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8 best insect repellents of 2021: DEET and DEET-free bug spray

When it comes to insect repellents, you’ll want to find one that features an EPA-registered number — and other tips from experts.
Husband and wife Camping. The best insect repellents for summer 2021 include DEET repellents, DEET-free repellents, natural insect repellents, picaridin insect repellents, OFF! bug spray and more.
What’s the buzz on insect repellents? We turned to experts to find out what to consider before buying a repellent. bogdankosanovic / Getty Images

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Along with beach reads, swimsuits and sunscreen, the summer is also traditionally known as mosquito season — and bug bites are a sometimes 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. Beyond removing water from the backyard or setting up electric fans outside, one preventative and protective measure you can take to avoid bites is applying insect repellent. Still, that might be easier said than done — if you’ve ever searched for an insect repellent, the labels can seem confusing, from the acronyms to the numbers. To help your shopping, we consulted experts about how to shop for an insect repellent and deciphered common jargon like” DEET,” “DEET-free” and “natural” when attached to a spray.

SKIP AHEAD Best insect repellents

How experts shop for insect repellents

All the experts we spoke to recommend finding an EPA-registered insect repellent, sharing the same sentiment as David Brown, the technical advisor to the American Mosquito Control Association. The Centers for Disease Control likewise recommends finding an insect repellent that’s registered with the EPA and features one of the following active ingredients.

  • DEET
  • Picaridin
  • IR3535
  • Oil of lemon eucalyptus
  • Para-menthane-diol (also referred to as PMD)
  • 2-undecanone

Brown emphasized that you should use an EPA-registered product and carefully follow label instructions on a repellent “to ensure safe and effective use.” Unregistered insect repellents aren't necessarily following specific guidelines regarding efficacy, “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. EPA-registered insect repellents, like all EPA-registered products, will have a one-of-a-kind number (normally on the back label) that lets you know it’s legitimate to use. You'll usually find one of them listed in the front label of a repellent.

Last year, 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 with nootkatone-based repellents that have 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.

DEET versus DEET-free versus natural insect repellents

Think of insect repellents within three main buckets: DEET, DEET-free and natural — it’s how many are marketed.

DEET insect repellents

Out of the three, DEET insect repellentsare arguably the most common and considered the “gold standard” in terms of ingredients, according to a few of the experts we talked to.

DEET was developed by the U.S. Army in 1946 and 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,” mentioned Erika T. Machtinger, an assistant professor of entomology at Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences.

DEET is a controversial ingredient, largely because of misinformation.

Erika T. Machtinger, Entomology professor, Penn State University

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 third is picaridin with more than 40). More recently, DEET has gotten a bad reputation as being unsafe, which Consumer Reports traced back in 2019.

“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,” Machtinger explained.

Despite the controversy, mostexperts we consulted agreed that DEET is the most effective active ingredient to look out for in an insect repellent.

DEET-free insect repellents

You may see labels on insect repellents that say the words “DEET-free” in larger letters but you’ll probably have to look down to find what the actual active ingredient is.

For example, if you look closely at this repellent from REPEL, it features oil of lemon eucalyptus. You can think of these as alternatives to DEET, experts explained. These include EPA-registered active ingredients like para-menthane-diol, 2-undecanone, IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus and picaridin — the latter is probably the one you’ll come across most often.

Like DEET, DEET-free insect repellents that have the aforementioned active ingredients are safe and effective, experts told us. They haven’t been around as long as DEET. Picaridin performs just as well as DEET when it comes to insects but hasn’t been studied as long, according to Eva Buckner, the medical entomology extension specialist at the University of Florida. Machtinger echoed this and added that picaridin can be a “reasonable alternative to DEET” but might “be more challenging to find in some places” — it can also be more expensive.

Natural insect repellents

The experts we consulted cautioned against insect repellents that are branded as natural.

“Many are simply not successful at repelling insects as well as products that have been tested and registered by the EPA,” Brown said. Yes, technically, these are DEET-free, but they tend to be free of chemicals, too, said Stan Cope, the vice president of technical products and services at pest management company Catchmaster. And that’s where the problem lies.

For its part, 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 and essential oils, too.

“It’s kind of the ‘Wild West’ out there with natural products right now,” noted Connally, who oversees WCSU’s Tickborne Disease Prevention Laboratory. It 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 claim,” Connally added.

“The products may be considered more ‘natural’ but often contain known allergens and may cause skin reactions,” Machtinger told us. Natural insect repellents can have allergens at higher concentrations than other products that are branded as natural, according to Consumer Reports, which has found them to be less effective, too.

Best insect repellents for mosquitoes and more

As experts recommended finding an EPA-registered insect repellent, we’ve included top-rated ones to consider. The EPA has an online search tool that lets you find registered repellents and we used it to check the registration numbers on each of the products below. All registered repellents offer protection against mosquitoes but only some work against ticks.

The EPA’s repellent database was last updated in 2019 — the EPA confirmed that the products listed all remain registered and more recently registered repellents haven’t been added. A product remains registered as long as:

  • Registrants pay annual maintenance fees
  • The EPA isn’t forced to change the registration given emerging factors like adverse effects
  • The company doesn’t voluntarily cancel the registration

When it comes to concentration (or the percentage of active ingredient in a product), many experts explained that a higher number doesn’t mean more protection — contrary to what some might assume. The percentage “does not increase your level of protection, but it does increase the length of time of protection,” Brown said. In other words, the higher concentration, the longer the repellent will be effective, Buckner added. According to Machtinger, a 10-percent and 100-percent DEET repellent will work the same for the first couple of hours after putting them on, but the 100 percent will last longer. Cope, who previously served as president of the American Mosquito Control Association (AMCA), argued that a DEET concentration of 25 to 30 percent should usually be sufficient.

As DEET was the preferred active ingredient among the experts we consulted, we’ve included DEET insect repellents first. 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.

Best DEET insect repellents

OFF! Active Insect Repellent I

This repellent is formulated with a concentration of 15 percent DEET, which amounts to six hours of protection, and works against mosquitoes, biting flies, gnats, ticks, chiggers, and fleas, the company says. The sweat-resistant spray meant for outdoor activities like running and hiking. It’s earned an average 4.5-star rating over more than 680 reviews at Walmart.

Repel 100 Insect Repellent

It’s a popular pick on Amazon, boasting an average 4.6-star rating over more than 8,200 reviews. The bestselling repellent is made with over 98 percent DEET, which offers protection that lasts for 10 hours. It’s designed to work against mosquitoes, biting flies, gnats, ticks, chiggers, and fleas, the company says. The repellent also features a pump spray rather than the usual aerosol spray of other repellents.

Cutter Backwoods Insect Repellent

The repellent features 25 percent DEET in its formula, which the company claims protects for upto 10 hours. It’s sweat-resistant, too. Along with mosquitoes, the repellent is meant to ward off ticks, biting flies, gnats, no-see-ums, chiggers and fleas. Although it’s currently sold out at Amazon (you can find it at retailers like Target still), shoppers left it with an average 4.7-star rating over close to 1,400 reviews.

Sawyer Products SP533 Premium Ultra DEET Insect Repellent

This repellent is meant to protect against mosquitoes, ticks, and chiggers. It’s a lotion and formulated with 30 percent DEET — the company claims that the liposome (a fat you can find in some cosmetics too) base in the formula works to slowly release the active ingredient to extend the effectiveness of it, with protection lasting up to 11 hours. The lotion can be carried on your carry-on since it’s less than 3.4 ounces. It has an average 4.5-star rating over more than 380 reviews at Amazon.

Best DEET-free insect repellents

Repel Plant-Based Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent Pump Spray

Notably, this bestselling repellent boasts an average 4.4-star rating over more than 23,400 reviews on Amazon. It’s formulated with oil of lemon eucalyptus and protects against mosquitoes for six hours. The lemon eucalyptus in the repellent is meant to be non-greasy so your skin doesn’t feel sticky when applying it.

Sawyer Products Picaridin Insect Repellent

Another popular pick with Amazon shoppers, this repellent has earned an average 4.5-star rating over more than 11,900 reviews. The repellent features 20 percent picaridin in its formula with up to 12-hour protection against mosquitoes and ticks, along with eight hours of protection against flies, gnats, and chiggers, the company claims. It comes in a pack of two and is a pump spray. The spray is meant to be non-greasy, too.

Cutter Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent

Made with 30 percent oil of lemon eucalyptus, the repellent’s formula is meant to repel mosquitoes for up to six hours. It leaves a lemon eucalyptus scent but isn’t supposed to feel oily on the skin, the company says. It’s currently sold out at Amazon but earned an average 4.4-star rating over more than 2,100 reviews at the retailer.

OFF! FamilyCare Insect Repellent II

This repellent is formulated with 5 percent picaridin, which is meant to provide protection for three to four hours. The pump spray is meant to protect against mosquitoes. Notably, it’s designed to work on clothing as well and the company claims it won’t damage cotton, wool or nylon. It has earned an average 4.3-star rating over more than 146 reviews.

What is an insect repellent?

It’s important to understand what an insect repellent is and isn’t. The term 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.

I know bug is a catch-all term for things that bite, but entomologists get a little squirmy about calling everything a bug.

Neeta Pardanani Connally, Biology professor, Western Connecticut State University

“Most repellents are used against mosquitoes. The label will usually tell which species a certain product is effective against,” Cope said.

Technically speaking, a tick isn’t actually an insect. And that’s not all. “Just to be more accurate, not all insects are bugs. And not all critters that bite (ticks, for example) are insects,” Connally explained.

“I know bug is a catch-all term for things that bite, but entomologists get a little squirmy about calling everything a bug,” Connally said. It might be even better to think of an insect repellent as targeting arthropods — broadly covering ticks, spiders and beetles, among others — Machtinger mentioned. Insect repellents are really designed for blood-seeking insects — most insects aren’t actually trying to find a human host so they aren’t affected by repellents on people, explained Swiger.

An insect repellent essentially jams an insect’s radar“by altering the insect’s ability to find a host,” Cope said. “The ability of the insect’s sensory devices on the antennae to find a suitable host becomes compromised.” A repellent affects senses like smell and taste, too, but doesn’t usually kill the insect, according to Buckner.

Insect repellent regulation and registration

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 — yes, repellents can also include lanterns, candles and torches — have to be registered by the Environmental Protection Agency before being marketed to the public.

Since insect repellents are pesticides, it’s up to the EPA to regulate them, a spokesperson for the agency confirmed. The agency 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 EPA told us. Registration means that a product has passed safety standards, is approved for use as the directions on the label says and can be sold and distributed in the U.S.

Some insect repellents don’t actually have to be registered with the EPA. These unregistered products include ingredients like citronella and cedar — while the EPA found they didn’t pose any health risks, they weren’t proven to be effective, either.

Why mosquitoes are attracted to some more than others

If you’ve ever felt that mosquitoes bite you more than others around you, the experts said that some science backs this up.

Mosquitoes are more attracted to some people compared to others for reasons that we mostly cannot control.

Eva Buckner, medical entomology extension specialist, University of Florida

Connally pointed to one Harvard study from 2017 that “suggests that the microorganisms on one’s skin can affect how attractive a person is to mosquitoes.” And she said there’s evidence that compounds on the skin may be better smelling to mosquitoes. Only female mosquitoes bite since they need the protein in blood to produce eggs and have an “extremely well-developed sensory capacity,” Cope explained. Basically, he described how every one of us possesses a “unique chemical signature” coming off the skin and that makes some more prone to bites. This scent is informed by our genetics, immune system and diet, Machtinger added. Unfortunately, as Buckner put it, “Mosquitoes are more attracted to some people compared to others for reasons that we mostly cannot control.”

A few experts mentioned that an increase in carbon dioxide production can play a role in mosquito attraction, as well. “If you emit more carbon dioxide compared to someone else, you will be more attractive to mosquitoes. For example, if you're breathing heavily during and after exercise, mosquitoes might be more attracted to you then,” Buckner said.

Heat also can be a factor. “If your body temperature runs higher, you may be more attractive,” Buckner added. And darker clothing can absorb heat, possibly making the chances of getting bitten greater, Machtinger told us. “It is recommended to wear light colored clothing to be less attractive to mosquitoes,” Buckner said.

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