The Best Mosquito Repellent
The best mosquito repellent should protect you from bites without irritating your skin. 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.
DEET is the oldest and most extensively studied of our active ingredients — offering rock-solid protection against mosquito-borne illness. Off! Deep Woods is an aerosol spray that provides 8 hours of protection.
Repel Family Dry Insect Repellent
A gentle formula that works for 2-4 hours. Good for children as young as 2 months.
A newer, picaridin-based repellent that’s good for sensitive skin and offers eight hours of coverage.
Cutter Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent
An all-natural option that relies on oil of lemon eucalyptus. Provides 6-7 hours of protection.
The Best Mosquito Repellents
The best mosquito repellent includes enough active ingredient to repel mosquitoes for multiple hours. The key term is “active ingredient” — only a small number of ingredients are recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). DEET is the most thoroughly researched and widely available — and the most commonly recommended by our experts. But picaridin and oil of lemon eucalyptus are good alternatives if you have sensitive skin or want a natural pick.
If you just want a general-use mosquito repellent that provides a full day of protection, choose something from the Off! Deep Woods line. Off! is a known-and-trusted brand in the insect repellent world, and its Deep Woods repellents come in aerosols, pump sprays, and towelettes. The Deep Woods line contains 25 percent DEET, which provides up to eight hours of coverage. And unlike some DEET formulas we tested, the Deep Woods line didn’t irritate our skin at all.
What does “up to eight hours of protection” mean? As Joe Conlon, technical advisor at the American Mosquito Control Association explained, a repellent that advertises “up to eight hours” of protection means that you can expect eight hours of protection if you don’t wash — or sweat — your repellent off before the eight hours are up.
If you have kids, or if you’re looking for just enough repellent to cover an afternoon picnic, we recommend Repel Family Dry Insect Repellent. This 10 percent DEET repellent is designed to be safe for children, but its non-greasy, unscented spray will also be attractive to adults who are only looking for about four hours of mosquito protection.
For those with especially sensitive skin, try Sawyer Picaridin Insect Repellent Spray. Picaridin less likely to be a skin irritant than DEET, and testers barely noticed the repellent was on their skin once it dried. Sawyer contains 20 percent picaridin and comes in an aerosol spray. If you like the sound of picaridin but want a different method of application, you can also try Natrapel 8 Hour Insect Repellent Wipes.
For those who want an all-natural, plant-based ingredient, Cutter Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent and Repel Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent are two pump spray repellents that performed identically during testing. They’ll make you smell like you’ve been dipped in lemon eucalyptus (an herbal, menthol-tinged scent), but they should keep the bugs at bay for six or seven hours.
How We Found the Best Mosquito Repellent
We began by examining 85 mosquito repellents: everything from 98 percent DEET sprays to products made entirely out of perfume. Our first step was to figure out which repellents would actually work. Unsurprisingly, the two US agencies responsible for assessing the safety and efficacy of bug sprays — the CDC and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) — don’t think perfume will do the trick. Strong perfumes repel people, but mosquitoes don’t care.
Instead, the CDC and EPA recommend three active ingredients: DEET, picaridin, and oil of lemon eucalyptus. So we eliminated repellents that didn’t include one of those three.
We wanted to keep active ingredients within a safe — and effective — range.
What about citronella? While mosquitoes don’t seem to like citronella, it evaporates quickly, with studies finding that it rarely protects for more than a couple of hours even at high concentrations. If you’re looking for a natural mosquito repellent, we’d suggest oil of lemon eucalyptus instead.
Our next step was to figure out how much active ingredient was enough — and how much was too much. 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.
A 10 to 30 percent range turned out to be the safe zone. The CDC reports that mosquito repellents with an active ingredient concentration below 10 percent probably won’t get the job done. But repellents with active ingredient concentrations above 30 percent are likely to be overkill. Consumer Reports and the Environmental Working Group (EWG) both suggest capping DEET-based products, in particular, at 30 percent.
After cutting repellents with active ingredient percentages that fell outside of this 10-30 percent range, we were left with 32 products.
Hours of Protection
Up to 8 hours
Up to 8 hours
Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus
Meet Your Active Ingredients
DEET is a synthetic chemical originally developed as a pesticide, redeveloped as a topical insect repellent for the US Army, and then marketed as a consumer product. It’s been around since the 1940s. One of its main draws is that it’s well-researched: It has over 70 years worth of studies to support its efficacy, which is a definite advantage if you’re traveling through an area with a high rate of mosquito-borne illness.
The big question, for most consumers, is whether DEET is safe. The short answer is yes. But treat it with respect. We read all the DEET research we could find, and while a small number of people have experienced seizures, this has usually followed significant overexposure — a child using a 95 percent DEET repellent, for example, or a child sleeping in bedclothes doused with DEET.
To play it safe, 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.
In the 1980s, scientists at Bayer developed picaridin, a synthetic chemical meant to replicate piperine, a natural chemical found in black pepper. Picaridin has only been available as a topical mosquito repellent in the US since 2005, which means there’s far less data on it than on DEET.
However, existing clinical studies suggest picaridin is just as effective against mosquitos as DEET and is a better option for people with sensitive skin. Unlike DEET, the EPA has concluded that picaridin is not a dermal irritant or sensitizer. Picaridin can cause eye irritation and shouldn’t be swallowed, but the risk of other side effects is low. That said, follow the instructions, avoid using more than you need — and do not apply to infants younger than 6 months of age.
Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus
If you’re looking for a natural repellent, Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus is your best bet. This mosquito repellent is as old as the hills; as the name suggests, it’s oil derived from the lemon eucalyptus plant, although synthetic versions of the chemical also exist. You might also spot it under its chemical name, para-menthane-diol. Mosquito repellents that contain oil of lemon eucalyptus will have a very strong odor. It’s generally regarded as effective, though a 30 percent formula only offers about six to seven hours of coverage — less than both picaridin and DEET.
The CDC considers oil of lemon eucalyptus safe for children over the age of three. (Essential oils shouldn’t be used on very young children due to the risk of allergic reaction.) Like picaridin, oil of lemon eucalyptus can cause eye irritation, but other side effects are minimal.
The 20 Mosquito Repellents We Tested
Of our remaining 32 products, we tested 20, cutting redundant products from the same brand. Most notably, we skipped the Off! Deep Woods Sportsmen line, which turned out to be identical to regular old Off! Deep Woods — just in blue bottles rather than green, and marketed, apparently, toward “sportsmen.”
After whittling down our list, it was time to start spraying, wiping, and applying.
We tossed out any repellents that stunk.
Let’s be blunt: 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 applied the repellents to see how they felt.
Yes, aerosols are safe to use! If you grew up learning that aerosol spray cans filled the air with chlorofluorocarbons that damaged the ozone layer, that information is now outdated. Today’s aerosol sprays are safe to use.
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. The Repel Sportsmen Insect Repellent Stick was the same size and shape as a gluestick, but instead of a twist-up applicator, you had to push the repellent up with your thumb and hold it in place as you applied. The 3M Ultrathon Insect Repellent 8, the Ben’s 30% DEET Tick & Insect Repellent Eco Spray, and the Natrapel 12 Hour Insect Repellent were all heavy, drippy sprays that sent trails of repellent running down our arms — not good if you want to avoid getting repellent on your clothing.
Although this looks like a twist-up applicator, don’t be fooled. You’ll have to use your thumb to keep the Repel Sportsmen Insect Repellent Stick from sliding back into the tube as you apply.
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. You may have more or less sensitive skin, so choose your repellents accordingly.
Our Picks for the Best Mosquito Repellent
Best DEET Repellent
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:
Despite the baffling array of numbers (and no, we don’t know what happened to Off! Deep Woods VI), they all have the same active ingredient. The numbers just denote different methods of application.
What makes Off! Deep Woods so great? First, there’s smell. 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.
Second, application 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. 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.
If you’re looking for a spray alternative, the Off! Deep Woods Towelettes worked well. All you have to do is unwrap the package and lightly rub the towelette over your exposed skin. They’re a good option if you want to avoid the inhalation risk that comes with spray, or if you want an easy way to apply repellent to spots like your ears or neck. But note that the spray is significantly cheaper (about $5 for a 6-ounce bottle versus $7 for 12 towelettes). One of our testers also reported that the towelettes made her skin feel slightly itchy.
Best DEET Spray for Families
If you’ve got young kids, you 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 Insect Repellent Family Dry, an aerosol spray that contains 10 percent DEET for up to four hours of protection. “Physicians recommend that a formulation of no more than 10 percent DEET be used on children,” Conlin told us.
How young is too young to apply repellent? 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.
Here’s why we love Repel Family: First, the spray is child-sized. Some of the 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.)
Second, there’s almost no odor. We were only able to catch a hint of that acrid 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.
Third, the repellent feels great. 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.
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. A 4-ounce bottle runs about $6.
Best Non-DEET Repellent for Sensitive Skin
If you have sensitive skin, a sensitive nose, or just want to try a picaridin repellent, we’d suggest Sawyer Picaridin Insect Repellent, an aerosol spray that contains 20 percent picaridin. Shainhouse 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.
We also loved that Sawyer was essentially unscented. 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. A 6-ounce bottle retails for around $8.
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. Conlon also told us that “lotions may take up to 20 minutes to exert their repellent effect,” unlike the instant protection offered by sprays.
If you don’t like sprays and are looking for an alternative, we’d recommend Natrapel 8 Hour Insect Repellent Wipes instead. They do have a more perfumey odor than Sawyer’s line of picaridin repellents. But wipes let you apply repellent exactly where you want it, with no drips, gloops, or 20-minute waiting period. Plus, you don’t need to worry about your box of individually wrapped wipes leaking into the rest of your backpack. 12 wipes for $7.
Best Natural Non-DEET Repellent
Here’s where the world of mosquito repellents gets interesting: We tested two oil of lemon eucalyptus repellents that appear to be identical. Repel Plant-Based Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent and Cutter Lemon Eucalyptus Repellent both contain 30 percent oil of lemon eucalyptus. They come in nearly identical 4-ounce non-aerosol pump bottles. They’ll both cost you about $5. The bottles even look the same.
So we’re recommending both. If you’re looking for a repellent that’s as natural as possible, either fits the bill. Both pump sprays were easy to use, and both repellents felt comfortable on the skin. Even though they rely on an essential oil as their active ingredient, they weren’t noticeably oilier than picaridin or DEET repellents.
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 more noticeable.
We would advise staying away from the Coleman Botanicals Insect Repellent, however; it also relies on oil of lemon eucalyptus, but we found the smell almost unbearable, like a Vicks VapoRub truck crashed into a Bath and Body Works. The bottle also had a wide spray radius that exceeded the width of our arms and left us feeling like we were wasting product.
Did You Know?
Avoid mosquito repellents that contain sunscreen.
Yes, you want to protect your skin from both mosquitoes and harmful UV rays. But sunscreen protection usually wears off before mosquito repellent does. If you only apply the product once over an eight-hour span, you risk getting sunburned. But if you reapply every few hours — especially if you’re using a DEET-based product — you run the risk of overexposure to your repellent.
“Apply your sunscreen and makeup first, and then spray or rub on your insect repellant,” advised Tsipporia Shainhouse, dermatologists and voice behind Facebook.com/StaySkinSafe and @stayskinsafe. “You can still reapply sunscreen throughout the day, over the repellant.”
If you’re looking for a good sunscreen, check out our favorites.
Remember to replace your repellent regularly.
The active ingredient in mosquito repellent won’t expire, but the inactive ingredients — like the fragrance components — will. Shainhouse told us that you can expect your mosquito repellent to last for about three years, and explained how to tell if it’s gone bad: “If you spray it into the air and it smells wrong, throw it out. If you have a cream or gel formulation, and it has changed color or separated (yellow, brown, oily, watery) or the texture is off, throw it out. If the bottle is rusted over, throw it out.”
A reputable active ingredient should be effective across the globe.
Many mosquito repellents will advertise protection against Zika or West Nile virus on their packaging, but any repellent that uses a CDC-recommended active ingredient should be effective on the majority of mosquitoes, regardless of strain or location.
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.”
Repellents can be harsh on some specialty fabrics.
You aren’t supposed to apply topical mosquito repellent to clothing (just skin), but bug sprays are unlikely to damage common fabrics, like denim, cotton, or nylon. Mosquito repellent users sometimes complain about damage to Lycra and Gore-Tex, however — fabrics that can show up in athleisure and hiking gear. So we tested all 20 of our contenders against both fabrics. We were hoping to find a pick that would be totally safe for both.
The Gore-Tex fared pretty well: we noticed a little staining from the DEET-based repellents, but our picaridin and oil of lemon eucalyptus sprays just pooled on top of the fabric without soaking in. When we tested our repellents on Lycra (Spandex) swatches, however, every single product damaged the fabric, leaving behind both dark stains and puckered fabric. DEET, picaridin, and OLE were all equally harmful.
Our scientific analysis? If you’re worried about ruining expensive fabrics, try a wipe rather than a spray. This makes it a little easier to control your application. And unless you really need it, consider leaving the Spandex at home. Shainhouse pointed out that when it comes to avoiding bites, “Looser garments are best. Mosquitos will bite right through spandex yoga pants.”
Avoid attracting mosquitoes to your home.
Don’t make your backyard a mosquito haven. “Removing standing water from property is one of the most important actions people can take, as it eliminates breeding sites of mosquitoes,” Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease physician and senior associate at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told us. Amy Lawhorne, vice president of Mosquito Squad, suggests eliminating yard trash (think twigs, leaves, grass clippings) because they also make popular mosquito breeding areas. She advises homeowners to clean out their gutters; make sure downspouts are aligned properly; and position items like tarps, trash cans, or children’s toys so they don’t collect standing water.