Comparing insect repellents

Bugs are annoying, their bites can be painful and itchy, and the diseases they sometimes carry can be life-changing. To prevent all those issues, make sure to use an effective insect repellent. Several powerful chemicals are registered as effective bug repellents, and they’re all safe. In addition to topical repellents, there are also some effective products that can deter pests from invading your campsite or outdoor dinner party.

Shop this article: Sawyer Products Maxi DEETSawyer Products Picaridin Insect RepellentRepel Lemon Eucalyptus Spray

What to consider before choosing an insect repellent

Is DEET safe?

Despite its controversial reputation, no adverse health effects have ever been observed from the topical application of DEET, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other research institutions. Poor reputation likely stems from a combination of the chemical’s greasy feel, intrusive smell and name, which is similar to DDT.

Either way, DEET remains the most effective, safe topical mosquito repellent. If you’re headed to a region with a malaria risk, don’t hesitate to pack 100% DEET bug spray. It could save your life and prevent permanent illness.

Natural mosquito repellents

Aside from the scientifically recognized options, there are quite a few “natural” sprays, ointments and other remedies that smell fantastic. Unfortunately, somewhere between few and none of the “natural” insect repellents are worth the plastic they’re packaged in.

Rest assured that there’s no conspiracy from “Big Chemical” to suppress natural mosquito repellents. In fact, essentially, no sprays that claim to be natural are actually natural. The reality is that researchers go to great lengths to test all sorts of novel compounds for bug-repelling properties. The ones that pass the test, such as DEET, picaridin and oil of lemon eucalyptus, are clinically proven effective.

Do bug-repellent wristbands work?

Topical repellents such as DEET and PMD only work when they cover all exposed skin. Wristbands come nowhere close to that. The best a wristband could do is prevent bites on a small area of the body, and even then it would only work if there’s basically no air movement.

Topical insect repellents

Repellent creams and sprays are often considered the most powerful line of defense against biting insects. There are multiple active ingredients with significant scientific evidence backing their effectiveness. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Environmental Protection Agency are in the business of registering and recommending the most effective ones.

The best bug repellents

best Sawyer Products Maxi DEET

Sawyer Products Maxi DEET

Made up almost entirely of DEET, it’s the longest-lasting, the most effective and the best choice for preventing itchy bites and dangerous infections. It comes in a 3.4-ounce spray bottle perfect for carrying onto domestic and international flights.

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best Sawyer Products Picaridin Insect Repellent

Sawyer Products Picaridin Insect Repellent

Nearly as well-respected as DEET, picaridin is highly effective against the most hazardous mosquito breeds and, notably, won’t damage plastic or some synthetic fibers the way DEET does. Sawyer Products offers several types of topicals, including creams and convenient, single-use lotion packs.

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best Repel Lemon Eucalyptus Spray

Repel Lemon Eucalyptus Spray

Its active ingredient is called PMD and comes from an industrial extract of the lemon eucalyptus plant, which makes this the closest you’ll get to a truly natural mosquito repellent. It’s also one of the most pleasant-smelling choices and won’t damage leather or synthetic fabrics.

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best R&R Lotion Insect Repellent

R&R Lotion Insect Repellent

This one’s formulated around IR3535 as an active ingredient, which is somewhat effective against mosquitos and highly effective against ticks. As such, it’s a good choice for North American backcountry trips where your biggest concern is avoiding Lyme and other diseases.

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best Ultrathon Repellent Spray

Ultrathon Repellent Spray

Its 25% DEET formulation is bolstered by a sweat- and splash-resistant solution that helps it to adhere and work for as long as pure DEET, but with less of the offensive smell and greasiness.

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best Sawyer Products Permethrin Spray

Sawyer Products Permethrin Spray

To be clear, this isn’t a repellent but actually an insecticide. Unlike other bug killers, though, it’s meant for treating clothing before you head out into any wilderness areas where there’s a risk of Zika virus, malaria or other insect-borne diseases.

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Insect repellents for large areas

Contrary to popular belief, citronella candles won’t do much to keep bugs away from your patio. Citronella smoke only makes a noticeable difference in closed quarters. There are, however, some modern and novel options for keeping decently sized outdoor areas mostly free from flying insects.

The top large area bug repellents

best Thermacell EX90

Thermacell EX90

This novel battery-powered solution heats a small reservoir of potent mosquito repellent and creates a nearly mosquito-free zone about 20 feet in diameter. Each insert lasts about 40 hours, so pick up some refills.

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best Thermacell Patio Shield

Thermacell Patio Shield

This area-of-effect repellent system uses a sealed butane canister (and no open flames) to disperse the powerful and nontoxic repellent in a circle about 15 feet wide. Again, you’ll need to stock up on refills to use it for more than one night.

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best Thermacell Backpacker

Thermacell Backpacker

After setting up camp in the wilderness, the last thing you want is for bugs to eat you alive. This portable option uses the same isobutane canisters recommended for high-efficiency backpacking stoves to keep a small camp free from pests.

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best Off! Clip-on Mosquito Repellent

Off! Clip-on Mosquito Repellent

This is one of the few wearable bug repellents that actually works. It uses a battery-powered fan to disperse a formula designed around metofluthrin, a nontoxic and effective deterrent to biting insects.

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Tips to avoid bug bites

Aside from using an effective bug repellent, there are some simple lifestyle tips that can keep you from falling victim to biting insects.

  • Avoid the most active times for mosquitos: The most common breeds are more active during dusk and dawn than at other times of the day. Limiting your time outside at those times can help minimize bites.
  • Get rid of their mating grounds: Mosquito larvae flourish in standing water, so don’t let any sit out during the warm months.
  • Wear loose-fitting clothing: Tight-fitting pants and shirts are relatively easy for bugs to bite through.
  • Avoid wearing dark colors: They tend to attract more bugs than light colors.
  • Minimize alcohol intake: Drinking increases your body’s heat and carbon dioxide footprints while and after you drink, which are the two most common ways that mosquitos and other bugs find their meals.

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Chris Thomas writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.

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