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During the warmer months, bug bites — like sunburns — are sometimes an unfortunate consequence of spending time outdoors. But bites from mosquitoes, ticks and other insects can be much more than just irritating or itchy — they can carry illnesses like malaria and Lyme disease, too. One preventative and protective measure you can take to avoid bug bites is applying insect repellent. Figuring out which ones are actually effective can be confusing, though, seeing as the labels are often covered with complicated ingredients and jargon like “DEET” and “all-natural.”
SKIP AHEAD Best insect repellents | What is insect repellent? | How to apply insect repellent
To help simplify your shopping, we consulted experts about what’s important to pay attention to when buying bug repellent. Using their guidance, we also rounded up a handful of products you can use to prevent bug bites.
From sprays and lotions to rubber bracelets and stick-on patches infused with essential oils, there are many products on the market that claim to repel insects. But they’re not all equally effective, and they don’t all have comprehensive data or research to support their claims.
“I think the key to choosing a proper insect repellent is to get something that you can do some research on and see effective scientific data that shows it works,” said Daniel Markowski, a technical advisor for the American Mosquito Control Association. “If something seems too good to be true, it probably is.”
With that being said, experts said there are a few factors you should consider while shopping for insect repellent, which we detailed below.
All the experts we spoke to recommended finding an EPA-registered insect repellent. The EPA has an online search tool that helps you look up registered bug repellents, and we used it to check the registration numbers on each of the products we recommended. All registered repellents offer protection against mosquitoes, but only some work against ticks.
Most experts we consulted agreed that DEET is the most effective active ingredient in an insect repellent. DEET has gotten a bad reputation as being unsafe, but experts told us there are no health risks associated with using it. “DEET is a controversial ingredient, largely because of misinformation. Some folks confuse it with DDT, an unrelated and banned compound in the United States, and others worry about reported neurological issues associated with DEET use that have been disproven by the medical community,” noted Erika T. Machtinger, an assistant professor of entomology at Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences.
Despite assurance from the medical community that DEET is safe, shoppers may consider looking for DEET-free insect repellents or ones labeled “natural.” There are some EPA-approved DEET-free insect repellents with other active ingredients, but experts don’t recommend natural repellents due to the lack of data to verify their effectiveness claims (and none of them are EPA-approved).
Which bucket a product falls into may impact what active ingredients it’s made with. Both the experts we spoke to and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend finding an insect repellent that’s registered with the EPA and features one of the following active ingredients:
Our experts told us that a higher percentage of an active ingredient does not increase your level of protection, though it does keep you protected for a longer period of time. In other words, the higher the concentration of an active ingredient, the longer the repellent will be effective, said Eva Buckner, the medical entomology extension specialist at the University of Florida. Concentrations can range anywhere from 10% to 100%, and according to Machtinger, repellents will generally work the same for the first couple of hours after they’re applied.
Markowski said most experts will advise against using a bug repellent that contains over 30% of an active ingredient. “You don’t really gain additional repellency from a product with a 70% or 100% concentration of active ingredients, but you are putting a lot more of the actual chemical on your skin,” he said. “Therefore, you’re much more likely to have adverse effects like allergic reactions.”
Since DEET was the preferred active ingredient among the experts we consulted, we’ve included highly rated, EPA-registered DEET insect repellents first with up to 30% of the ingredient, per expert advice. Recognizing that some shoppers might want DEET-free options, we’ve also included a few insect repellents that don’t use the ingredient, but are still EPA-registered and contain one of the active ingredients recommended by the CDC.
This repellent is formulated with a concentration of 15% DEET, which amounts to six hours of protection, and it works against mosquitoes, biting flies, gnats, ticks, chiggers, and fleas, the company says. The sweat-resistant spray is meant for outdoor activities like running and hiking. It’s earned an average 4.5-star rating over more than 850 reviews at Walmart.
This sweat-resistant repellent features 25% DEET in its formula, which the company said protects you for up to 10 hours. In addition to mosquitoes, the repellent is meant to ward off ticks, biting flies, gnats, no-see-ums, chiggers and fleas. It has a 4.7-star average rating from more than 1,000 reviews on Amazon.
This lotion repellent is meant to protect against mosquitoes, ticks, and chiggers. It’s formulated with 30% DEET — the company says that the liposome base in the formula works to slowly release the active ingredient to extend the effectiveness of it, with protection lasting up to 11 hours (liposomes can also be found in some cosmetics). You can bring this insect repellent with you in your carry-on since it’s less than 3.4 ounces. It has an average 4.5-star rating from more than 590 reviews on Amazon.
Consumer Reports tested and gave its seal of approval to this insect repellent, which contains 25% DEET and repels mosquitos, ticks, biting flies, chiggers, gnats, deer flies and fleas, according to the brand. It lasts up to eight hours, according to 3M, and is splash- and sweat-resistant. The insect repellent has a 4.5-star average rating from over 760 reviews on Amazon.
Repel’s insect repellent spray is formulated with oil of lemon eucalyptus and protects against mosquitoes for up to six hours, the brand says. The lemon eucalyptus in the repellent is meant to be non-greasy so your skin doesn’t feel sticky when applying it, according to Repel. It has a 4.4-star average rating over more than 33,200 reviews on Amazon.
This repellent features 20% picaridin in its formula with up to 12 hours of protection against mosquitoes and ticks, along with eight hours of protection against flies, gnats, and chiggers, the company says. The spray is meant to be non-greasy, too, according to Sawyer. The insect repellent comes in a pack of two and has a 4.5-star average rating from over 22,400 reviews on Amazon.
Made with 30% oil of lemon eucalyptus, this bug repellent’s formula is meant to repel mosquitoes for up to six hours, the brand says. It leaves a lemon eucalyptus scent on the skin, but it isn’t supposed to feel oily, according to Cutter. It has a 4.5-star average rating from over 3,200 reviews on Amazon.
This repellent is formulated with 5% picaridin, which is meant to provide protection for up to four hours, according to OFF!. The pump spray is meant to protect against mosquitoes. Notably, it’s designed to work on clothing as well as skin and the company says it won’t damage cotton, wool or nylon. It has a 4.3-star average rating from over 170 reviews on Walmart.
The term “insect repellent” might seem broad — there are a lot of insects in the wild — but insect repellents, also commonly called bug sprays, usually cover mosquitoes, ticks or both, experts told us.
An insect repellent works by essentially jamming an insect’s radar, thus altering the insect’s ability to find a host. Experts explained that insect repellent compromises the ability of the sensory devices on the antennae to find a suitable host. A repellent affects senses like smell and taste, too, but it usually doesn’t kill the insect, according to Buckner.
Out of the three types of insect repellents, DEET insect repellents are “by far and away the most effective,” Markowski said. “It’s kind of the gold standard, if you will.”
DEET was developed by the U.S. Army in 1946 and was approved for public use in 1957, so it’s been around for a while. As such, it’s “one of the most well-studied repellents on the market,” said Neeta Pardanani Connally, a biology professor at Western Connecticut State University (WCSU). While there’s “some disagreement on exactly how DEET works, the general consensus is that it interferes with the pest’s host-finding ability — basically, they can’t smell you anymore,” Machtinger explained.
By a wide margin, DEET is in most EPA-registered insect repellents — over 500 products feature it as an active ingredient (in second place is IR355 with about 45 products and in third is picaridin with more than 40).
Like DEET, DEET-free insect repellents formulated with the active ingredients we listed above are safe and effective, experts told us. However, they haven’t been around as long as DEET, which means experts haven’t had as much time to study their efficacy. Picaridin, for example, performs just as well as DEET when it comes to insects, but it hasn’t been studied as long, according to Buckner. Machtinger echoed this and added that though picaridin can be a “reasonable alternative to DEET,” it might “be more challenging to find in some places” — it can also be more expensive.
The experts we consulted cautioned against using insect repellents that are branded as natural. Consumer Reports has also found them less effective compared to other types of insect repellents.
The EPA doesn’t allow the use of the terms “natural” or “naturally” on the label of any registered pesticide product “because the terms cannot be well defined and may be misconstrued as safety claims,” a spokesperson said. Natural repellents usually contain botanicals, which Consumer Reports noted are not registered with the EPA, and essential oils, which experts said don’t have as much scientific data to back up their efficacy claims compared to other active ingredients.
“It’s kind of the ‘Wild West’ out there with natural products right now,” noted Connally, who oversees WCSU’s Tickborne Disease Prevention Laboratory. The natural repellent market can get especially complicated because some products with “natural ingredients” like clove and lemongrass oil are accepted as “minimum risk” pesticides, according to the EPA, but aren’t held to the same high standards as those that are registered to show “that a product does indeed have the repellency effects that the label claims,” Connally added.
As we mentioned above, all the experts we spoke to recommend finding an EPA-registered insect repellent. But why does the EPA regulate insect repellents? While it might seem surprising, insect repellents are considered pesticides even though these sprays are meant to repel, rather than impair, insects. As such, most skin-applied insect repellents have to be registered by the EPA before being marketed to the public, and it’s up to the EPA to regulate them, a spokesperson for the agency confirmed.
The EPA reviews each repellent independently to confirm its efficacy before registration, the spokesperson added. A company applies for registration and the “EPA determines whether the product actually works and weighs the product’s benefits against its risks,” the organization told us. Registration means that a product has passed safety standards, is approved for use as the directions on the label state and can be sold and distributed in the U.S.
Not all insect repellents need to be registered with the EPA, though. Repellents with ingredients like citronella and cedar don’t need to be registered with the organization — while the EPA found they didn’t pose any health risks, they weren’t proven to be effective, either, “which is why typically we do not recommend these products,” explained Sonja Swiger, an associate professor at Texas A&M University’s department of entomology.
The EPA’s repellent database was last updated in June 2019 — the EPA confirmed that the products listed all remain registered and more recently registered repellents haven’t been added yet. A product remains registered as long as:
In 2020, the EPA registered a new active ingredient, nootkatone, the first one approved in over 11 years — it smells like grapefruit. While approved for use, there haven’t been any applications for products with nootkatone-based repellents to hit the EPA’s desk yet — the only registered product with the ingredient in it is made for manufacturing use, an agency spokesperson told us.
If the first step of preventing bug bites is buying an effective insect repellent, the second step is applying the product correctly, experts said. Many people are specifically concerned about mosquitos in the warmer months, and Markowski said “they’re very good at finding a host” during this time. ”Even if a quarter-sized amount of skin is not protected with repellent, they’re going to find it,” he said.
To ensure you’re fully protected, apply mosquito repellent like you would sunscreen. Spray or dollop it on to any exposed skin and be sure to rub it in, and read the product’s label to find the suggested reapplication time. You don’t need to reapply insect repellent more frequently than the brand suggests unless you’re sweating or spending time in water where it can wash off your skin, Markowski said.
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Zoe Malin is an associate updates editor for Select on NBC News.
Ambar Pardilla is a former reporter for Select on NBC News.
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