Best ways to keep bugs at bay

Last reviewed: July 2010
Insect repellents
 

'Tis the season of barbecues, hiking, camping … and biting bugs. A good repellent can help you enjoy the outdoors without the company of mosquitoes and ticks.

At an outside lab, brave testers bared their arms in mosquito-filled cages and 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.

Five repellents protected against deer ticks and two common types of mosquitoes for 8 hours or more. Four of those contain deet in varying levels. The Environmental Protection Agency judges deet safe when used as directed, but it has caused rare toxic reactions when misused. It shouldn't be applied to 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.

The active ingredient in Repel is oil of lemon eucalyptus. (It's not recommended for children under 3.) Almost as effective was Natrapel, which protects with picaridin, a chemical newer than deet.

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 six top choices worked for at least 7 hours, though 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; Repel has a plastic beach-ball and citrusy odor and left little residue; Natrapel has a floral odor and is a little greasy.

When applying any repellent, follow directions. Use your hands to apply it to your face, avoiding your eyes and mouth, and don't apply it to cuts. Use just enough to cover exposed skin. Some directions suggest using it on clothes, but most tested repellents damaged leather and vinyl, and some of them stained synthetic fabrics. Wash repellent off your skin and launder treated clothes. For extra protection:

  • Wear light-colored, loose clothes and avoid using scented products when outdoors, especially at peak feeding hours—dusk to dawn for most mosquitoes.
  • Remove standing water near your house. It can be a mosquito breeding ground.
  • To avoid ticks, tuck pants into socks and wear closed shoes and a hat.
  • Inspect yourself for ticks after venturing into wooded or grassy areas.