Best Insect Repellents of 2021
CR's tested products include lotions, sprays, wipes, and plant-based repellents
With the weather warming and days lengthening, you may already be making plans for outdoor adventures like camping, hiking, or simply hosting a barbecue to reconnect with (vaccinated) friends. Even if you’re not straying from your own backyard, protecting against the many diseases spread by ticks and mosquitoes is an important precaution.
A key component of personal protection is insect repellents. That’s where Consumer Reports’ insect repellent ratings come in. This year, we have 45 repellents in our ratings, and 23 recommended ones, so it’s easy to find an effective way to beat the bugs that’s right for you and your family.
The number of bug-borne diseases is increasing, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Not only are new diseases appearing—the agency says that since 2004, at least nine new mosquito- and tick-borne diseases have been reported in the U.S. and its territories—but familiar ones are increasing in number. In a recent study, the CDC estimated that 476,000 cases of Lyme disease occurred in the U.S. each year between 2010 and 2018—a significant increase from the agency's estimates of 329,000 annual cases in 2005–2010. And there’s always the possibility that previously obscure diseases, like Zika, could re-emerge as widespread threats.
How We Test Insect Repellents
At our insect repellent testing lab, a testing day begins with 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 volunteers then 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 approximately 10 minutes, to stimulate sweating—this is to mimic a real-world setting, in which users might exercise 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 two confirmed mosquito bites in one 5-minute session inside the cage, or one confirmed bite in each of two consecutive 5-minute sessions.
What CR's Tests Found
Sixteen of our 23 recommended insect repellents use deet as their active ingredient. Two are made with 20 percent picaridin, one is made with 10 percent picaridin, and four contain 30 percent oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE). Most plant-oil-based products we’ve tested—including several containing citronella oil, peppermint oil, soybean oil, or others—have performed poorly. (OLE, although it occurs naturally in the lemon eucalyptus plant, is not an essential oil. It is synthesized chemically for use in commercial bug repellents.)
Our ratings are primarily based on how long a product protected test subjects against mosquitoes. Our highest-rated ones protected for 6.5 hours or longer; our lowest-rated ones lasted 2 hours or less. We currently test repellents only against mosquitoes, but in past years of testing we’ve found that repellents that worked well against mosquitoes also worked well against ticks. We also test for how well the product resisted causing damage to materials that repellents are likely to come into contact with, like fabric, paint, and nail polish.
Our testing suggests that when it comes to effectiveness, what matters most isn’t the brand name or whether it’s a lotion, spray, or wipe, but rather the type and concentration of active ingredient in the repellent.
For example, three wipes (Ben’s Tick & Insect Repellent Wipes, Off Deep Woods Insect Repellent Towelettes, and Repel Insect Repellent Mosquito Wipes), a store-brand spray (Total Home Woodland Scent, sold by CVS), and a lotion (Sawyer Ultra 30 Insect Repellent) have all made our recommended list. All contain deet.
Though we’ve found some sprays using the active ingredients picaridin or OLE that performed well, deet-based products consistently earn most of our top scores. And among the lotions and wipes we tested, only those containing deet were found to be highly effective. In a few instances in previous years of testing, we’ve found that products containing 20 percent picaridin scored well as a spray but not in another form, such as a wipe or lotion.
"We expect that differences in formulation, and how the active ingredient is incorporated into a repellent, can make a large difference in how effectively it repels insects,” says Chris Regan, test project leader for insect repellents for CR. “However, among the products we’ve tested, we have found deet, at levels of 25 to 30 percent, to afford the most reliable protection against mosquitoes and ticks."
Also, importantly, so-called natural repellents, or products we’ve tested whose active ingredients are essential oils, all earned a rating of Poor for protection against mosquitoes. Consumers who want to avoid deet do have several reliable options in products with 20 percent picaridin or 30 percent OLE. However, the safety of deet has been extensively researched by the EPA. When it’s used according to the directions on the label, it should not be harmful.
And according to the CDC, rare problems with rash or skin irritation from deet usually arise from using too much or too high a concentration of deet. Consumer Reports doesn’t test products with more than 30 percent deet for this reason—and our tests show it’s not necessary to expose yourself to higher concentrations in order to get top-notch protection.
How to Apply Insect Repellent Properly
For best results, follow the directions on the label and these five tips:
1. Apply a thin coat to all exposed skin, but avoid eyes and mouth, and use sparingly around your ears. You can also spray repellent on top of your clothing, but do not apply under clothing.
2. Adults should dispense repellent on their hands to apply to children. Don’t spray repellent onto kids or apply to their hands to avoid it getting into their eyes or mouth, and avoid applying to cuts or irritated skin. (Insect repellents with deet should not be used on children younger than 2 months.)
3. Frequent reapplication isn’t necessary. Wash hands after applying and wash off repellent at the end of the day.
4. Never spray directly onto the face. Spray on palms, then apply to the face.
5. When using towelettes, be sure to use enough of them to cover all exposed skin with repellent.
Jeneen Interlandi and Catherine Roberts contributed reporting to this article.
From the Tip Jar
On the "Consumer 101" TV show, Consumer Reports' experts offer host Jack Rico advice on making the most of sunscreen, the best natural light for taking photos, and which insect repellents to use.