Insect repellents

Insect Repellent Buying Guide
Insect Repellant Buying Guide
Choose an Insect Repellent that Really Works

Lyme. West Nile. Zika. The list of insect-borne diseases to worry about seems to get longer—and scarier—every year. Whether you’re enjoying the Great Outdoors in your own backyard or on a tropical island, when you apply insect repellent, you want the best, most effective protection from biting bugs.

Our Ratings identify which products work best against the Aedes mosquitoes (the aggressive mosquitoes that tend to bite during the day and that can spread Zika) as well as against Culex mosquitoes (night-time biters that can spread West Nile) and deer ticks (which can carry Lyme and other diseases).

And choosing the right repellent matters: Our top products warded off all three of those insects for at least 7 hours, while some of our lowest-scoring ones failed almost immediately, especially against Aedes mosquitoes.

Check out our picks; they'll help take the sting out of summer.

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Ingredient Info

Around half of the respondents who use insect repellent during the summer (which is more than a third of all adult Americans) in our most recent nationally representative survey of more than 2,000 U.S. adults said they don't read the ingredients on insect repellent labels before they buy them. That’s a mistake, because the active ingredient and concentration matters to both effectiveness and safety.

Products with any one of these three active ingredients—deet, oil of lemon eucalyptus, and picaridin—worked well in our tests. And all are safe, even for pregnant women, when used appropriately. Here’s what you need to know about each.

Photo of a conventional insect repellent.

Deet

Many people assume that the more deet (N, N-diethyl-meta-toluamide) a product contains, the better. But our tests found that products with 15 to 30 percent deet can provide long-lasting protection against mosquitoes and ticks. And some research suggests that higher concentrations and excessive doses can pose risks, including rashes and possibly even disorientation and seizures. That’s why we say you should avoid repellents with more than 30 percent deet, and not use it at all on babies younger than two months. (See below for how to safely apply all repellents.) But make sure you don’t go too low: the product in our insect repellent ratings with just 7 percent deet didn’t work well, especially against Aedes mosquitoes.


See How Insect Repellents With Deet Rated in Our Tests
Photo of an insect repellent with plant-like ingredients.

Picaridin

This is a synthetic repellent modeled after a compound that occurs naturally in the black pepper plant. A 20-percent picaridin product was our top repellent overall—and the only one to ward off both species of mosquitoes plus ticks for at least eight hours.

But concentration matters: Another picaridin product, this one just 5 percent, was our second-lowest scoring insect repellent. And while picaridin seems safe, even for use on infants, it can irritate your skin and eyes, so you should use it carefully (see below).


Find Out How Repellents With Picaridin Did in Our Ratings

Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus

This is a naturally occurring compound, extracted from the gum eucalyptus tree; a product in our inset repellent ratings that contained 30 percent oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE) did well in our tests, warding off mosquitoes and ticks for at least seven hours.

All the other products with plant oils—including cedar, cinnamon, citronella, clove, geranium, lemongrass, rosemary, or peppermint—provided little protection, often failing in our tests within a half hour, especially against Aedes mosquitoes. OLE also appears to be relatively safe when used properly, though it can cause temporary eye injury, and the Food and Drug Administration recommends against using it on children under three.


See Which Insect Repellents Topped Our Tests
A bottle of Coleman insect repellent

IR3535 and 2-Undecanone

In our tests, products with these two ingredients were less effective (compared to deet, picaridin, and OLE), offering limited protection. IR3535 is a man-made compound that is structurally similar to a naturally-occurring amino acid, and 2-Undecanone is a synthesized version of a compound found in rue, wild tomatoes, and several other plants.

The IR3535 product we tested worked well against ticks and Culex mosquitoes, but offered only three hours of protection against Aedes mosquitoes. And the repellent with 2-Undecanone worked for only about three hours against all three insects. Both products appear relatively safe but, as with all repellents, should be used with caution, especially on children.


Check Our Insect Repellent Ratings
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How We Test

We tried out a variety of repellents to see if they were up to the task. Our brave testers stuck their arms into cages full of disease-free female mosquitoes in need of a blood meal to lay their eggs, and then watched and recorded bites for five minutes every hour. A repellent failed if a tester was bitten two or more times in one 5-minute session, or once in two consecutive sessions.

For ticks, we marked each tester’s bare arms with three lines, then released, one at a time, five disease-free deer ticks to crawl on them. The repellent failed if two ticks crossed into the treated area.

Some products protected against both of the two different species of mosquitoes that we tested, and deer ticks, for several hours. Those products earned our recommendation. But several others failed our tests almost immediately—including wrist bands, which got a thumbs-down.

3

The Buzz: Things to Think About

Be Wary of "Natural" Repellents
Several makers of “natural” insect repellents (which typically contain essential plant oils like cedar, citronella, lemongrass, and rosemary) claim that their products can help ward off mosquitoes, including those that carry the Zika virus. But our tests show that was true only for the product we tested with oil of lemon eucalyptus.

Don’t Buy Based on Just Ingredient or Concentration
Our top-rated product contains picaridin, but so does our second-lowest one. Concentration likely explains some of that difference: the high-scoring product is 20 percent picaridin, while the low-scoring one contains just 5 percent. But concentration alone doesn’t fully explain the difference. For example, a 15-percent deet product scored higher overall because it was more effective against deer ticks than one with 25 percent deet, possibly because of its inactive ingredients (the Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t require that companies disclose those). That’s why it’s so important to check our Ratings.

Don’t Combine Sunscreen and Bug Repellent
We’re not fans of these combo products—sunscreen should be reapplied every 2 hours, which could over-expose the user to the chemicals in repellents.

4

The Right Way to Spray

Proper application and use is essential, both for maximum protection and to avoid possible side effects, including skin or eye irritation. That means:

• Apply repellent only to exposed skin or clothing (as directed on the product label). Never put it on under clothing.
• Use just enough to cover and only for as long as needed; heavier doses don’t work better and can increase risks.
• Don’t apply repellents over cuts, wounds, or irritated skin. When applying to your face, spray first on your hands, then rub in, avoiding your eyes and mouth, and using sparingly around ears.
• Don’t let young children apply. Instead, put it on your own hands, then rub it on. Limit use on children’s hands, because they often put their hands in their eyes and mouths.
• Don’t use near food, and wash hands after application and before eating or drinking.
• At the end of the day, wash treated skin with soap and water, and wash treated clothing in a separate wash before wearing again.
• Some directions suggest using repellents on clothes, but most of the ones we tested damaged leather and vinyl, and some of them stained synthetic fabrics. Wash repellent off your skin and launder treated clothes.

 

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For Extra De-Bugging

 

 

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Brands That Matter

Marketed as a natural personal care brand, All Terrain makes deet-free insect repellent under its Herbal Armor line. The brand’s prices tend to towards the middle range; it also offers repellents for kids
One of the group of brands under parent company Tender Corporation, Ben’s makes insect repellent using deet as the active ingredient. Prices are low to mid range.
Known as a major brand for the outdoor lifestyle, Coleman makes insect repellents that are both deet-free and deet-based. Prices tend to be on the lower end.
Under parent company Spectrum Brands, Cutter makes a wide variety of insect protection products. Some of their insect repellents contain deet. Prices tend to be in the low range. The brand also makes citronella candles, a backyard bug control lantern, and a natural outdoor fogger.
This brand makes pesticides based on natural ingredients. Their insect repellent is also natural-based and is priced towards the low range of insect repellent prices.
One of the leading insect repellent brands, Off! offers a variety of insect protection products including a clip-on, mosquito coil, mosquito lamp, and citronella candles. The brand makes insect repellent that is deet-bbased and priced towards the low end of the range.
Repel, another leading insect repellent brand from Spectrum, makes both deet-free and deet-based products available in aerosol, pump spray, and lotion forms. Prices are in the low range.
The brand makes a number of products geared towards the outdoor lifestyle. They make both deet-free and deet-based insect repellent, which tend to be in the low to mid price range.
You can check out these other brands in our Ratings: Avon, Burt's Bees, California Baby, HOMS, and Natrapel.
Related

Mosquito Repellents That Best Protect Against Zika

Shopping links are provided by eBay Commerce Network and Amazon, which makes it easy to find the right product from a variety of online retailers. Clicking any of the links will take you to the retailer's website to shop for this product. Please note that Consumer Reports collects fees from both eBay Commerce Network and Amazon for referring users. We use 100% of these fees to fund our testing programs.