Insect Repellent Buying Guide

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 no longer test our products against ticks, but past test results and our research indicate that any product that protects you from mosquito bites is also likely to 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 in as little as 30 minutes.

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

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 EPA product testing guidelines.)

After 30 minutes, these brave volunteers then place their arms into the first two of four cages of 200 disease-free mosquitoes for five 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 five 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 five minutes. The subjects then walk around for 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 five-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 may not think to read the label before buying an insect repellent. That's a mistake, because the active ingredient and concentration matters 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, even for pregnant women, when used as directed. Here’s what you need to know about active ingredients:

A conventional insect repellent.


Many people assume that the more deet (N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide) a product contains, the better. But our tests found that there's no need to use higher concentrations to stay protected; 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 these products (or any insect repellents) 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: those with just 10 or 7 percent deet didn't work well.

Insect Repellents Ratings
An insect repellent with plant-like ingredients.


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, was one of our lowest-scoring insect repellents. And, at least when it comes to picaridin, form seems to matter. Of two other picaridin products we tested, we found that neither a 20 percent lotion nor a 20 percent wipe worked as well as the 20 percent picaridin sprays. Finally, while picaridin is deemed safe, even for use on infants, it can irritate your skin and eyes, so you should use it carefully (see below).

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. Two products in our insect repellent ratings that contained 30 percent oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE) did well in our tests.

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.

OLE isn't an essential oil, and none of the products that we tested with essential oils—including cedar, cinnamon, citronella, clove, geranium, lemongrass, rosemary, and peppermint—provided adequate protection, often failing in our tests within a half-hour.

Insect Repellents Ratings
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, they 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 such as 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 these active ingredients aren't very effective.

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 25 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 tested damaged leather and vinyl, and some of them stained synthetic fabrics.  

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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 Corp., 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 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.
EcoSmart: This brand makes pesticides based on natural ingredients. Its insect repellent is 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 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.
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.
Other Brands: You can check out these other brands in our ratings: Avon, Babyganics, Buzz Away, California Baby, Hello Bello, Homs, and Natrapel.

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