.
Cutter Skinsations Insect Repellent has a colorful bottle and an easy to open lid. The spray bottle is narrow, and it has a pleasant smell most of our testers liked. In our tests, it seemed effective against most bugs, though we didn't encounter ticks on our adventures. We like that the low percentage of DEET is listed as safe by the CDC, and we love how easily the bottle fits in a cup holder or backpack. This spray works on skin or gear, and the added aloe can help relieve any bites you might already have with a cool feeling.
Our bottle had some leaking trouble with the lid off and in our backpack where the lid got knocked off. The smell might be offensive to some, and unlike the Picaridin products, it doesn't disappear with any level of swiftness. Also, fragrance means an increased potential for chemical irritants, so you may want to spot check this option before you spray yourself or a child. Overall, we think this product is a winner, and it seems similar to the OFF! formulation. It is a suitable choice for families who want a family-friendly option most members can use without complaint.
Natrapel Repellent Wipes is similar in look and feel to a moist towelette you might get with BBQ food (minus the delicious food beforehand). These towelettes contain bug repellent instead of a lemon-scented cleaner. This useful and travel-sized product won't leak in your pack and can be used anywhere as it isn't airborne and won't annoy others standing near you. Which is a plus for anyone with breathing issues or sensitivities to sprays. We like the simplicity of the design and found that one wipe will work for the average person wearing shorts and a t-shirt. The packets can tuck in your pocket to keep them handy, and children will definitely find them useful at camp or in situations where they need to take care of themselves.
Unfortunately, these wipes won't work for all situations. They can only be used one time each, so when you run out, that is all the protection you have. Plus, they create more trash, as each is individually wrapped. They also can't be used on gear for a layering protection effect, and the design means you're spending more money per application than typical repellents. However, despite these limitations, we believe there is a time and place for this unique product, and the useful wipe application makes travel a breeze. So, while likely not your primary, go-to product, this wipe could be an excellent backup or occasional solution when a bottle or spray is not suitable.
Repel Insect Repellent Sportsmen Max can be considered a must-have product if you want to layer your levels of protection (and you should, If possible). This higher percentage of DEET is not traditionally recommended for use on skin or with children. However, it can be applied to clothing and gear to create an extra layer of protection from pesky insects. We believe the ability to layer and increase your protection without upping your skin's chemical load is a very good thing. During testing, layering our protection by spraying our gear did, in fact, decrease the number of bugs and bug related bites we encountered. We like that this product sprays evenly and was straightforward to use.
This spray smells worse than most of our review options, and in our experience, the smell lingers for longer than we liked. However, if you pre-treat gear and let it air dry before use (as directed), the smell's overall impact significantly decreases. If you are going somewhere where there are known concerns or a high level of insect-borne illnesses, then utilizing a higher concentration of DEET could be called for, and you'll be glad you're packing this option deep into the woods. While the odor may not be your favorite smell, it is certainly better than dealing with an insect-borne illness.
Sawyer Permethrin Clothing Insect Repellent is a gear and clothing insect repellent you shouldn't use on your skin. This formulation is suitable for most of the gear you take outdoors to provide an additional layer of protection from the creepy crawly and flying pests you find while on adventures. This spray is easy to use, comes in a large bottle, and has a wide spray for quick, even coverage. The label claims efficacy for up to 6 weeks and through 6 washes.
Unfortunately, this product can be toxic and fatal to the feline family, so it isn't a good choice for families with cats. It can also melt certain kinds of plastics ( similar to high percentage DEET), so it is best to test plastics before spraying them. Some testers also report it can stain some fabrics, so spot-checking your clothes is in order if you care about stains on your adventure gear. You may not care if your tent gets stained if it means fewer ticks, but you might care about your favorite windbreaker. Overall, we like the idea of layered protection, and this spray can be useful for upping your protection game. Still, it might also be overkill for areas with fewer bugs or unknown levels of insect-borne diseases where you are at a lower risk, so knowing where you are going, and the associated risks can help you determine if you need this clothing option.
REPEL Plant-Based Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent is marketed as a more natural option that relies on lemon eucalyptus oil to stop bothersome bugs. The spray smells nicer than the DEET competition, and the bottle didn't leak in our tests.
While studies indicate this kind of repellent can work on some bugs to a certain degree, it doesn't appear to work well enough to risk your health in an area known for ticks and mosquitoes. In our tests, it disappointed keeping mosquitoes and biting flies from being a problem. Also, the oil can be irritating to some users and is not recommended for children under the age of 3 as it can cause rashes that resemble burns. Overall, this product might be suitable for minimum bugs at a backyard barbeque, but it isn't a go-to choice for the woods or places known for disease-carrying bugs where the risks are higher.
Sawyer Controlled Release Lotion is the only lotion in our lineup and comes in a nice sized bottle that should last for some time. We liked the feel of this lotion, and it spread and absorbed quickly and easily during testing. The higher level of DEET is suitable for areas with increased prevalence of tick and mosquito activity. We like that the time-release formula means fewer re-applications and less exposure to the chemicals overall.
This lotion needs significant shaking before use, or you'll end up with a separated oily mess. It also isn't suitable for prepping gear or using on clothing, as there is no way to apply it to porous surfaces. Also, the higher percentage of DEET is not recommended for areas with less bug activity, and the bottle could create a huge mess should it leak or burst in your backpack. However, we do think it has a place in your arsenal if you frequent areas with higher bug activity or you want to layer your protection with lotion on the skin and spray on your clothing.
Cutter Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent is similar in formulation to the other lemon eucalyptus oil product in this review and has a similarly strong but fairly present scent. This option doesn't contain DEET or other chemicals you might be trying to avoid, making it a choice you might find intriguing if you are trying to decrease your exposure to certain chemicals.
While the bottle and spray are easy to use, this active ingredient's effectiveness is limited and not the right choice for heavy inset-filled areas. If you're hanging in your yard or playing outdoor games, this might be a contender depending on where you live, but overall, we think it offers insignificant protection, and the oil can irritate the skin of some users. Plus, it is not recommended for children under three years old, so it isn't a suitable option for families with littles.
Babyganics Bug Spray is a unique blend of oils and natural ingredients exclusive to Babyganics. It comes in an easy to use spray bottle that is travel-sized and smells nice. In our tests, children liked the spray, and there was no fight when applying it. Unfortunately, none of the ingredients have been proven effective in preventing bug bites, and we didn't see much difference in our tests between using this spray and using nothing at all. Also, while the smell isn't offensive, it is somewhat strong and could be bothersome to some.
We worry the ingredients could be potential irritants or allergens to kiddos with sensitive skin, and doctors do not recommend any repellents for babies under six months old (yep, even this one). We think parents are better off using netting or clothing to keep bugs at bay for younger babies, and we recommend older children use one of the ingredients recommended by the Centers for Disease Control for their age group, mainly DEET at 7% or Picaridin. To us, this option feels more like a placebo to feel like you are doing something when it is unlikely that it does anything.
Why You Should Trust Us
As an industry leader in testing baby gear, we are uniquely poised to offer insight into a variety of baby products with more years of combined experience than any other single organization. We've been buying and testing products hands-on with real families for eight years, providing you with the details you desire to find the best products for your family. Each repellent in this review was tested by Wendy Schmitz , Senior Review Editor, and her family of 4, including two children. The repellents were used side-by-side during camping, hiking, horseback riding, and adventures at the lake for an in-depth analysis of how well they perform in the areas you're most likely to frequent for fun. Wendy did extensive research on repellent safety and recommendations with the CDC and WHO as well as other sources to provide the latest information on keeping your family safe from insect-borne illness.
Analysis and Test Results
We purchased and used each type of repellent in this review, looking for effectiveness against bugs, safety, ease of application, and how it felt or smelled after application to determine which options lead the pack based on a variety of goals most families have in mind.
Effectiveness and Safety
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the number of cases of disease caused by mosquito, tick, and flea bites in the US has more than tripled from 2004 - 2016. While there might be a plethora of available bug repellents on the market, only a handful are proven safe and effective against these kinds of insects. Some are safe but not effective, and some are effective but not safe, finding that sweet spot in the middle is where you want to be. This spot can depend on who you are, where you plan to be, and how long you plan to be there, as the recommendations vary based on the level of risk in your area and your physical status.
Things to consider in making your choice:
- Who do you want to protect?
- How old are they?
- How long will you need protection?
- Where will you be going (specifically)?
- Is the area a known hot spot for insects that carry disease?
- What activity will you be doing?
In general, there are three ingredients widely considered safe in the right doses under the right conditions and are still effective. Sometimes, the level of active ingredient recommendations changes if your risk of an insect-borne vector is high. Say if you live in an area known for Lyme Disease, then using a higher percentage level of a deterrent ingredient might be merited as catching Lymes is far worse than the potential side effects of some repellents. So how do you know what to use and when? Answering these questions can get complicated, but here are some good rules of thumb to keep in mind before you head down a deep dive into specifics, like those you can find on the EPA website tool for repellent selection help.
The Top 3 Repellents
Each of the following ingredients has low-risk levels and effective coverage when used appropriately.
- DEET (max 10% on skin*)
- Picaridin (max 20% on skin)
- IR3535 (max 20% for children)
*If your child will be in an area with high levels of Lyme disease bacteria or Zika outbreaks, it might be more appropriate to use DEET concentrations of 20-30% instead, as the risk from the disease outweighs concerns about the chemical deterrents, according to to the CDC.
No chemical has been proven safe for babies, and the CDC advises parents to use bug netting and long sleeves and pants for protection instead of chemical options of any kind, even "natural" or "organic" repellents, which can contain known irritants or allergens. Speak to your baby's pediatrician about protection strategies before using any repellent on your baby, even natural or organic options.
It is important to note that the concentration percentages of the active ingredient DEET in any product are not so much related to effectiveness as they are about how often you may need to reapply your protection. So, 40% DEET is not more effective at repelling bugs than 7%, but it should keep them away for longer. Lower percentage levels are indicated universally because most outing types and locations do not require higher concentrations, and it is easier to reapply if you are out longer than to remove repellent if you head home sooner.
Picaridin works on ticks, mosquitoes, and more and is generally considered less irritating to skin and eyes compared to other active ingredients like DEET. It has what most believe to be a less offensive smell than DEET without sacrificing any of the protection, and the smell evaporates when the product is dry, so there is no lingering odor. Score!
IR3535 was developed in the 1970s and has been used in Europe for longer than the US, where it was introduced in 1999. This repellent can irritate eyes but has few other known safety concerns. We did not test any products with this ingredient in our review. The only options we could find also included sunscreen, and we don't recommend combination products in general (more on this later on).
According to the CDC and the labels for products containing these ingredients, you should not use them for children under three years old. As many parents of younger children are trying to find more natural products to use with their littles, there is a draw to these kinds of products, but we urge you to heed the warnings and never use them on children who fall outside the recommended age limit.
We also selected a few of the "natural" products in our test group to give you the full scoop on the possibilities "out there" and to see for ourselves if they were effective or irritating. While not in the top 3 recommended ingredient list, we didn't want our readers to wonder why we didn't include them and if perhaps we were unaware of them.
We found that Picaridin was the most effective and the least offensive to wearers overall in our tests. DEET did its job, but some complained about factors unrelated to effectiveness but could be important depending on your goals and personality. From our research, it seems that Picaridin is the most often recommended option for almost everyone, from children to pregnant women and healthy adults, making it an excellent go-to for families that include a variety of ages. Our favorites for skin application include Sawyer Insect Repellent and the Natrapel Repellent Wipes. The wipes are useful for travel or keeping in a bag as they don't leak, and one wipe can do most of your exposed body parts depending on your size.
The DEET options were also useful, but they seemed to require a more frequent application in our tests to keep the same level of efficacy as the Picaridin. OFF! Family Care Insect & Mosquito Repellent was a favorite for the areas where biting flies are common, and testers with horses felt it kept the flies from biting as frequently as they usually would, something not all of the products can boast (don't use on your horse). Cutter Skinsations Insect Repellent seems to be virtually the same product as the OFF! option with a similar ability to keep bugs away, including fleas and chiggers, making it a good choice for areas with high chigger populations.
If you plan to go to an area where there is a high risk of tick or mosquito-borne illnesses, you should consider a higher percentage of DEET as the illness and potential death are significantly more serious than the possible known side-effects of DEET. We like the Sawyer Controlled Release Lotion for this use with a 20% DEET level in an easy to apply and slow-release formula lotion. According to the manufacturer, the lotion is effective for up to 14 hours, which means the need to reapply or expose yourself to more chemicals is lower. It is easy to apply, absorbs fairly quickly, and didn't leave a strange residue or stickiness behind.
The natural ingredient style repellents didn't do well and were unable to keep bugs at bay or worked well-enough for some types of bugs and not others (the ones you really should worry about). In our tests, Babyganics Bug Spray helped with sand flies and biting flies but didn't seem to affect mosquitos at all. Also, the ingredients can be irritating to some and even cause a rash in others. The REPEL Plant-Based Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent and Cutter Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent also proved to be less effective in our tests. While better than the Babyganics option, some testers felt the smell attracted more bugs than they experienced compared to spraying, and some say the oil causes a rash worse than the bug bites they were trying to prevent. Natural products are also NOT a good idea if the area you plan to be in is known for bugs that carry disease. According to the CDC, using natural, less effective ingredients isn't worth the risk of getting a life-changing insect-borne disease; the symptoms and effects are worse than those you might experience using a more effective bug repellent.
Clothing and Gear Recomendations
For added help keeping bugs away, you might consider pre-treating your clothing or gear as the first line of defense before the bugs even get close to your skin. Higher levels of DEET or a completely different chemical, Permethrin, applied to clothing and gear before use can last for weeks. Sawyer Products Premium Permethrin Insect Repellent for Clothing, Gear & Tents says it works for up to 6 weeks and through 6 washing cycles. This product can be applied to your camping gear before you go, giving you an added layer of protection to up your bug repellent game. While considered safe for most materials, you'll want to do a spot check before dousing everything and everywhere. This chemical does not work for the skin as it breaks down in about 15 minutes on the skin, offering no long-term protection.
Permethrin is toxic to cats can cause neurotoxic issues, including death, to some cats exposed to the chemical. If you have cats or live near cats where you might be using this product, we don't think it is worth the risk and think you are better being safe than sorry choosing DEET over permethrin.
Repel Insect Repellent Sportsmen Max Formula is 40% DEET and not typically suitable for skin applications, but could be useful for clothing, tents, backpacks, hats, and more that can give you more protection over a skin repellent alone. It is effective against mosquitoes, ticks, gnats, biting flies, chiggers, and fleas, so you can see it would be useful as a tent, jacket, or hat spray.
Ease of Application
An easier application can help make bug repellent use easier to tolerate. You might already have a mental aversion to the chemicals in them or the smell and feel, so whether or not they are easy to apply shouldn't have to be another thing you factor into your decision making. Repellents come in a variety of different application methods, including sprays, lotions, wipes, and aerosols. We chose a variety of application types for this review but intentionally chose not to include aerosols in our lineup. Why you might ask. Well, aerosolizing a liquid makes it smaller and far easier to inhale than spraying it does. The inhalation of these tiny particles into your body gives us pause and creates a whole new list of things to worry about. It is far easier to avoid aerosols than to determine how safe it is to inhale these potentially harmful chemicals. In this case, we like to err on the side of caution and chose sprays over aerosols.
In general, we don't recommend using any product that combines insect repellent with sunscreen. The primary reason is you should reapply your sunscreen at a higher frequency than your bug spray. A frequency so high that you would be exceeding the amount of repellent that is considered safe or recommended by the manufacturer in many circumstances. While both protective products are important, we think it is best to choose two products that each meet your specific needs and use them as directed instead of trying to find a one and done solution.
Both sprays and lotions require a certain amount of rubbing into the skin to facilitate absorption and adequate coverage. Depending on how you feel about the "after feel," you may be drawn to one product over another. A spray is far easier to use on clothing hats, camp chairs, etc., but lotions might feel better or offer more complete coverage on the skin. When assisting children, we recommend spraying your hands first before rubbing their skin to ensure proper coverage, so both methods require a hands-on approach to come degree. Sprays can help you get to hard to reach areas where you might have trouble with a lotion repellent but can more easily reach with a spray. In general, we prefer non-aerosol sprays for their versatility of uses. While lotion allows for even and sure coverage because you can see where you are putting it, the sprays allow for protection on clothing and gear, giving you layers of protection against bugs.
Protection from bugs and insect-borne illness is a multi-layer process that starts before you head outdoors. We recommend the following considerations for adequate protection:
- Check the map and see what the health and insect concerns are for your adventure location
- Put on your sunscreen first, if applicable. Don't ignore protection from damaging UV rays in favor of bug protection. You can have both.
- Use sprays and lotions as directed for best protection and pay attention to re-application times and daily limits
- Consider long sleeves and pants for areas infested with ticks or excessive insects. Tuck your pants into your socks to prevent ticks from reaching your skin, as they like to crawl and can drop from the trees.
- Use a layering system of repellent, clothing, and netting for ultimate protection.
- Pre-treat clothing and gear for additional protection when you can.
- Set an alarm for your re-application deadline, and remember water means less protection and possibly shorter re-application times, as none of the options in this review are water-resistant.
- Very young or small children should avoid going into areas where known infestations of the insect-borne disease are high, as it is more challenging to protect them well.
- Discuss your repellent options with your child's doctor before creating a bug strategy.
Odor and Feel
Chief complaints about repellents often concern the smell and feel. Many people aren't fans of the way DEET feels or smells. It has a strange after-feel that is challenging to put into words, being dry and strangely sticky, unlike anything else. Picaridin is less likely to create a strange after-feel, and more testers prefer the odor-free experience of dry picaridin over scented DEET. The more natural products have what some consider to be "better smells." However, they still aren't pleasant (in our opinion), and many testers find they attract bugs as opposed to keeping them at bay and others indicate they can burn any small wound or papercut on the skin.
Overall, we think it is critical to select the most effective and appropriate product for your plans and worry less about how a product smells or feels. However, we also know people will more consistently use a product they enjoy, and a repellant can't protect you if you don't use it as directed. We also know you might avoid using a repellant or reapplying if you find it offensive or it gives you a headache. Our favorites for smell and feel are the Sawyer Insect Repellent, which has an odor that disappears once it dries, and the OFF! Family Care that is lightly-scented that most testers liked or at least found not offensive, and it didn't linger.
Finding an effective and safe insect repellent for kids can feel like an exhaustive adventure hunting for an elusive rare bird. To help any confused parent in determining the right insect repellent for each family member and outing, we've created a lineup of impressive competitors and provided insider details about how well each product works, information about their safety, and which options are the best for each situation.
— Wendy Schmitz