The Best Mosquito Repellent
The best mosquito repellent should protect you from bites without causing irritation. To find our top picks, we consulted with mosquito experts, researched active ingredients, and tried 20 sprays, wipes, and lotions on our own skin to figure out which ones we’d actually want to use.
How We Chose the Best Mosquito Repellent
Three main ingredients
Out of 85 mosquito repellents, our first task was to figure out which ones actually work. The two U.S. agencies responsible for assessing the safety and efficacy of bug sprays — the CDC and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) — say perfume alone doesn’t cut it. Strong perfumes repel people, but mosquitoes don’t care.
The CDC and EPA recommend active ingredients like DEET, picaridin, oil of lemon eucalyptus and other, less common ingredients IR3535 and 2-undecanone (or methyl nonyl ketone). But we focused on the most widely available products and made the first cut based on whether the product had either DEET, picaridin or oil of lemon eucalyptus.
Amount of active ingredients
There’s a fine line between having enough and too much active ingredient in your bug spray. This is especially important for DEET-based repellents; although the EPA and CDC have concluded DEET is safe, side effects like nausea or skin rash can come from overexposure. It’s best not to use more than you need. We found the best sprays with the right balance.
A 20 to 50 percent range turns out to be the most effective. The CDC says efficacy actually stagnates above a 50 percent concentration, so it’s not worth it. In fact, anything over 30 percent will only be giving you more exposure to the chemical than actual protection — so we cut anything with concentrations outside the 10-30 percent range.
To learn more about each of these active ingredients, check out our FAQ section.
Let’s be honest: Some bug repellents smell really bad. Ben’s 30% DEET Tick & Insect Repellent Eco Spray was so noxious that we could smell it as soon as we took the plastic off the bottle — and when we tested it, the spray made us cough and hold our noses. Then there was Coleman Botanicals Insect Repellent, which smelled like menthol mixed with cheap scented candle.
Other sprays were more fragrant and even pleasant; 3M Ultrathon Insect Repellent 8 had a citrus odor, and the Off! Deep Woods repellents had a hint of pine. All of the picaridin repellents smelled sweetly floral.
We couldn’t test our mosquito repellents against actual mosquitoes — none of them responded to our Craigslist ad — but we could test what it was like to wear these repellents. We looked at how easy it was to apply each product and how they felt on our skin.
Some failed miserably: difficult push-up sticks and heavy, drippy sprays that sent trails of repellent running down our arms. There were also two repellents that one of our testers described as “painful to wear” — Repel Sportsmen Dry Insect Repellent and Ben’s 30% DEET Tick & Insect Repellent Eco Spray. Both left her with a slightly irritating, burning sensation after application.
Overall, DEET repellents had a stronger skinfeel than picaridin or oil of lemon eucalyptus repellents. When you’re wearing DEET, you can tell; it feels kind of like you have a chemical coating on your skin.
The 4 Best Mosquito Repellents
The Best Deet-Based Repellent
Safe, effective, and protects for up to eight hours.
Why we chose it
You’ve probably heard of Off! In fact, you might already have a bottle somewhere in your medicine cabinet — and for good reason. The Off! brand is a major player in the bug repellent world, selling everything from mosquito lamps to backyard sprays to topical repellents. Which brings us to Off! Deep Woods, a 25 percent DEET formula that is available in four different varieties to suit your preferences — from aerosol sprays to packaged wipes. Despite the baffling array of numbers, they all have the same active ingredient. The numbers just denote different methods of application.
Nearly all of the DEET repellents we tested had some kind of chemical odor, and the higher the DEET percentage, the stronger the stench. Off! Deep Woods manages to cover the DEET with a more palatable fragrance — we’ll call it “hint of pine” — so you don’t feel like you need to hold your nose after spraying.
Ease of application
The application process was pretty straightforward. Both the aerosol sprays put out a lot of product, ensuring quick coverage — but they never felt uncontrollable, like the heavy, drippy results we got from 3M Ultrathon Insect Repellent 8 or Ben’s 30% DEET Tick & Insect Repellent Eco Spray.
Points to consider
Be aware that a little spray will go a long way. We’d suggest spraying once and then using your hand to spread the repellent around, or opting for the pump top bottle, which has a smaller spray radius. We also couldn’t tell a real difference between the “dry” and the “regular” formulas — they both felt the same once applied.
The Best DEET-Based Repellent for Children
A milder DEET formula that’s good for up to four hours.
Why we chose it
Easy application, no irritation
If you’ve got young kids, you’ll want a mosquito repellent that is easy to apply, doesn’t irritate the skin or the nose, and is absolutely guaranteed to work. We recommend Repel Family Dry Insect Repellent, an aerosol spray that contains 10 percent DEET for up to four hours of protection.
It’s a “dry” repellent, which means it’s designed to avoid the slick, greasy feel many people associate with bug spray. We found that the repellent did in fact dry quickly on the skin. It also didn’t itch or cause pain like some of the higher-percentage DEET repellents that we tried.
Some of the other aerosols we tried blasted out enough repellent to cover two adult arms simultaneously. But Repel provides a smaller, more controlled stream, making it easier to avoid overapplication. (On that note, be aware some experts recommend applying mosquito repellent to your own hands and rubbing them on your child’s skin rather than spraying directly.)
We were only able to catch a hint of that distinctive Deet aroma, and that was after putting our noses right up to our skin. If your kids — or you — are sensitive to smell, this repellent should pass the sniff test.
Points to consider
Not for all ages (but most)
When we talk about “children,” we’re not talking about all ages. DEET should not be applied to infants younger than 2 months old. If you opt for a non-DEET product, the age limits are slightly higher: Picaridin shouldn’t be applied to infants younger than 6 months. Oil of lemon eucalyptus shouldn’t be applied to children under 3 years.
But we’re such fans of the Repel Insect Repellent Family Dry that we would happily use it ourselves, even though we’re full-grown adults. If you have kids and want a low-percentage DEET repellent that’s easy to apply, grab yourself a bottle. If you’re an adult who finds 30 percent DEET repellents too irritating, Repel Insect Repellent Family Dry might also be the right choice. The “family” label just means it’s appropriate for everyone.
The Best Non-Deet Repellent for Sensitive Skin
Good for sensitive skin, with protection for up to eight hours.
Why we chose it
If you have sensitive skin, a sensitive nose, or just want to try a picaridin repellent, we’d suggest Sawyer Picaridin Insect Repellent Spray, an aerosol spray that contains 20 percent picaridin. Dr. Tsippora Shainhouse, a dermatologist and voice behind Facebook.com/StaySkinSafe and @stayskinsafe, specifically recommended Sawyer to us, and after testing, we agree; we loved the way the spray felt on our skin, especially after testing a bunch of slightly more irritating DEET repellents.
Unlike the Natraprel picaridin repellents we tested, which smelled like drugstore perfume, Sawyer had almost no odor. You can get a faint whiff of that sweet picaridin smell if you put your nose right up to your skin, but that’s it.
Points to consider
Sawyer’s picaridin repellent also comes in the form of a lotion, but we honestly weren’t wild about it. The product felt similar to a hand lotion, absorbing easily into our skin. But that quick absorption made us a little nervous. “You want the chemical on your skin, not in your skin,” Shainhouse pointed out. Joe Conlon, technical advisor at the American Mosquito Control Association, also told us that “lotions may take up to 20 minutes to exert their repellent effect,” unlike the instant protection offered by sprays.
The Best Natural Non-DEET Repellent
A natural option with protection up to seven hours.
Why we chose it
Comfortable on skin
If you’re looking for a repellent that’s as natural as possible, Cutter Lemon Eucalyptus Spray is your best bet. The pump-top spray was also easy to use and comfortable on the skin. Cutter does advise not to apply more than once per day, though.
Not excessively oily
Even though it relies on an essential oil as its active ingredient, Cutter wasn’t noticeably oilier than our other picaridin or DEET repellents. In fact, we had a tough time deciding between Cutter and Repel Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent — the two products are almost identical, from ingredients down to packaging. You can’t go wrong with either.
Points to consider
You will have to make peace with smelling like oil of lemon eucalyptus, which is not remotely citrus-y, despite the “lemon” in the name. It’s a strong herbal smell with a hint of menthol that you — and everyone else around you — will definitely be aware of. We didn’t find it unpleasant, just very noticeable.
Guide to mosquito repellent
How to find the best bug spray for you
Know how much active ingredient you need
To play it safe (unless you’re traveling to a high-risk area) stick to the lowest percentage necessary. If you’re going to be outside for a few hours, use 10 percent DEET. If you’re going to be outside all day long, use 25-30 percent DEET. Side effects are most likely to include skin rash, especially when applied regularly (e.g., every day). Don’t inhale it or get it in your eyes, as it can cause stomach upset, nausea, and irritation. And to minimize risk of inhalation, don’t let kids apply it themselves — and don’t use it at all on infants younger than 2 months.
You will want to up your active ingredient percentage if you’re traveling to a high-risk area, though. “If you are going to a tropical location, it is recommended to use at least a 20 percent product,” Shainhouse told us. “A 15 percent concentration can put you at risk for mosquito bites, in turn putting you at risk for diseases like malaria, dengue fever and Zika virus.”
Read the labels
It’s important to know that mosquito repellent can’t be applied or used like some of your average daily skincare products — we recommend going with the repellent that makes you most comfortable. The EPA says to avoid spraying on open wounds or directly on the face, and not to overapply. Some products may have flammability warnings on the bottle, so make sure you’re aware of this before you gather around a campfire.
Test the smell
If you can’t stand the smell, you’ll be less likely to enjoy your outside adventure, so make sure you can bear to be around yourself those and others with mosquito repellent lathered to their skin. Some repellents can leave your skin with a burning sensation — however, it might be different for certain people. Regardless, remember to wash your clothes after exposure to repellent and read up on the safety labels (we can’t stress this enough).
Bug Spray FAQ
What is oil of lemon eucalyptus?
How can you prevent mosquito bites?
Will mosquito repellent ruin your clothes?
How long does mosquito repellent last?
What about repellents that double as sunscreen?
The Best Mosquito Repellent: Summed Up