Citronella candles burning.
Photo: Mireille Roy/Getty Images

These days, pharmacies, sporting goods stores, and online retailers offer a wide array of insect repellent products. With diseases like Lyme on the rise, and an ever-present threat of new tick or mosquito diseases emerging—or old ones, like dengue, resurfacing—protecting yourself against these pests is critical. The sheer number of options presents consumers with a double-edged sword: It's good to have choices, but it's not always easy to tell what works and what doesn't.

Consumer Reports tests repellents you apply to your skin, and we’ve found that some provide long-lasting protection against mosquitoes. Then there's a variety of repellents meant to keep mosquitoes away from a certain area, such as citronella candles, or wristbands that claim to keep the bugs away from you.

David Brown, technical adviser with the American Mosquito Control Association, a trade group, says that while some types of area repellents may be useful under certain circumstances, using an effective skin-applied insect repellent is still the best way of reducing or preventing mosquito bites. 

But many products you’ll find on the market don't work all that well. To help separate the good stuff from the not-so-good, we've compiled a quick list of products that you can skip.

1. Natural Repellents

It sounds like such a good idea: Use a "natural" mosquito repellent, with an active ingredient like clove or lemongrass or rosemary oil, and avoid the ones containing chemicals such as deet.

More on Insect Repellents

But here's the problem: Natural repellents are regulated differently than other repellent products. Because the Environmental Protection Agency deems the chemicals they contain harmless, the agency does not evaluate them for effectiveness. Because of that loophole, companies that sell those repellents don't have to prove that they actually work. And our testing indicates that they don't.

Several of the plant-based repellents CR has tested lasted just 1 hour or less against the Aedes aegypti mosquito—the kind that can spread Zika, yellow fever, dengue, and chikungunya.  

Daniel Fabricant, PhD, president and CEO of the Natural Products Association, told Consumer Reports that natural repellents vary in their effectiveness the same way that other repellents do. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the EPA both say that deet is safe when used properly, even for pregnant women. Our experts agree, though they recommend sticking to products that contain 15 percent to 30 percent deet. And if you prefer not to use deet, our tests have found products with two other active ingredients to be effective: 30 percent oil of lemon eucalyptus and 20 percent picaridin.

2. Wristbands

These wearable repellent devices are marketed as being safer because you don't have to rub anything on your skin.

But scientists who have tested these products have found them to be ineffective. In a 2017 study in the Journal of Insect Science, researchers found they had no significant effect in repelling mosquitoes. (Past CR tests of these items have found similar results.)

“It’s not that they don’t contain mosquito repellents,” says Immo Hansen, PhD, an author of the study and professor of biology at New Mexico State University. But “wearing a bracelet to protect your whole body from mosquitoes,” he says, is just not enough.

In 2016, the Federal Trade Commission fined one wristband maker, Viatek, $300,000 for deceptive marketing of its Mosquito Shield Bands. The commission says the company's claims that the bands protect against mosquitoes were not backed by scientific evidence.

3. Sonic Repellents

Ultrasonic devices are claimed to emit high-frequency sounds that are too high for humans to hear but are just the right frequency to drive pests, including mosquitoes, away. The trouble is, there's no proof that they work. 

The FTC has investigated several sonic repellent makers for false advertising. In 2016, the New York Attorney General's Office sent cease and desist letters to the makers of two specific brands of sonic repellent—STAR Ultrasonic Pest Repeller and iGear iGuard 2.0 Ultrasonic Insect Pest Repeller. "Numerous scientific studies show that [these devices] don't repel mosquitoes and may even attract mosquitoes," the attorney general said. 

4. Citronella Candles

Despite the popularity of citronella candles as an area repellent, there’s little evidence that they’ll provide solid protection against mosquito bites. “They give you a nice smell in your backyard, but they are not going to protect you from mosquitoes,” Hansen says.

And other types of candles aren’t a great bet either. In 2018, the the FTC charged one company, Mikey & Momo, with deceptive marketing of mosquito-repellent products. The company claimed its scented “Aromaflage” candles were as effective as a 25 percent deet spray. The agency said the claims weren’t supported by any evidence.

What About Clip-On Foggers?

Some studies, including Hansen’s 2017 research, have found that clip-on foggers or fans that emanate a mosquito repellent mist can do a decent job repelling mosquitoes.

But their efficacy is likely to be less than a repellent applied to the skin, Brown at the American Mosquito Control Association points out. That’s mainly because the device produces a cloud of protective repellent around you, but the cloud in the air won’t follow you if you walk away. 

Consumer Reports also has concerns about the safety of the devices that use the chemical metofluthrin, which is classified by the EPA as a potential carcinogen. 

What Really Works

If you want to minimize the chances of getting bitten, use one of the top rated repellents from CR’s tests. And take steps to discourage mosquitoes from breeding in the first place. Keep your yard free of containers filled with water, such as gutters, birdbaths, tires, wheelbarrows, wading pools, and swimming pool covers. Clear away ivy and decaying leaves, because mosquitoes like cool, dark places. And because ticks like tall grass and lots of shade, it's best to keep your lawn mowed and free of leaves and other debris. 

The products below, listed in alphabetical order, are some of the top-performing insect repellents from Consumer Reports's tests. CR members can see our full insect repellent ratings.

Quick Take

Ben's Tick & Insect Repellent Wipes

Price: $6

Protection against mosquitoes and ticks
Resists damage to materials
Unlock Insect Repellent Ratings
Quick Take

Repel Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent2

Price: $5

Protection against mosquitoes and ticks
Resists damage to materials
Unlock Insect Repellent Ratings
Quick Take

Sawyer Premium Insect Repellent

Price: $9

Protection against mosquitoes and ticks
Resists damage to materials
Unlock Insect Repellent Ratings

The Lowdown on Insect Repellents

Bug bites are not only annoying, they 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.