When shopping for insect repellents you don’t want to mess around. If you find yourself in an insect infested area and you have a bug spray that doesn’t work, you could be putting yourself at risk for diseases like West Nile Virus, Lyme Disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Getting an insect repellent that not only works for the type of bugs you are trying to repel as well as not causing skin irritation or other side effects can be a trial and error process. To help you find the right solution for you, we have rounded up the best products on the market based on professional testing reports, as well as consumer and professional reviews.
- Find out what the latest testing suggests are the safest and most effective active ingredients to look for.
- What are the best products and why?
- What you should be looking for when buying a bug spray.
What is the latest testing saying about DEET and other active ingredients?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends using repellents that use the active ingredients picaridin, DEET, or oil of lemon eucalyptus in order to protect against mosquitoes and ticks.
Generally the consensus in North America has been that DEET will give you the most protection against insect bites, although a lot of consumers are wary of using it and have been looking for effective alternatives.
Fortunately, in 2015 testing done by Consumer Reports, the best performing bug repellents contain picaridin and oil of lemon eucalyptus. Products containing DEET rounded out the top five in their recommendations.
Picaridin (also known as Icaridin) is a synthetic version of piperine, the chemical that gives black pepper its spiciness. It is what Europeans have been using for many years to ward off bugs, but was only approved by the EPA to use the United States in 1999. Picaridin has been reported to be as effective as DEET, but without the irritation and risk of damaging gear that comes with DEET products. Products with Picaridin can be used on babies as young as 2 months old.
Lemon eucalyptus oil (also known as p-menthane-3,8-diol or PMD) is one of the natural oils that comes from the gum eucalyptus plant. It has been used in China for years as a bug repellent and was registered in 2000 by the EPA as a ‘biopesticide repellent’, which just means that it comes from natural materials. Under laboratory conditions it has shown to be superior to DEET and when tested in the field on humans it has comparable result to DEET. The only adverse effect of PMD appears to be eye irritation.
Despite the positive test results of picaridin and lemon eucalyptus oil as repellents, DEET is a still the most popular active ingredient chosen by consumers. It was developed in 1946 by the U.S Army became commercially available in 1957. However despite 40 years of testing, it just can’t seem to shake its bad reputation. There were a few reported cases of children who had been exposed to DEET suffering seizures in the 1980s, but that has (for the most part) been debunked. The EPA confirmed DEETs safety after further testing and review in 1998. There has been no clear link between DEET seizures in recent years, and studies in the last decade have found it to be safe and effective to use as long as it is in a concentration between 15 and 30 percent. The American Academy of Pediatrics says that insect repellents containing DEET are safe for children as young as 2 months.
What you need to know about insect repellent:
- Use bug sprays whenever you are planning outdoor activities for extended periods of time like camping and hiking, especially around fresh water ponds and lakes and areas where there maybe stagnant water.
- Use repellents sparingly and only for the time you need it. Wash it off when you are finished outdoors.
- Choose your repellent on the type of bug you need to ward off.
- Use it to cover any exposed skin on the entire body, including the head and face. It shouldn’t be used under clothing. When applying it to your face, make sure to avoid your eyes and mouth.
- Some users may find that they have sensitivity to certain products and will need to use a trial and error approach to finding the right product.
- If you are sweating or bathing, you will have to reapply afterward.
- Put on sunscreen before bug spray.
- Don’t buy a combination repellent/sunscreen product, because sunscreen usually needs to be reapplied more often than bug spray.
- Don’t apply it near food, and make sure to wash hands after application and before eating or drinking.
Since there are a lot of different products that come in all sorts of forms, here are a few things to keep in mind before making your purchase.
Try to find a product that has long-lasting protection. Most people don’t like having to constantly reapply bug repellent. If you are planning on being outside for a number of hours, pay attention to how long the product claims to last. Also look for a product with a slow-release formula.
For most users scent is an important factor when choosing a formula. A lot of the top products have very strong fragrances, so if you can, test them out before purchasing
Decide whether to get a lotion, wipe or a spray. The most convenient and most popular is the spray bottle, but if you aren’t careful you can end up inhaling the spray or it is easy to miss a spot and any exposed skin that isn’t covered with repellent can lead to a bite. Lotions are generally considered easier to control where the lotion is going, although you can’t use it on your clothes as you do with a spray.
If you are shopping for kids the active ingredients DEET and picaridin are considered safe for kids over 2 months old, while oil of lemon eucalyptus can only be used on children older than 3 years.
Mistakes people make when using bug spray
- Not Using Enough – An easy mistake to make when it comes to bug spray is not applying it thoroughly enough. You need to apply it to all of your exposed body parts. If you miss a spot, a bug will easily be able to find any unprotected areas and bite you.
- Not reading the instructions – It seems simple enough, but surprisingly most people don’t read the instructions and either use to much of a product or not enough. It should be applied in a thin layer and you should never apply it over cuts, wounds, or inflamed or eczematous skin. Also pay attention to the length of protection time.
- Choosing the wrong type of repellent for the pest you are trying to repel- This is another case where you need to read the label, and make sure the product you are buying repels the insect that you need it to.
- Not wearing it when you should – It is best to err on the safe side and apply bug spray anytime you are outside at dawn or dusk or if you go into tall grass or a forest. There are so many disease carrying bugs, that it is best to use repellent when there is any chance that you will be bitten.
- Avoiding DEET – There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to DEET based products. It has been used commercially for almost 60 years and has been studied more extensively than any other repellent ingredient. Some estimates say that there have been over eight billion applications of DEET worldwide. In that time, there have been only 21 cases recorded in medical journals where DEET can be linked with the development of neurological toxicity. Interestingly, of the 21 cases 6 were due to intentionally ingesting the product. Further, 12 of the 21 cases resolved themselves without any further effects. There is also the repeated idea that DEET cause seizures in children which is actually without any scientific foundation. This idea stems from a few scattered cases of children who had been using DEET based products suffering seizures. After the cases were reported, there was extensive follow-up with the patients who had the seizures and it was found that either pre-existing neurological conditions or not using the product as directed was the cause of the seizures. If you use DEET in very high concentration (more than 30%) it may cause numb or burning lips, nausea, headaches and rashes, although hardly any of the products that dominate the market use over 30% .
What you should know about Sunscreen and insect repellent used together
There are a few products on the market that contain both sunscreens and insect repellents, these should generally be avoided because sunscreen needs to be reapplied more frequently than repellent. Another problem is that repellent in combination products tends to get absorbed into the skin more than in repellent-only products.
It is recommended that you apply sunscreen before the repellent, making sure that the sunscreen has soaked in fully before applying the bug spray. One study has shown that if you are using a DEET based repellent, it may reduce the effectiveness of the sunscreen, so you may need to reapply the sunscreen more frequently.
What is worse for you bug bites or insect repellents?
Experts in the field agree that the risk of contracting debilitating and sometimes deadly diseases from mosquitoes and ticks far outweigh the risk that comes from exposing yourself to the chemicals that are used in insect repellents. In recent years new and safer products that are made with milder, chemically synthesized compounds that are similar to or come from natural ingredients are proving to be equally, if not better, at repelling insects that DEET.
Despite its reputation, repellents containing DEET are still one of the best options for warding off bugs; especially if you are looking for protection when in a heavily insect infest area. When the EPA reviewed all data about DEET in 1989 they determined that it was safe to use as directed, but can have toxic reactions when not used as directed and it should not be used on babies less than 2 months old.
The Bottom Line
As recent news stories about the devastating effects of Lyme Disease or the West Nile Virus have shown, a small insect bite can do a lot of damage to a person’s health. Since the threat of being infected by a virus carrying bug is a reality, it is well worth finding and properly using a powerful insect repellent that can stop these pests. Consumers these days are lucky to have a good range of effective and safe choices to prevent being bitten. Testing of DEET has shown it to be a powerful and safe ingredient for most people to use, although if you aren’t convinced and need an alternative you have them in products that contain either Picaridin or Oil of lemon eucalyptus, that are more natural active ingredients that can help you feel safer about putting them on your skin. Whatever product you choose, make sure you follow the directions to ensure that you are getting the best out of what you are using.