The Best Mosquito Repellents
Whether you're barbecuing, sunbathing or hiking, these expert-recommended mosquito repellents will keep you from becoming a pesky bug's big lunch.
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Nothing will ruin your time outdoors faster than a swarm of blood-sucking mosquitoes. More than just an annoyance, these little vampires carry diseases like the West Nile Virus, the most common mosquito-borne disease in the U.S. In 2020 there were more than 650 reported cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And while that represents a small percentage of the overall population, it’s not something to take lightly. On top of that, itchy mosquito bites will keep you awake at night and just drive you crazy in general.
It’s important to take steps to keep the little flying pests away. Covered porches and devices like the Thermacell that create a zone of protection are great for stationary activities, but if you’re on the move outdoors, it’s hard to beat a good old topical repellent.
Sawyer Ultra 30 Insect Repellent
“DEET remains the standard repellent and is very effective,” says Grayson C. Brown, Ph.D., director of the public health entomology laboratory at the University of Kentucky. According to Brown, a mosquito repellent with a 30 percent DEET formulation is sufficient. “Higher concentrations do not give proportionately higher levels of repellency,” he says. Of all of the active ingredients found in standard mosquito repellent, Brown says DEET has the broadest range of effectiveness. It also keeps ticks at bay.
Off! Deep Woods
If you prefer a brand-name repellent to keep mosquitoes away, try SC Johnson’s OFF!, suggests Brown. “The line is extremely good and the company goes to great lengths to conduct scientific validation of their product line,” he says.
Cutter Skinsations Insect Repellent
Cutter’s Skinsations, in particular, has a lower percentage of DEET at just seven percent and feels nice and smooth on the skin, thanks to vitamin E extract. Says one fan on Amazon, “I didn’t feel desperate for a shower as soon as I got inside.” Of note: Many reviewers commented this spray was effective for just two to three hours; keep that in mind if you’re spending many hours outdoors. “Less concentrated versions of DEET smell better, but do not last as long, so do check the information on the bottle for its longevity,” adds Tsippora Shainhouse, M.D., a Los Angeles-based dermatologist.
Sawyer Insect Repellent with 20 percent Picaridin
For an effective mosquito repellent that’s gentler on your skin, search for one with Picaridin. “It’s as effective as DEET and has no known negative effects — some people have skin reactions to DEET,” says Brown, adding Picaridin is “safe for use on babies and elderly. It’s great!” Sawyer Insect Repellent with 20 percent Picaridin lasts up to 14 hours. One fan of the insect repellent raved on Amazon, “Mosquitoes love me! Yesterday, I used Sawyer Picaridin and went out in the afternoon to prune banana trees for several hours and never got a single bite.”
Sawyer Permethrin Clothing Insect Repellent
Some types of mosquito repellents are made specifically for use on clothing rather than exposed skin, typically those containing permethrin; it provides heavy-duty protection and is especially good for hikers and hunters. Permethrin also helps prevent ticks from climbing up your socks/pant leg, Brown says.
Sawyer Premium Insect Repellent doesn’t damage fabrics and also fends off the Yellow Fever Mosquito, a carrier of the ZIKA virus. “Unlike DEET which doesn’t kill mosquitoes, just repels them, permethrin does kill mosquitoes and ticks,” adds Deanne Mraz Robinson, M.D., assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Yale New Haven Hospital.
Ben’s 30 percent DEET Insect Repellent Spray
“There is no evidence to support that theory that DEET isn’t safe,” says Kristina Goldenberg, M.D., of Goldenberg Dermatology in New York City. “Products containing DEET are safe and very effective at protecting the skin from insects and ticks.” She likes Ben’s 30 Percent DEET Insect Repellent Spray. One Amazon fan says the product is “very convenient to point and apply. Just takes two or three pumps of mist on each leg and those irritating mosquitoes are history.”
Repel Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent
“If you prefer something more natural, try bug-sprays that use oil of lemon eucalyptus as a base,” says Nikola Djordjevic, M.D., of MedAlertHelp.org. “It’s more effective than other natural alternatives.” Dr. Djordjevic is a fan of Repel Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent, which is DEET-free and organic. “You just need to spray every six hours for maximum effect,” he says. “It protects you from ZIKA, West Nile, dengue, and chikungunya viruses, making it ideal for traveling abroad.” Note: Lemon eucalyptus is not safe for kids under age three.
Avon Skin So Soft Bug Guard Plus Picaridin
Avon’s Skin So Soft has been an industry beauty must-have for generations. It not only makes the skin luscious, but for some reason mosquitoes hate it. There are a few types on the market, so be sure to pick up the one with Picaridin that doesn’t have sunscreen, says Dr. Shainhouse. “The bug spray can last eight hours and can be toxic if applied every two to three hours as sunscreen should be,” she says.
Cutter Dry Insect Repellent
“I especially like this product, because it contains 10 percent DEET and is fragrance-free, so the risk of irritation is minimized,” Dr. Goldenberg says. When you’re outside at night, enjoying a meal or chatting away with friends, don’t forget your feet, reminds Dr. Shainhouse. Mosquitoes love to take a bite out of your feet and ankles. So if you’re wearing sandals, spray your feet before slipping them on. Mosquitoes, she warns, also like to bite sweaty neck and scalps, even at night, so cover up as much as possible to fend off those pests.
According to Dr. Robinson, when it comes to mosquito repellents, “people may assume using essential oils is safer, however essential oils can cause skin irritation, or worse, if not properly diluted in a carrier oil…Certain essential oils can act as potential endocrine disruptors and can result in hormone changes.” For a safe, all-natural option, try SKYORGNIC’s Organic Bug Spray. It is DEET-free, good for the whole family to use, certified USDA Organic, and contains extracts of citronella, castor, peppermint and lemongrass oil.
Citronella candles and other products have been the most common way to keep mosquitoes away from your back deck or outdoor sitting area with summertime, but does it really work? The short answer is yes, but only briefly. “When outdoors, citronella candles can provide up to 50 percent extra protection for less than one hour, compared to using no repellent, but they are not considered to be effective in any form,” says Dr. Shainhouse.
The Thermacell Radius uses heat to activate a repellent that keeps mosquitoes away within a 15- to 20-ft. radius, depending on which product you’re using. The repellent is made with allethrin, a synthetic version of a natural repellent found in chrysanthemums. Allethrin is EPA-approved and safe for humans and animals, but it is made specifically for outdoor use. If you’re hosting a party on the back deck or hanging out at your campsite and don’t want to slather yourself in mosquito repellent, check out the Thermacell Radius or the portable MR450.