Would you rather be eaten alive by mosquitoes and ticks that can carry debilitating—and even deadly—diseases or douse yourself in harmful repellents full of potentially dangerous chemicals? Almost three-quarters of Americans say they worry more about insect-carried diseases, such as West Nile and Lyme as well as newer threats like chikungunya and Powassan, according to a recent Consumer Reports survey of 2,011 U.S. adults.
Here’s the real dilemma, though: Most people also say that safety is key when they choose a repellent, but only about a third think the products now on the market are safe for adults. Even fewer—23 percent—think the repellents are safe for kids.
If you’re conflicted about what to do, we have good news: For the first time ever in Consumer Reports’ tests of insect repellents, new, safer products—made with milder, plantlike chemicals—were the most effective. (Check our insect repellent Ratings and buying guide.) The top scorers outperformed products that contained deet, a chemical that did best in our previous Ratings but can cause serious side effects.
The active ingredients in the top repellents are chemically synthesized compounds that are similar to or come from natural ingredients. The secret sauce in the best-scoring Sawyer product is picaridin; in the Repel it’s oil of lemon eucalyptus. They are not side-effect-free, but “those problems are much less severe than deet,” says Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., executive director of Consumer Reports’ Food Safety and Sustainability Center. “Still, all repellents should be used sparingly and only for the time you need them—especially on children and older people.”
That’s why an effective bug-avoidance strategy requires a full arsenal. Our new tests identify non-chemical approaches that offer some relief (setting up a fan on your back patio, for example) and those that don’t help much if at all (think citronella candles, wristbands, and “all-natural” products with geraniol, lemongrass, and rosemary oils).