How to Apply Bug Spray

7 tips for getting the best protection from your insect repellent

Protecting yourself from the growing threat of bug-borne illness requires a variety of strategies. One crucial step to take is using insect repellent. But even the best bug spray won’t be very effective if you’re not applying it correctly, so you need to make sure to use good technique. 

More on Insect Repellent

“A quick spray won’t provide the right level of protection, but don’t spray too heavily either,” says Chris Regan, who leads insect repellent testing at Consumer Reports. “Make sure to follow the instructions on the product label, especially when protecting young children.”

There are a few other tips to keep in mind. We spoke with experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to get their advice on how to safely and effectively apply bug spray.

Apply Sunscreen First

If you’re going to be in the sun, first rub in your sunscreen, let it absorb into your skin for 15 minutes, then apply the repellent on top.

If you need to apply more sunscreen later, you don’t necessarily need to reapply bug spray unless you notice that the insects are beginning to bother you.

Note that we don’t recommend products that combine a sunscreen and a repellent—and neither does the CDC. That’s because sunscreen should be reapplied more often than bug spray, so you could end up applying more repellent than necessary.

Put On Repellent Smoothly and Evenly—but Not Too Heavily

Mosquitoes and ticks can be aggressive biters, especially Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which are the type primarily responsible for spreading Zika, dengue, and chikungunya viruses. They can find and bite an exposed section of skin the size of a dime. So you want to make sure you cover every inch.

Shake the container and spray evenly onto your uncovered skin and clothes from about 4 to 8 inches away, or as directed on the label. For lotions and wipes, also follow label directions; most call for a thin film over exposed skin areas. But don’t overdo it: For insect repellents, more is not better. A thin film is sufficient.

And it’s best to avoid inhaling repellent, so apply it in a well-ventilated space away from open flames—and be conscious of others around you, including children and pets.

Don't Spray Under Your Clothes

Wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants can help you avoid mosquito bites. Spraying your clothes can also provide extra protection (just apply to an inconspicuous area of clothing first to check for possible damage). But insect repellent labels say you should never apply the product underneath your clothes. Using deet-based repellent under clothes may lead to skin irritation, according to the National Pesticide Information Center.

For Sensitive or Hard-to-Reach Spots, Apply Bug Spray by Hand

Never spray repellent directly onto your face or your ears. Instead, spray some onto your hands and spread it on your face, neck, and outside of your ears, being careful to avoid your eyes and nostrils. Don’t forget to rub it onto your head if you’re bald.

Bug sprays can aggravate open cuts and wounds, so avoid areas with broken or irritated skin.

Wash your hands after applying, especially if you’re going to be eating.

Don't Forget Ankles and Knees

Mosquitoes tend to be attracted to certain spots on the body, including the ankles, feet, and knees. And because ticks usually hop onto you from plants on the ground, your exposed ankles are a primary target.

Take Extra Care With Kids

According to the CDC, you should never apply any kind of insect repellent to children younger than 2 months. Even for older children, never spray directly onto their skin.

Spray onto your hands first, then rub onto the child’s exposed skin and face. Be sure to avoid his or her hands because children tend to stick their fingers into their eyes and mouth. And as always, avoid applying near the eyes, nostrils, and mouth.

Reapply Only When Necessary

Our top-rated repellents all provided several hours of protection against both ticks and mosquitoes in our tests. Still, some people tend to attract more bugs than others, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, so if bugs are starting to bite again, that’s your cue that it’s time for more.

Insect repellents can also wash off in water, so if you’re swimming or perspiring heavily, you should think about reapplying afterward.

After returning indoors, wash your (or your child’s) repellent-treated skin with soap and water.

The Lowdown on Insect Repellents

Bug bites are not only annoying but can also transmit diseases. On the "Consumer 101" TV show, host Jack Rico goes inside Consumer Reports’ labs to find out how CR tests insect repellents to make sure you are getting the most protection.