When spending time outdoors, bugs can be a bother—and a health concern. Stay protected with the best insect repellent for you.
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From swatting mosquitoes around the campfire to batting away blackflies on the lake, insects can really put a damper on outdoor time. It can be difficult to fully enjoy a scenic hike or a backyard BBQ when the bugs are biting. Mosquitoes, ticks, mites, sandflies, blackflies, and other insects are more than just a nuisance: they can transmit potentially life-threatening viruses, bacteria, and parasites. A reliable bug repellent can reduce the risk of infection, and help you get the most out of your time spent outside.
The best bug repellents are proven safe and effective—safe in that they pose an extremely low risk of side effects and no negative environmental impact, effective because they’re proven to reduce bug bites by a minimum of 50 percent when used as directed––or they can’t claim they are repellents. Insects don’t all respond to the same repellents, so it’s important to choose the right one. Repellents are available in different types and applications, as well. This guide breaks down these considerations and presents top recommendations for each category, to help you find the best insect repellent suited for your needs.
- BEST OVERALL: OFF! FamilyCare Insect Repellent
- BEST BANG FOR THE BUCK: OFF! Deep Woods Aerosol
- HEAVY-DUTY PICK: Ultrathon Insect Repellent Lotion
- PERFORMANCE PICK: Sawyer Products 20% Picaridin Insect Repellent
- ECO PICK: Murphy’s Naturals Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent
- ALSO CONSIDER: Avon SSS Bug Guard Plus Picardin Towelettes
- ALSO CONSIDER: Repel Insect Repellent Sportsmen Max Formula Lotion
- ALSO CONSIDER: Repel Permethrin Clothing & Gear Insect Repellent
Types of Insect Repellents
Mosquitoes and other insects are attracted to carbon dioxide emitted from human skin. Most types of bug repellents work to block these scent receptors, preventing the insects from finding their target. These repellents come in the form of sprays, lotions, and wipes to use on your body. Clothing treated with repellent is available as well.
Repellents in aerosol cans offer excellent projection and quick, even coverage. However, note that individuals with asthma or other breathing sensitivities should avoid aerosols. Pump spritz bottles give similar coverage benefits, and their mechanisms offer more control to target application. Most insect sprays provide 2 to 4 hours of protection, while heavy-duty sprays, such as those used for deep woods camping, can last for up to 12 hours.
Bug sprays should be applied outdoors so that you and others don’t inhale concentrated amounts. The downside of sprays is the tendency to over apply and have it evaporate before it hits your skin. When you use a spray, a portion invariably drifts and evaporates before it lands on the body. You need to reapply spray repellent frequently because 10 percent evaporates within 1 hour.
Insect repellent lotions provide thorough, even coverage and efficient use of the repellent ingredients. They also offer the longest-lasting repellent effect––up to 14 hours––which reduces the need to reapply. Unlike sprays, you can apply lotions indoors. The downside is that you may find applications messy, and they take slightly longer to apply.
Insect repellent wipes are pre-moistened with liquid insect repellent. The manufacturers generally package the towelettes individually, so they stay moist and fit into a backpack, purse, or wallet. Those packages eliminate your need to carry a bottle of repellent. Plus, the towelettes have just the right amount of repellent, so you needn’t worry about over-applying. Though they are convenient and easy to use, wipes generate far more trash than sprays and lotions. Wipes are also more expensive per application.
Insect repellent clothing provides an alternative to skin applications. These garments are generally treated with the insecticide Permethrin, which is technically not a repellent, but tends to be placed in the same category. Rather than repelling insects, Permethrin kills them on contact and is effective for a range of bugs including mosquitoes, ticks, and mites.
The CDC recommends clothing treated with Permethrin, which is demonstrated to be safe, provided it’s not injested. Insect repellent clothing offers more convenience compared to types that require one or more applications, depending on the situation. On the other hand, the effects of Permethrin on clothing lasts for approximately six washes, and the garments must then be retreated. While this process can be done safely, you may expose yourself to risk if the insecticide is not handled properly.
What to Consider When Buying Insect Repellent
Bug repellents contain a variety of active ingredients, work for different lengths of time, and deter certain types of insects. Consider these shopping considerations, and the following others, to choose the right insect repellent for your needs.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend specific ingredients for proven ability to protect humans from insect bites and insect-borne diseases. The most commonly available are DEET, Picaridin, IR3535, Permethrin, and oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE). These repellents interrupt insects’ senses so that they do not recognize the scent of potential food––you!
Active ingredients in bug repellent can cause skin irritation and allergic reactions, potential side effects that are indicated on the container. These instances are largely associated with high concentrations and extended exposure. Inactive ingredients are often not detailed on the label, some of which could also cause a negative reaction. Those with a history of skin sensitivities should apply a small test amount and monitor for a reaction before using a new bug repellent.
Type of Insects
Different active ingredients repel various types of bugs. DEET is the most effective general purpose, extended use insect repellent if you prefer to use just one product. Picaridin is a close second in overall general effectiveness for those who want to avoid DEET, which testing has shown may contribute to some health concerns. OLE performs almost as well as either DEET or Picaridin, but over a shorter time frame. If you prefer a non-synthetic repellent, OLE is worth consideration. OLE must be applied more often in comparison.
DEET, Picaridin, and OLE offer the best protection against mosquitoes and ticks. In areas where mites, blackflies, or sandflies are the primary problem, consider IR3535. Some mosquito repellents include IR3535 in their formulas, because it excels at repelling these insects.
Insect repellents come in sprays, lotions, wipes, and wearable. Liquid spray-on insect repellents are fast and easy to apply. They work well and last longest when applied to hats, t-shirts, and other clothing. But don’t use DEET on synthetics, such as rayon or spandex, because it damages them. Lotions protect skin longer than sprays because they don’t evaporate as quickly. Wipes are convenient to have around just in case; and they are also an easy way to apply insect repellent on young children.
Length of Protection
The higher the concentration of active ingredients, the longer the protection lasts. This holds up to about 30 percent concentrations of DEET and Picaridin, lasting for 8 to 12 hours. Levels higher than 30 percent are less likely to add significantly more protection time. If you require extended protection, wash with soap and water before reapplying the repellent.
Lotions have longer active protection times than sprays at the same concentrations. Some of the sprays are lost to evaporation and drift or evaporate as they are applied. Lotions coat the surface with the full strength of the product and are not subject to the same evaporation level as sprays.
With those shopping considerations in mind, consider the following list to find the best insect repellent for you.
OFF! FamilyCare Insect Repellent is a go-to general bug spray that works for everyone in the family, is easy to apply, and wards off a host of insects. This effective spray repels mosquitoes, ticks, blackflies, and other biting insects for up to 4 hours. The powder dry formula, which is made with 15 percent DEET, eliminates oily, greasy residue. The 4-ounce aerosol spray is small enough to fit in a purse or bag and large enough to protect the family, even with extra applications. The OFF! insect repellent comes in a pack of two, so you’ll be protected for many applications. Make sure to shake the can each time you use the spray to mix the formula.
You have likely seen OFF! Deep Woods Dry Aerosol for decades, but this new powder dry formula is a real upgrade. The spray is made with 25 percent DEET for up to 5 hours of protection from mosquitoes, ticks, chiggers, blackflies, and other biting insects. The Deep Woods Dry Aerosol is ideal for hunters, fishers, mountain bike riders, and others who spend hours in rugged outdoor conditions.
This OFF! spray is surprisingly low cost for how effective and long-lasting it is. You can apply a smooth, even coat of protection from this 2.5-ounce aerosol spray and not end up with a sticky residue. Remember to shake the can before each application. Otherwise cornstarch, which contributes to its powder-dry properties, will find a white residue on the skin.
Combine 34.34 percent DEET with a time-release formula that lasts up to 12 hours, and you have Ultrathon Insect Repellent Lotion. It’s a highly effective repellent for mosquitoes, gnats, ticks, chiggers, biting flies, fleas, and deer flies. The 2-ounce tube is lightweight and sized for travel, holding plenty of product for a week-long adventure.
The repellent formula is a concentrate, so you can use a small amount for maximum protection, but it’s thick, so you’ll need to spend some time on proper application. An effective application method is to dab it on lightly and then spread. It leaves a somewhat sticky residue. The repellent can damage plastics and other synthetic materials, so keep it clear of such clothes and gear.
If you’re concerned about insect repellent damaging your plastic gear and synthetic clothes, consider Sawyer Products 20% Picaridin Insect Repellent. Its effectiveness rivals that of DEET, and gives excellent protection for up to 12 hours. It’s fragrance-free and safe to use on everyone, even infants over two months old. The 4.8-oz. bottle is small enough to pack and holds enough product for an extended wilderness trip. This repellent does not damage plastics or synthetics, so you can pair it with repellent-sprayed long-sleeved clothing for more coverage.
Murphy’s Natural Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent is made with only three organic ingredients: a 30 percent concentration of lemon eucalyptus oil, as well as ethanol and deionized water. The lotion naturally repels mosquitoes, ticks, and other biting insects for up to 6 hours without greasy or sticky residue on the skin. Those who are overpowered by the smell of DEET and other chemical repellents will find this Murphy’s product has a pleasant, natural scent.
The Murphy’s lotion works well, but it isn’t as effective as repellents that contain DEET or Picaridin. Plan to reapply this product often. It’s not recommended for children under three years of age. Also, don’t apply it close to your eyes, because it causes eye irritation, and wash your hands after application, so you don’t introduce it to your eye. This product is flammable, so avoid placing it close to grills, fire pits, or campfires.
If you plan to hunt, fish, hike, kayak, or otherwise spend a long time outdoors, consider Repel Insect Repellent Sportsmen Max Formula Lotion. The formula contains 40 percent DEET for up to 12 hours of protection against mosquitoes, ticks, blackflies, biting flies, gnats, chiggers, and fleas. The lotion is thick, so plan to spend some time applying it. This time is well spent, since the formula stays on the skin and resists perspiration, rain, and evaporation, so you needn’t reapply.
One possible downside to the Repel Insect Repellent is that the DEET can damage synthetic materials such as rayon, plastic sunglasses, sandy straps, and trekking pole handles, so wash your hands with soap and water after application. The manufacturer packages this repellent in an airline friendly, 4-ounce bottle with a closed handle on the top, so you can attach it to your backpack or other gear.
Avon SSS Bug Guard Plus Picardin Towelettes are safe for babies aged two months and older, and parents can benefit from their effectiveness as well. The formula in these wipes contains 10 percent Picaridin and repels mosquitoes, deer ticks, gnats, no-see-ums, sandflies, and biting midges for up to 3 hours. The towelettes leave no residue or sensation as though the skin is coated. The 16 individually packaged wipes conveniently don’t count as liquids during TSA (Transportation Security Administration) screenings prior to airline travel.
Repel Permethrin Clothing & Gear Insect Repellent is an effective bug deterrent for clothing and equipment, not skin. Its potent formula bonds to clothing, tents, hats, gloves, scarves, and other fabric without damaging them and repels mosquitoes, ticks, and mites. When you apply this repellent to clothes or gear, it lasts up to two weeks after application, even through machine washings. This Repel product keeps bugs away from gear and clothing, but it’s also a good idea to use in combination with a spray or lotion repellent made for skin. Take this Repel product to a well-ventilated outdoor area, coat the garment or gear’s outer surface(s) until it is visibly moist, and allow it to dry before using the item.
FAQs About Your New Insect Repellent
Do you have questions about insect repellents? Find the answers to some frequently asked bug spray questions.
Q. Does bug repellent actually work?
That depends on what you mean by work. Yes, they do keep bugs away, but most do not kill the insects, with the exception of repellents that contain insecticide. Repellents keep bugs from biting by interfering with receptors in the bug’s antennae. That makes it difficult to recognize people as food. Testing that shows a product reduces insect bites by 50 percent or more is the only way a manufacturer can tout it as an insect repellent.
Q. How should insect repellents be applied?
When applying insect repellents in the form of lotion or wipes, make sure that all areas of skin are covered with the product. Aerosol or spray bug repellents should be applied outdoors, so as not to inhale concentrated amounts. Apply the product in a slow, sweeping motion, then use your hands to evenly moisten exposed skin. Aerosols and sprays can also be used on most apparel for extra coverage, though products containing DEET are reactive to synthetic fabrics, and should not be applied to these materials.
When applying insect repellent designed for clothing, such as those containing Permethrin, plan ahead. Choose a well-ventilated outdoor area, coat the garment or gear’s outer surface(s) until it is visibly moist, and allow it to dry before using the item.
Q. Are there any risks associated with insect repellents?
The primary risks associated with insect repellents include eye, oral, and skin irritation. In rare instances, allergic reactions may occur.