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Just because you're spending quality time in the great outdoors doesn't mean you have to tolerate irksome insects, biting buzzers, and mystery bugs. These critters are annoying at best and itchy or even disease-ridden at worst. Whether you enjoy camping with your family, sightseeing in an RV, hiking the trails, fishing, barbecuing, or hanging out on your patio after dark, you'll want to protect yourself and your stuff from pests.
Bug repellent isn't anything new, but it's come a long way in recent years. You can find options containing DEET, picaridin, and essential oils that smell good to humans but make insects want to stay away. Besides the active ingredient, there are various types of repellents—from sprays and lotions to candles, plug-ins, and even bracelets, believe it or not. Also, some last longer than others, so if you're spending a good chunk of time outside, you'll want something that offers several hours of protection.
With all this in mind, we rounded up the best bug repellents available today.
Best Overall: Sawyer Products Picaridin Continuous Spray Insect Repellent
Repellent Type: Spray | Pest Type: Mosquitoes/gnats/ticks/chiggers/flies | Volume: 6 ounces | Active Ingredient: Picaridin
Less effective with certain mosquito breeds
If you're looking for an insect repellent that uses CDC-recommended ingredients, reach for a can of Sawyer Insect Repellent. It contains 20 percent picaridin, a compound recommend by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Environmental Working Group (EWG), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to repel all types of insects, including gnats, mosquitos, chiggers, ticks, and flies, for as long as 12 hours. The fragrance-free formula isn't sticky whatsoever.
You can apply it to your skin, clothes, tent, backpack, and any other gear without worrying about a smelly residue. The aerosol can offer continuous spray, making it easy to get a thorough, even coat on all surfaces. This budget-friendly bug repellent also comes in the form of lotion and pump spray if you prefer a different application or just want to cover all your bases.
"Keep in mind is that not all repellents will work the same on different insects. Your product label will let you know if the repellent is effective against mosquitoes, flies, and/or ticks.” — Emily Mader, Department of Entomology at the Northeast Regional Center for Excellence in Vector-Borne Diseases
Best Plant-Based: Repel Plant-Based Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent
Repellent Type: Spray | Pest Type: Mosquitoes | Volume: 4 ounces | Active Ingredient: Lemon eucalyptus oil
For folks partial to plant-based bug repellents, we recommend DEET-free Repel. It's formulated with lemon eucalyptus oil, which is the only natural repellent that is registered with the EPA and recommended by the CDC. It's somewhat pungent and a little greasy, but if you're trying to keep mosquitoes at bay, it gets the job done. A thorough coat of the stuff offers up to six hours of protection from those irksome blood-suckers.
Best Lotion: 3M Ultrathon Insect Repellent Lotion
Repellent Type: Lotion | Pest Type: Mosquitoes/flies/ticks/fleas/chiggers/gnats | Volume: 2 ounces | Active Ingredient: DEET
For full skin coverage, you might consider a lotion, like Ultrathon. Containing 34 percent DEET, a common bug repellent that's recommend by the CDC and EPA, this bug repellent isn't messing around when it comes to safeguarding your skin from insect bites.
If you don't mind the strong smell, you'll be lower your risk of bites from mosquitoes, biting flies, chiggers, ticks, fleas, and gnats for as long as 12 hours. What's more, the cream is waterproof, so you can count on it to hold up with sweaty adventures in humid climates.
“If you want to put repellent on your face, first spray and spread it in your hands, then pat onto your facial skin so you can avoid these sensitive areas. This is also the best way to apply insect repellent on children.” — Emily Mader, Department of Entomology at the Northeast Regional Center for Excellence in Vector-Borne Diseases
Best Candle: Cutter Citro Guard Triple Wick Candle
Repellent Type: Candle | Pest Type: Mosquitoes/flying insects | Volume: 20 ounces | Active Ingredient: Citronella oil
Burns for 40 hours
Logo sticker is hard to get off
Doesn't offer full protection
Looking to protect an entire area? Try burning a Citro Guard Candle. The 20-ounce wax blend contains citronella oil, which isn't as effective or as long-lasting as other bug repellents but provides short-term, natural protection against bugs. Featuring a stable base and tall sides, you won't have to worry about the copper container tipping over or the wick blowing out on windy days. Not only that, but this three-wick candle offers up to 40 hours of burning time.
"The three-wick construction of this Cutter Citro Guard Triple Wick Candle allows for even burning so no wax goes unused. It also produces more light than single-wick candles, which may be a bonus if you’re eating by candlelight or trying to keep artificial lights low to avoid buzzing bugs." — Kimberly Holland, Product Tester
Best for Patios: Thermacell Patio Shield Mosquito Repeller
Repellent Type: Lantern | Pest Type: Mosquitoes | Volume: N/A | Active Ingredient: Allethrin
Several color options
Needs to be refilled
Doesn't work well in windy conditions
One of the best options for outdoor living spaces is the Thermacell Patio Shield. This lantern-style contraption is powered by a fuel cartridge—no batteries or cords needed. It relies on allethrin, a synthetic compound that can be effective at repelling insects depending on the concentration and type of insect. Just take note, however, that there is not a great deal of research on allethrin, and it is not currently recommended by the CDC or EPA.
You'll get three repellent mats, each offering about four hours of protection as far as 15 feet in all directions. We also like that it comes in a range of colors to complement any outdoor decor style.
If you're looking for an all-around excellent bug repellent spray, your best bet is Sawyer Products Picaridin Continuous Spray Insect Repellent (view at Amazon). It effectively wards off mosquitoes, ticks, chiggers, and other pests for 12 hours and is safe for the whole family. For those who prefer a lotion, we recommend 3M Ultrathon Insect Repellent Lotion (view at Amazon).
What to Look for in a Bug Repellent
Make sure the active ingredient in your repellent is appropriate for the type of bug you are looking to repel and is safe for your intended use. Permethrin should be used on clothing and gear only, and should not be sprayed directly on the skin. However, DEET, picaridin, and some natural oils (e.g., oil of lemon eucalyptus) are safe for use on the skin.
Emily Mader, Program Manager for the Department of Entomology at the Northeast Regional Center for Excellence in Vector-Borne Diseases, recommends checking the EPA's website if you're unsure about a particular ingredient and its overall effectiveness. She says, “The EPA has a great tool to help you look up active ingredients that have been registered with the EPA to protect against ticks and mosquitoes.” The EPA's list does not endorse or recommend specific products, but it's a helpful resource that can help you narrow down the best repellent for your needs, because products registered with the EPA have to show both safety and effectiveness.
Length of Effectiveness
Check how often you will need to reapply your repellent before you buy it. Some repellents only need to be applied once every 12 hours, while others need to be reapplied after just two hours to effectively repel insects. Often, the percentage of active ingredients, like DEET or picaridin, is what controls the length of time between applications, so look for a higher concentration if you'd prefer longer coverage.
What ingredients should you look for?
Bug repellents are formulated with different active ingredients. DEET, picaridin, allethrin, permethrin, citronella, and oil of lemon eucalyptus have been shown to be effective at repelling insects according to the EPA. Some of these ingredients are more effective than others at repelling some species on insects more than others, so be sure to get one formulated to repel the types of bugs in your area.
Some repellents use other some natural oils, like soy oil, geranium oil, and peppermint oil. Although these ingredients are generally not considered to be harmful, unless the product is registered with the EPA, its effectiveness at repelling insects may not have been evaluated.
Are bug repellents safe for kids?
Generally speaking, bug repellents are safe for kids. While some parents steer clear of formulas containing DEET, the CDC says it's safe for children over 2 months of age. However, read the product label carefully and adhere to any precautions. Children under 10 should not apply insect repellent themselves, and adults should be careful to avoid the eye and mouth area when helping children put repellent on their faces. Mader says, “If you want to put repellent on your face, first spray and spread it in your hands, then pat onto your facial skin so you can avoid these sensitive areas." You can also spray the repellent onto clothing or shoes if you're worried about spraying directly onto exposed skin, unless the label indicates otherwise.
How often should you apply bug repellent?
Bug repellents vary in terms of how long they last. Some offer 12 hours of protection, while others only work for a couple of hours. Make sure to carefully read the label to see how long the formula lasts and reapply as needed.
Do bug repellents expire?
Most bug repellents have a lifespan of several years, but it depends on the formula, and more specifically, the active ingredient. If you're not sure how old a product is or how long it lasts, it's usually best to replace it every three years. When in doubt, we recommend buying a new one.
Why Trust The Spruce?
Having tried and tested several bug repellents, we took into account the type of repellent, active ingredients, and length of effectiveness when recommending the best options on the market. For background, we consulted with Emily Mader, a Program Manager for the Department of Entomology at the Northeast Regional Center for Excellence in Vector-Borne Diseases. She's published over 20 articles related to tick surveillance and control practices in the United States and Lyme disease treatment.
Theresa Holland is a freelance commerce writer with several years of experience covering outdoor living and recreation. When it comes to bug repellents, she's a big fan of Cutter Candles. Theresa has been writing for The Spruce since 2019 and also contributes to MyDomaine and Byrdie.