Insect Repellent Buying Guide

If you live in an area where mosquitoes or ticks (or both) are common, it’s important to protect yourself against the diseases these biting bugs can carry. The list of diseases you can catch from mosquitoes and ticks has grown in recent decades. Zika, transmitted by mosquitoes, and Powassan, transmitted by ticks, are two distressing examples. And even the number of people every year coming down with more familiar diseases like Lyme is increasing.

Our insect repellent ratings identify which products work best against mosquitoes and ticks. (We no longer test our products against ticks, but past test results and our research indicate that repellents that work well against mosquitoes also tend to be effective against ticks.)

Choosing the right repellent matters: Our top products provide several hours of protection, and some of our lowest-scoring ones fizzle out in as little as 30 minutes. So arm yourself with one of the high-performing repellents.

How We Test Insect Repellents

We begin our insect repellent tests by applying a standard dose of repellent to a measured area of skin on our test subjects’ arms. (The standard dose is determined from the Environmental Protection Agency’s product testing guidelines.)

After 30 minutes, these brave volunteers place their arms into the first two of four cages of 200 disease-free mosquitoes for 5 minutes. Our testers watch closely to see what happens inside the cage, and they count up every time a mosquito lands on a subject’s arm, uses its proboscis (its long mouth) to probe the skin in an attempt to find a capillary, or bites the subject’s arm and begins to feed—which the testers can tell by watching for the insect’s abdomen to turn from gray to red or brown.

After 5 minutes, the subjects withdraw their arms, then repeat the process by placing their arms into a second pair of cages of disease-free mosquitoes of a different species, for another 5 minutes. The subjects then walk around for about 10 minutes, to stimulate sweating—this is to mimic a real-world setting, in which users might be active while wearing repellent.

Half an hour later, this procedure is repeated once, and then again once every hour after that until a repellent fails our test, or until 8 hours have passed since it was applied. We consider a failure to be a “confirmed mosquito bite”—two bites in one 5-minute session inside the cage, or one bite in each of two consecutive 5-minute sessions.  

Go Inside the Lab

Watch our video below for more details on how we test insect repellents.

Ingredient Info

You might not think to read the label before buying an insect repellent. That’s a mistake, because the active ingredient and concentration matter to both effectiveness and safety.

The top-performing products in our tests contained one of these three active ingredients: deet, oil of lemon eucalyptus, or picaridin. And all are safe when used as directed. Here’s what you need to know about active ingredients.

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 find that there’s no need to use higher concentrations; products with 15 to 30 percent deet can provide long-lasting protection against mosquitoes and ticks. And some research suggests that the remote risks associated with deet, like rashes and even seizures, may occur when too much of the product is used. (See below for how to safely apply all repellents.)

That’s why we say everyone should avoid repellents with more than 30 percent deet. At 30 percent and below, deet is safe for pregnant women and children who are at least 2 months old. But it’s important not to go too low, either; in our tests, products with just 10 or 7 percent deet don’t work well.


Insect Repellents Ratings
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 and one 10 percent picaridin product, all sprays.  

But concentration matters: Another product, with just 5 percent picaridin, is one of our lowest-scoring insect repellents. And, at least when it comes to picaridin, form seems to matter. Of two other picaridin products in our tests, we find that neither a 20 percent lotion nor a 20 percent wipe works as well as the 20 percent picaridin sprays. Finally, while picaridin is deemed safe, even for use on infants who are at least 2 months old and on pregnant women, it can irritate your skin and eyes, so you should use it carefully.


Insect Repellents Ratings
An oil of lemon eucalyptus insect repellent.

Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus

This is a refined version of a naturally occurring compound extracted from the gum eucalyptus tree. It can also be produced synthetically. Four products in our insect repellent ratings that contain 30 percent oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE) do well in our tests.

OLE also appears to be safe when used properly, though it can cause temporary eye injury. Pregnant women can use it, but the Food and Drug Administration recommends against using it on children younger than 3.


Insect Repellents Ratings
A bottle of Coleman insect repellent

IR3535 and 2-Undecanone

Although these active ingredients are included in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s list of recommended insect repellents, in our tests, products with these two ingredients offer limited protection and are less effective than products containing deet, picaridin, and OLE.

IR3535 is a synthetic 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 safe, but as with all repellents, they should be used with caution, especially on children.


Insect Repellents Ratings

The Buzz: Things to Think About

Be Wary of ‘Natural’ Repellents
Several makers of “natural” insect repellents (which typically contain essential plant oils such as cedar, citronella, clove, lemongrass, peppermint, and rosemary) claim that their products can help ward off mosquitoes, including those that carry the Zika virus. But our tests show that these active ingredients aren’t very effective, often failing in our tests within half an hour.

Don’t Buy Based Only on Ingredient or Concentration
Some of our top-rated products contain 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 or wipe form. Our tests have shown that products with deet, in concentrations of 15 to 30 percent, are more likely to provide reliable protection.

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 overexpose the user to the chemicals in repellents. 

The Right Way to Apply Insect 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.
• If you’re planning to use repellents on your clothes, note that most of the ones we test can damage leather and vinyl, and some of them stain synthetic fabrics.  

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For Extra Debugging

 

 

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 be in the middle range; it also offers repellents for kids.
One of the group of brands under parent company Tender Corp., Ben’s makes insect repellent using deet as the active ingredient. Prices are low to midrange.
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.
Under parent company Spectrum Brands, Cutter makes a wide variety of products for protection against insects. Some of its 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. Its insect repellent is toward 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 repellent, 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.
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.
The brand makes a number of products geared toward the outdoor lifestyle. It makes both deet-free and deet-based insect repellents, which tend to be in the low to middle price range.
This store brand is available at CVS.
You can check out these other brands in our ratings: 3M, Avon, Babyganics, Buzz Away, California Baby, Hello Bello, and Natrapel.

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