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Spending time in the great outdoors shouldn’t result in massive bug bites and itchy episodes. There are many insect repellents that can keep the bugs away and provide protection against the diseases carried by mosquitos, ticks, and more. But certain products, chemicals, and application methods are more effective at insect control than others.
Choosing the best bug repellent to buy begins with understanding when and where you may be using the product. For instance, there are bug repellents specifically designed for use in heavily wooded areas. Others are produced with added sunscreen for UVA and UVB protection. Some insect repellents are made to treat your gear, or even your dog! The good news is that there is an abundance of safe, effective products on the market to keep you from feeling miserable and itchy on your next outdoor adventure.
Here, the best insect repellents to buy now.
A favorite bug repellent with a record of effectiveness is Sawyer's Permethrin Pump Spray. A CDC-recommended insect repellent, Sawyer's uses picaridin to ward off mosquitos, flies, ticks, chiggers, and other nuisance insects. Emily Mader, Program Manager of the Department of Entomology at the Northeast Regional Center for Excellence in Vector-Borne Diseases, explains why it’s so important to note what pests a repellent is targeting. She says, “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.”
Available in a spray or lotion, Sawyer's products earn some of the highest marks for long-lasting protection as the spray lasts up to 12 hours and the lotion up to 14 hours. Many users also appreciate how easy it is to spray both skin and clothes with Sawyer Insect Repellent without worrying about damaging fabrics or finishes, which sometimes occurs with high-concentration DEET insect repellents. In addition, most people find the scent of picaridin to be much less overpowering than DEET.
In general, people rave about the effectiveness of Sawyer Insect Repellent. Whether you have casual outdoor plans or deep woods activities in mind, this bug repellent is safe, effective, and long-lasting.
If you expect your bug repellent to go the distance, choose a long-lasting formula with a high concentration of DEET. While the increase in this active ingredient doesn’t necessarily equate to increased effectiveness, it will extend the duration of protection from a single application. With a formula that is 98 percent DEET, it’s hard to get much more concentrated than Coleman 100 Max Insect Repellent.
This long-lasting bug repellent is rated for up to 10 hours of protection and reviewers have put it to the test in places like the woods of northern Florida, the Amazon rainforest, a jungle in Panama, or southeast Asia. Nearly everyone agrees that this is a strong and effective insect repellent that keeps away mosquitos and bugs. You’ll want to be careful not to get this product on synthetic fabrics or the finish of equipment, though, as one user had a pair of expensive sunglasses ruined when it came into contact with this highly concentrated DEET formula. This is true of many DEET insect repellents above 40 percent, so it’s not a flaw of this product specifically.
If you’re looking for an effective alternative to DEET, eucalyptus oil is a popular pick. Repel’s plant-based Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent is a top—albeit strongly scented—choice. This DEET-free bug repellent has a somewhat oily consistency and must be rubbed into your skin. It’s not an all-natural product but does have a plant-based formula that reviewers appreciate in contrast to conventional bug repellents.
The plant-based ingredients are highly pungent, and this strong scent has been a turn-off for some people. Most reviewers note that they are more than willing to put up with the scent in return for the hours of protection this bug repellent provides against mosquitos, though. Also important to note: Though this formula repels mosquitos, it’s not marketed as being able to deter other types of insects like flies, ticks, or chiggers.
Make sure that your children aren’t a target for mosquitos and other insects with a bug repellent that's specially formulated for kids and babies. This aerosol spray from OFF! is a popular pick thanks to its non-greasy formula which is safe for use on the whole family, including young children. It contains 15 percent DEET for effective protection against mosquitos that may carry Zika, Dengue, or West Nile viruses, and it also repels fleas, ticks, chiggers, and more.
The CDC indicates that DEET may be used on children older than 2 months of age but recommends that adults apply the product to children under the age of 10. What parents appreciate about this bug repellent is that the formula isn’t as sticky as some other sprays, which helps to prevent dirt and debris from becoming trapped on the skin. The biggest complaint is the noticeable ‘bug spray odor’ from this product, but it’s a minor nuisance for most people considering its smooth, dry formula and long-lasting effectiveness against insects.
“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
If you cringe every time someone picks up a bottle of bug repellent because you can’t stand the scent, check out Cutter Dry Unscented. This aerosol formula contains 10 percent DEET and, according to an abundance of reviews, has little or no detectable smell.
The ‘dry’ formula is designed to leave you with no sticky residue, which is another big plus for users of this unscented bug repellent. It’s also easy to layer it on after sunscreen, ensuring that you’re protected from both bugs and UV rays. Just be sure to apply thoroughly, since some reviewers noticed that if coverage was spotty, they were still subject to insect bites. When used properly, the formula effectively repels mosquitoes, ticks, flies, gnats, no-see-ums, chiggers, and fleas.
Even if you only spend a few dollars on bug repellent, you can still find an effective formula. Cutter's Skinsations Insect Repellent is a popular option for less than $5. The budget bug spray earns extra points with reviewers for its pleasant smell and light formula that includes aloe and vitamin E, but note that it's effective only against mosquitos.
With a formula containing 7 percent DEET, this is not the longest-lasting bug repellent on the market. Most people say that it provides adequate protection for about 2 hours, though. This makes it a great product for a quick walk, an hour or two around a campfire, or a short session of yard work.
“Some products can protect you for only 1 to 2 hours, so it is important to choose your product based on how long you think you will be outside and whether you will be able to re-apply the product in that time period.” –Emily Mader
A bug repellent lotion is a great way to increase your protection against bites from mosquitos and other pests without the worries of overspray or spotty application. Ultrathon Insect Repellent Lotion, from 3M, is a top choice and has a formula with 34 percent DEET which provides long-lasting protection—up to 12 hours—according to the manufacturer.
Reviewers find it to be a great option for outdoor pursuits like fishing, hiking, and camping, but another benefit is that it’s easier to apply in sensitive areas, like near your eyes, nose, and mouth. No matter what your outdoor pursuit is, the lotion formula makes it easy to apply the bug repellent right where you want it without overspray. This is also a great pick for a bug repellent lotion because it doesn’t include SPF, something that experts warn against since those types of formulas can lead to over-application of either active ingredient.
Another option for keeping insects away is to treat your clothing and gear. Permethrin sprays are a popular method of warding off ticks, mosquitos, flies, and more. Repel makes an unscented aerosol spray that lasts for up to two weeks after application and continues to protect your clothes even after washing.
Users find that using a bug repellent for their gear or clothing helps to provide another defense against insects when hiking, camping, or hunting and is particularly good protection against ticks that often latch onto shoes, socks, or pants. Each can should treat two to three outfits, according to users. You may want to stock up on a few cans if you also plan to treat your backpack, tent, or other gear.
One word of caution: If you have a cat, use a permethrin spray away from your feline friend and let your clothes or gear dry thoroughly before coming into contact with your pet. Cats are subject to experiencing adverse health effects if exposed to permethrin, particularly in high doses.
“Ticks latch onto people as they walk through a tick habitat (leaves, shrubs, tall grasses), and crawl up on shoes and pants. Treating your clothing and shoes with permethrin can be a really effective way to prevent tick bites, as this product kills them on contact. The added bonus is that permethrin works against mosquitoes, too.” –Emily Mader
For a natural bug repellent that is tough on insects but gentle to your skin, check out Mighty No Bitey. This all-natural insect spray is highly recommended by reviewers for its effectiveness against mosquitos, ticks, flies, and other pests. It leverages the power of essential oils like lemongrass, citronella, and cedarwood in a proprietary formula that is safe enough for use on even children and dogs.
If you have sensitive skin, then a natural bug repellent like Mighty No Bitey is a great option. One reviewer with this situation has found the product to be highly effective without causing irritation. That’s not always the case with natural insect repellents, which are sometimes limited in their ability to prevent bug bites.
Don’t let bug bites ruin your next trip; stash these Natrapel Insect Repellent Wipes in your suitcase, backpack, or pocket for convenient, effective protection. Each wipe contains a formula with 20 percent picaridin that is known to combat mosquitos, ticks, and other biting insects.
The advantage of this bug repellent for travel is the fact that you won’t need to worry about leaky spray bottles or aerosol cans being stowed in your luggage. In addition, these individually wrapped wipes have an absorbed liquid, which isn’t subject to TSA’s travel regulations for liquids.
Whether you’re planning the hike of a lifetime or just spending a week by the lake, you’ll appreciate how easy it is to apply this bug repellent. Reviewers say it’s easy to use a towelette to wipe your arms, legs, neck, and even sensitive areas near your face without missing a spot or inhaling fumes. You might find this bug repellent so convenient that you never go back to a spray-on formula again! The biggest complaint about these wipes is the fact that it sometimes takes more than one to ensure adequate coverage (especially for people with long legs or arms). On the plus side, though, the wipes offer hours of protection without needing to reapply.
“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.”—Emily Mader
For an electronic option that can keep bugs away, consider the Thermacell Radius Mosquito Repeller. When paired with a refillable cartridge, this lightweight, water-resistant device creates a zone of protection up to 110 square feet in size. The unit operates on a rechargeable battery (rated for 6 hours of battery life) and a repellent cartridge (cartridges provide up to 40 hours of use). The unit silently and efficiently wards off mosquitos without the need to spray yourself with a bug repellent.
What people like most about the Thermacell Radius is that the unit has an automatic shut-off timer after two hours to avoid inadvertently wasting the repellent cartridge inside. And unlike other electronic mosquito repellents, this unit also doesn’t use butane. Keep in mind that while this is a DEET-free bug repellent, it’s not an all-natural means of chasing mosquitos away. The Thermacell Radius relies on repellent cartridges that need periodic replacement, but it does offer great protection against bugs on your outdoor porch or patio and it's a good option for small groups.
If you’re looking for a safe and effective bug repellent that’s CDC-recommended, our top choice is Sawyer Permethrin Insect Repellent (view at Amazon). Their formula is able to ward off mosquitos, flies, ticks, chiggers, and more. However, if you’re looking for an alternative to DEET or picaridin based formulas, Repel’s Plant-Based Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent (view at Target) relies on a plan-based formula to repel insects.
Active Ingredients Make sure the main active ingredient in your repellent is appropriate for the type of bug you are looking to avoid and is safe to use in the way you are using it. Permethrin is intended to be used for clothing and gear only, and should not be sprayed directly on skin, while DEET, picaridin, and some effective natural repellents come in formulas that are safe for use on your skin.
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 to effectively repel insects. Often, the percentage of active ingredients, like DEET, are what controls the length of time between applications, so look for a higher concentration if you'd prefer longer coverage.