Best Insect Repellent
Sawyer Insect Repellent is a versatile and easy to use spray that is 20% Picaridin. We like the smell of this option disappears once it dries, and the variety of insects it works on is vast. We found this option to be effective against most things, and it works equally well on skin as it does on gear. It includes a double lid system to help prevent lids, and the smaller bottle fits almost anywhere.
This product has two lids to fight against leaks in your bag, but two things to keep track of is annoying, and it is more than likely you'll lose one or more of them before the bottle is empty. The smaller bottle also isn't likely to last very long if you use it for a family of four or more. While it does come in a pack of two, it would be nice to get a little more product for your money or at least larger bottles so you don't need to pack two. Overall, we really like this effective and easy to use product that leaves behind no strange feel and no scent and we are will to work with the smaller bottle and dual cap to get the protection we need.
OFF! Family Care Insect & Mosquito Repellent is a nice smelling 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 has been deemed safe by the CDC and it didn't leave our skin feeling tight and dry like some other DEET formulations we've tried in the past.
The DEET formula leaves skin feeling strange at first, and some folks may not like the smell. While our testers preferred it over most of the competition, fragrances mean introducing more chemicals to the mix, which means a higher chance of 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 easy to open lid. The spray bottle is narrow for smaller hands, and it has a pleasant smell most testers liked. In our tests, it seems effective against most bugs, though we didn't encounter ticks. We like that the low percentage of DEET is listed as safe from the CDC, and we love how easily the bottle fits in a cup holder or backpack. This spray is suitable for skin or gear, and the added aloe helps relieve any bites you might already have with a cool feeling.
This bottle seems to leak if you leave the lid off or it gets knocked off in your bag. The smell might be offensive to some, and unlike the Picaridin products, it doesn't disappear quickly. 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 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 to a moist towelette you get with BBQ food, but it contains 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. 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 into your pocket, so there is no excuse not to use them, and children, in particular, might find them useful at camp or situations where they need to take care of themselves.
These wipes are limited in many ways. They can only be used once, 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, and the design means you're spending more per application than ordinary repellents. However, despite these limitations, we feel there is a place for this handy product and the unique wipe application that makes travel and use a breeze. So while not your main go-to product, this wipe could be a good backup or occasional solution where a bottle or spray is not suitable.
Repel Insect Repellent Sportsmen Max is a must-have option if you plan to layer up protection. This higher percentage of DEET is not traditionally recommended for use on skin or with children. Still, it can be applied to clothing and gear to help create another layer of protection from pesky insects. We think the ability to layer protection without increasing your skin's chemical load is a good thing.
This product smells worse than the competition, and the smell lingers for longer than you'll want. However, if you pre-treat gear and let it air dry before use, it can impact the overall effect. We like that this product sprays evenly and was straightforward. If you are going somewhere where there are known concerns and a high level of insect-borne illnesses, then using a higher concentration of DEET might be in order, and you'll be glad you're packing this product deep into the woods.
Sawyer Permethrin Clothing Insect Repellent is a gear and clothing repellent you shouldn't use on your skin. This formulation is suitable for most of the stuff you may want to take outdoors to give you an added 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. Also, it can melt certain kinds of plastics as high percentage DEET can, 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, though you may not care if your tent gets stained if it means fewer ticks. Overall we like the idea of layered protection, and this product can be useful for upping your protection game. Still, it may also be overkill for areas with fewer bugs or unknown levels of insect-borne diseases where you are at a lower risk.
REPEL Plant-Based Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent is a more natural option that relies on lemon eucalyptus oil to stop bothering bugs. The spray smells nice, 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. 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.
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 higher levels of tick and mosquito activity, and we like that the time-release formula means fewer re-applications.
This lotion needs significant shaking before use, or you'll get a separated Lily mess on your hands. It also isn't suitable for prepping gear or using on clothing. 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 present scent. This product doesn't contain DEET or other chemicals that might give you pause, making it an option you might be drawn to if you are trying to decrease your exposure to certain chemicals.
While the bottle and spray are easy to use, the effectiveness of this kind of product is limited and not the right choice for heavy bug-filled areas. If you're hanging in your yard or playing outdoor games, this might be a contender depending on the region you live in, but overall we think it offers little protection, and the oil might cause skin irritation to some users. Also, it is not recommended for little ones under three years old, so it isn't a good choice for children.
Babyganics Bug Spray is a unique blend of oils and natural ingredients. It comes in an easy to use spray bottle that is travel-sized and smells nice. Unfortunately, none of the ingredients have been proven as 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 can also be potential irritants or allergens to kiddos with sensitive skin, and doctors do not recommend any repellents for babies under six months old. 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 CDC 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 positioned to provide insight into all kinds 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 boys. The repellents were used side-by-side during camping, hiking trips, 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.
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 that 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 parents are advised by the CDC 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, as the only options we could find also included sunscreen, and we 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.
In our tests, we found that Picaridin was the most effective and the least offensive to wearers overall. 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 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 poor 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 will be using this product, we don't think it is worth the risk and think you are better off 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 tie you more protection over a skin repellent alone. It is effective against mosquitos, 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
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 factor into your concerns. 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 specifically 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 in many circumstances, you would be exceeding the amount of repellent that is considered safe or recommended by the manufacturer. 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 in to facilitate absorption and adequate coverage. Depending on how you feel about the "after feel", you may be drawn to one products 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 applying to children, we recommend spraying into your hands first before rubbing the skin to ensure proper coverage anyway, so both require a certain hands-on approach. Sprays can help you get to hard to reach areas where you might not be able to rub in repellent but can easily reach with a spray. In general, we preferred the sprays in this group for their versatility. While lotion allows for even and for 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.
Protecting your family from bugs is a multi-layer process that starts before you hit the outdoors. We recommend the following process 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
- 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 loads of insects. Tuck your pants into your socks to prevent ticks from reaching your skin.
- Use a layering system of repellent, clothing, and netting to stay safe.
- Pre-treat clothing and gear for additional protection
- Set an alarm for your re-application window, and remember water means less protection and possibly shorter re-application times as none of the products 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 prevalent, as it can be more challenging to protect them well.
- Discuss all repellent options with your child's doctor before choosing a strategy.
Odor and Feel
Some of the chief complaints about repellents concern their smell and feel. Commonly, folks 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 unlike anything else. Picaridin is less likely to cause a peculiar after-feel, and more users prefer the non-smell of dry picaridin over DEET. The more natural products have what some consider to be better scents, but they aren't great, and many users feel they attract bugs instead of keeping them away.
In short, we feel it is critical to choose the most effective and appropriate product for your situation with less emphasis on how they smell or feel. However, we also understand you are far more likely to use something you like, and a product can't protect you against bugs if you don't use it, and you might avoid using your repellant or reapplying if you find inoffensive. Our favorites for scent and feel are the Sawyer Insect Repellent, with a scent that disappears once it dries, and the OFF! Family Care that is lightly scented and most testers liked or at least found not offensive and non-lingering.
Finding an insect repellent that is effective and safe can feel like a exhausting adventure into the woods. To help already frazzled families find the best insect repellent for every family member and situation, we've pulled together the top contenders and given you the insider details on which options work, how safe they are, and which are the best for each situation.
— Wendy Schmitz