Insect Repellent Buying Guide
Choose an Insect Repellent That Really Works

Lyme. Powassan. 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 mosquitoes and ticks. (We did not test all our products against ticks, but our research indicates that any product that protects you from mosquito bites will also protect you from tick bites.)

Choosing the right repellent matters: Our top products provided several hours of protection, and some of our lowest-scoring ones failed almost immediately.

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

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 5 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.

In the products we tested against 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.

Ingredient Info

In our most recent survey of insect-repellent users, about half said they don’t read the labels before buying 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—generally 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 those products at all on babies younger than 2 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.


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. We recommend two 20 percent picaridin products, both sprays.  

But concentration matters: Another picaridin product, this one just 5 percent, was one of our lowest-scoring insect repellents. And, at least when it comes to picaridin, form seems to matter, too. We found that the 20 percent lotion we tested did not work as well as the 20 percent picaridin spray. Finally, 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 insect repellent ratings that contained 30 percent oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE) did well in our tests, warding off mosquitoes and ticks for at least 7 hours.

All the other products with plant oils—including cedar, cinnamon, citronella, clove, geranium, lemongrass, rosemary, and peppermint—provided little protection, often failing in our tests within a half-hour. 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 younger than 3.


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 with 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.

Both products appear relatively safe but, as with all repellents, should be used with caution, especially on children.


Check Our Insect Repellent Ratings

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
Some of our top-rated product contains picaridin, but so do some of our lower-rated ones. Concentration and form probably explain some of that difference: High-scoring products are sprays that contain 20 percent picaridin, and the low-scoring ones contain less picaridin or come in a lotion form.

Don't Use Combination Sunscreen-Insect Repellent Products
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.

The Right Way to Apply Repellents

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.

 

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 percent of these fees to fund our testing programs.

For Extra Debugging

 

 

Brands That Matter

All Terrain: 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 be toward the middle range; it also offers repellents for kids.
Ben’s: 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 midrange.
Coleman: Known as a major brand for the outdoor lifestyle, Coleman makes insect repellents with and without deet. Prices tend to be on the lower end.
Cutter: Under parent company Spectrum Brands, Cutter makes a wide variety of products for protection against insects. 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.
EcoSmart: This brand makes pesticides based on natural ingredients. Its insect repellent is also natural-based and is priced toward the low range of insect repellent prices.
Off: One of the leading insect repellent brands, Off offers a variety of insect protection products including a clip-on, a mosquito coil, a mosquito lamp, and citronella candles. The brand makes insect repellent that is deet-based and priced toward the low end of the range.
Repel: Another leading insect repellent brand from Spectrum, repel makes both deet-free and deet-based products available in aerosol, pump spray, and lotion forms. Prices are in the low range.
Sawyer: The brand makes a number of products geared toward the outdoor lifestyle. They make both deet-free and deet-based insect repellents, which tend to be in the low to middle price range.
Total Home (CVS): This store brand is available at all CVS locations. It includes two products, including this year’s top-rated repellent.
Other Brands: You can check out these other brands in our ratings: Avon, Burt’s Bees, California Baby, Homs, and Natrapel.

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.