Concerned about West Nile virus or ticks? Or just want to enjoy late-summer and fall outdoor gatherings, camping, hiking, and hunting without biting bugs? If so, you're in luck. A good insect repellent can help you enjoy the outdoors without the company of mosquitoes and ticks.
For this insect repellent review, brave testers at an outside lab bared their arms in mosquito-filled cages and also let ticks crawl on them. We recorded how long it took for mosquitoes to start biting and for ticks to crawl over treated areas. Our bugs were free of disease, but wild mosquitoes in the U.S. can carry West Nile virus or St. Louis encephalitis. Travelers outside the U.S. might encounter mosquitoes carrying malaria, yellow fever, or dengue fever. Ticks can spread Lyme disease, human babesiosis, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. (Stay on top of the news related to West Nile virus at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's West Nile page.)
Several tested repellents (see Ratings below) protected against deer ticks and two common types of mosquitoes for 8 hours or more. Four of those—Off Deep Woods Sportsmen II (30%), Cutter Backwoods Unscented (23%), Off FamilyCare Smooth & Dry (15%), and 3M Ultrathon Insect Repellent 8 (25%)—contain deet in varying levels.
The active ingredient in some insect repellents is oil of lemon eucalyptus. (It's not recommended for children under 3.) Almost as effective was Natrapel 8-Hour with picaridin, which protects with picaridin. Our five top choices worked for at least 7 hours.
While effectiveness of the best insect repellents is similar they feel and smell somewhat different. Cutter Backwoods leaves little scent or sensation; Off Deep Woods has a citrusy odor and filmy residue panelists wanted to wash off; Off FamilyCare has a fruity odor and dries quickly; 3M Ultrathon has a strong odor and leaves an oily feeling on the skin at first; Natrapel has a floral odor and is a little greasy.
Ingredient issues. The Environmental Protection Agency judges deet safe when used as directed, but it has caused rare toxic reactions when misused. Don't use it on infants less than 2 months old. The American Academy of Pediatrics advises against using repellents with deet concentrations higher than 30 percent on any children. We think that no one needs a repellent with more than 30 percent deet.
Also note that national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that you avoid products that mix sunscreen with deet insect repellent. Unlike repellents, sunscreens are meant to be applied liberally and often, so using a combination product could result in unnecessarily high exposure to repellents. Another reason not to use a combo: Many mosquitoes tend to bite long after the highest risk of sun damage has passed.
Bottom line. Most of the tested products will do the job if you're going to be outside for only a couple of hours, but look for a highly rated product to protect you on longer excursions. The insect repellents in our Ratings, below, are still available; prices reflect what we paid when we tested these products in 2010.