The number of illnesses carried by ticks and mosquitos seems to be rising every year, with Lyme, Zika, Malaria, Powassan, and other funky names pervading the news and making parents anxious about protecting their babies and kids with the safest and most effective bug sprays available. But how do you go about finding the best when there are over 15,000 bug repellent options on Amazon alone, ranging in ingredients, method of application, effectiveness, safety, and longevity. And which ones work best against the insects you're most worried about? What if you're more worried about mosquitoes than ticks, or vice-versa? Does that change what you should use?
Well, we did the research and testing for you! We scoured the scientific literature, the Environmental Working Group (EWG), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and researched the distribution of insects and diseases around the country. In the end, we came away with a pretty good understanding of which bug sprays and lotions are most effective against tick-borne and mosquito-borne illnesses, which are the safest bug sprays and lotions for kids, and how and when to apply them for best protection. The list of the best mosquito repellents for kids and adults is below, but if you want to read about all the details on safety and effectiveness of various ingredients, scroll down to after the reviews to get the scoop!
In pulling together our list of the best mosquito repellents for babies, kids, and adults, we primarily considered the safety and efficacy of product ingredients. We also considered the smells, greasiness, and ease of application.
Best Mosquito Repellents of 2018:
This product contains our favorite overall tick and mosquito repellent, Picaridin, at a 20% concentration, expected to be effective against both mosquitoes and ticks for about 8 hours after application. Sawyer claims up to 12 hours with this product, but we're going by the existing research in making a more reasonable claim of about 8 hours; which is exactly what Sawyer's instructions say for reapplication time (reapply after 8 hours). That's not to say it won't work after 12 hours, but the effectiveness decreases considerably with time. This is truly an excellent tick and mosquito repellent, and is a great option for babies and kids over 6 months of age. There are no powerful odors, no DEET, it's less greasy than DEET, and it's effective for protecting against mosquitoes carrying Zika, West Nile Virus, Chikungunya, and Dengue, and ticks carrying Lyme Disease. Also protects very well against biting flies, gnats, chiggers, and sand flies. In our testing, we found it easy to apply with the pump-spray version, but even easier with the continuous sprayer. If you have the space to carry the larger sprayer bottle, we highly recommend it. We also found it initially a bit greasy, but after a few minutes of drying and absorption it became a nice soft protective layer. The odor was nearly non-existent, which is a nice contrast to the relatively strong DEET or the Lemon Eucalyptus smells. We wore it for 4 hours during a long hike through New England woods in June, a prime time for both ticks and mosquitoes. We applied it to ourselves and two kids, ages 6 and 8. Not only did we not get any bites, but we weren't constantly annoyed by (and swatting at) buzzing insects around our heads. We found it to be very protective, and we were confident that it would have lasted even longer if we pushed into the later evening. To apply, we put it on all exposed skin: arms, legs, ankles, and necks. To put it on our faces, we sprayed it into our hands and rubbed it on to prevent getting it into the eyes (especially with the kids). We also sprayed it lightly onto our clothing and hair. Worked excellently, and we were very impressed with it overall. With the kids, they preferred it to the smellier options, and they slept soundly that night without any giant mosquito welts, and without me worrying that they were harboring ticks! Usually sells for about $8-10, depending on whether you get the pump or sprayer.
This is another great 20% Picaridin option, with the very same effectiveness as the #1 Sawyer product. The Picaridin 20% concentration is highly effective against mosquitoes and ticks for about 8 hours before reapplication. Like the Sawyer product, they claim 12 hours of protection, but we think 8 hours is more reasonable. In our testing, we found this product to be exactly as effective as the Sawyer product. It sprayed on easily with the convenient (non aerosol) continuous sprayer, had good coverage, and protected against a ton of insects. All the same ones as the Sawyer product, of course. But it's #2 for a couple reasons. First, it's a bit harder to find and purchase than the Sawyer products, and tends to drop off websites such as Amazon in the peak of the summer months when you need it most! Second, the sprayer isn't as even misting as the Sawyer sprayer, as it tends to have some clumping/drops that come out in addition to the mist. A bit like a spray-on sunscreen. Third, in our opinion, there was too much perfume in it. One of the advantages of Picaridin is that it's essentially odorless, which is a nice departure from DEET. But they added some fragrance into this, and we didn't like it so much, and neither did our kids. So these are some small nit-picking reasons to place this as the second best bug repellent for kids and adults, especially considering that it is extremely effective and easy to use. Overall, this is an excellent insect repellent that will protect you and your kids for several hours in even the densest swamps! As with the Sawyer product, to apply, we put it on all exposed skin: arms, legs, ankles, and necks. For our faces, we put it on hands first and then rubbed it onto our face. Also put a bit on our clothing and hair, and we thought that the product worked excellently. Usually sells for about $8 for a 6-ounce sprayer.
This product contains the naturally-derived Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus, which is one of the few CDC-approved insect repellents approved for repelling ticks and mosquitoes and reducing the likelihood of contracting illness. This product contains 30% PMD, is DEET-free, and works very well against ticks and mosquitoes alike. In our own testing, we found that the smell was very strong. Not necessarily bad smelling like DEET, but a strong and noticeable lemon smell. Personally, we prefer this to the odor of DEET, and given the naturally-sourced ingredients in this repellent, we think it's an excellent option. According to REPEL, it's also free of a variety of allergens and questionable ingredients, including: fragrances, petroleum distillates, dyes, formaldehyde, perfluorinated compounds, bronopol, DMDM hydantoin, BHA, boric acid, triclosan, parabens, PEG, phthalates, urea, Quaternium-15, propylene glycol, butylene glycol, sulfates, soy, nuts, milk, eggs, or gluten. However, it does contain ethanol so do not apply near a source of flame, such as campfire, grill, or cigarette. Same rules as hair spray. The product suggests that it repels mosquitoes for up to 8 hours, though in our testing we re-applied it every 6 hours and found it work very well. In our opinion, just about as well as a 15% DEET product. So if you're looking for an excellent DEET-free insect repellent for kids and adults, this is a great option for kids 3 and older.
This product contains the primary competitor to Picaridin, IR3535, which seems to have a somewhat similar protection profile to Picaridin. The evidence is mixed regarding its effectiveness, however, so this should be used mainly in situations when you're not particularly worried about mosquito-borne or tick-borne illnesses. For instance, a day at the beach might be a good candidate for this, particularly because it combines an SPF 30 sunscreen with a bug repellent. It is also a somewhat low concentration of IR3535, so we would only expect it to be effective repelling mosquitoes and ticks for about 30-60 minutes. So it's the type of lotion that will need to be reapplied frequently. That might be fine for a day on the beach, and we think this is a nice way to combine sun and bug protection into a single lotion. And the lotion is easy to apply, not especially greasy, smells more like sunscreen than bug repellent, and Avon suggests it's good for babies over 6 months of age, children, and adults. In our testing, we found it of mild effectiveness for a walk in the woods: during the first 30 minutes of the walk, it worked pretty well, but quickly lost its effectiveness against mosquitoes. In less insect-dense areas, however, like the beach, we thought it worked quite well against a bunch of insects. So this is a great kid-safe insect repellent that doubles as a moderate-strength sunscreen, and does reasonably well with both of those duties. Definitely recommended if you have the right situation for using this lotion. Also available as a spray with a stronger concentration of IR3535, but it's a bit harder to find.
This is the only all-natural kids bug spray on our list, and the only one that doesn't contain DEET, Picaridin, IR3535, or Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus. It contains a mix of essential oils that have some mild to moderate effectiveness in repelling mosquitoes and ticks. These include Castor Oil, Geranium Oil, Soybean Oil, Cedarwood Oil, Citronella Oil, Peppermint Oil, or Lemongrass Oil. Some of those should sound familiar, particularly Citronella, which is often used in candles for outdoor mosquito repellents. It's not highly effective as a repellent with humans, but does provide some mild to moderate protection for a limited period of time. That's basically the story behind all of the ingredients in this all-natural kid-friendly bug spray: they are of mild to moderate effectiveness, and only last for up to about 30-60 minutes. That means you'll need to use a lot more of this, a lot more frequently, in order to get similar protection that you'd get from one of the above sprays. But if you're looking for all-natural ingredients, then this is the way to go. In our testing, we found the odor to be moderate and tolerable. Doesn't necessarily smell like a bug spray, but maybe just a mixture of essential oils. Not a great smell, but also not terrible. It's definitely not greasy, and goes on quite easily. The company claims 4 hours of protection, but in our testing we found that up to an hour seems reasonable in the woods. On the beach, you'll get away with longer times before reapplying. Within the first 30-60 minutes of application, we found that it does an impressive job against mosquitoes, ticks, and other pesky flying insects like black flies and gnats. Because it's all natural and made by a reputable company, it's one of the only insect repellents sold at Whole Foods, and that's where we initially found it. Now, you can also get it on Amazon for a similar price, which is usually under $15 for a 6 ounce pump-sprayer. Highly recommended for the parents who want a natural insect repellent for their kids, but are willing to compromise effectiveness and convenience (in terms of reapplication) a bit to get there.
Our Safety and Effectiveness Considerations
Safety. The best mosquito sprays and tick repellents contain either DEET, Picaridin, or IR 3535. Some others contain Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus, which is only moderately effective. According to the EWG and CDC, each of these ingredients has a slightly different safety profile. We consider each of them in turn, below. With any bug repellent, we suggest always washing it off before bedtime, and never using it for several days in a row. Any negative side effects of bug spray ingredients are assumed to be compounded with chronic exposure, and the longer you leave it on the skin, the more is absorbed into the body.
DEET Safety. This ingredient has been used for over 60 years as an insect repellent, and is the single most effective mosquito and tick repellents in existence. But DEET also has a bad reputation, stemming from 1980's reports of severe side effects (encephalopathy) in children exposed to DEET. However, no evidence exists to suggest that DEET was the cause of these illnesses, and more recent research has demonstrated no severe adverse events if DEET is used as recommended. This is an important point: used as recommended. For any bug sprays, you should always follow the instructions and never over-apply. Given DEET's effectiveness, it is the #1 doctor recommended insect repellent for people visiting regions with mosquito- or tick-borne illnesses. DEET is not recommended for use in infants under 6 months of age. From 6-24 months of age, for high bug risk areas a 20-30% DEET product is suggested, with 1 application per day. From 2-12 years of age, a 20-30% DEET product is suggested, with a limit of 3 applications per day. And for teens and adults, a good upper limit is a 30-50% DEET containing product, with applications based on product instructions.
Picaridin Safety. This synthetic compound was developed in the 1980's, by Bayer, used extensively in Europe and Australia, and only recently introduced to the US market in 2005. It is marketed as highly effective and "less smelly" than DEET, and is generally considered the best DEET alternative for protecting kids against ticks and mosquitoes. In comparisons of safety risks for using DEET versus Picaridin, no differences have been found in the rates of toxicity in children or adults, which are extremely low. In general, Picaridin is less likely to irritate eyes and skin than DEET, so it might be a good option for kids or adults with allergies. It is suggested for use in children over 6 months of age.
IR3535 Safety. This is another synthetic compound developed in the 1980's, by Merck. It is a synthetic amino acid that affects an insect's sense of smell, making then less likely to recognize you as a tasty meal. It's not only less smelly than DEET, it's basically odorless, making it more appealing than Picaridin in terms of its sensory profile. As with Picaridin, the safety profile of IR3535 is great, and the World Health Organization found only mild eye irritation in humans (avoid getting it in your eyes), suggest no long-term negative impacts on humans or the environment, and it is recommended by the CDC. It is relatively rare (versus Picaridin and DEET), and most popularly found in a line of Avon Skin-So-Soft bug repellent sprays and lotions.
Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus Safety. This naturally-derived alternative mosquito and tick repellent has received a lot of recent attention, and is one of the four active repellents recommended by the CDC. Lemon Eucalyptus Oil is extracted from the eucalyptus tree and then refined to increase the concentration of a particular chemical (PMD) that is great for repelling ticks and mosquitos. However, because Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus and synthetic PMD are relatively new to the market as a bug repellent, and safety data are very limited, the CDC suggests it not by used in children under 3 years old. That is not because there is any evidence of toxicity. Rather, it is because there is no evidence either way (yet). So we do suggest avoiding it with young children until more data become available. Also, it is important to point out that natural Lemon Eucalyptus Oil is not the same in safety or effectiveness as Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus, even though some sprays will mix these two ingredients.
Effectiveness. The best mosquito repellants are not only safe, but parents also want them to be super effective for their babies and children. This is a tough question, because independent scientific data are basically non-existent comparing the effectiveness of all-natural bug sprays to the effectiveness of any of the four CDC recommended repellents (DEET, Picaridin, IR3535, Lemon Eucalyptus Oil). The other problem is that the research that does exist tends to be funded and conducted by the company manufacturing the ingredients or products, so it's difficult to ascertain the actual effectiveness without bias or conflicts of interest. That being said, DEET tends to be the most effective against both ticks and mosquitoes, with Picaridin and IR3535 being the next most effective, and Oil of Eucalyptus being moderately effective. Regardless of what you're using, apply the bug spray or lotion to exposed skin only (arms, legs), never apply under clothing, use sparingly around eyes and ears, don't spray onto face (use hands to rub on), and spray on the outside of all clothing. If you follow these instructions, the spray will not only be effective, but you will also reduce the likelihood of irritation. Here's the run-down of effectiveness of different insect repellents:
DEET Effectiveness. DEET is the most effective bug repellent on the market, and works tremendously well for repelling both ticks and mosquitoes, including the ticks and mosquitoes that carry the worst diseases. In general, the higher % of DEET in a repellent, the more effective it is as repelling mosquitoes and ticks, and also the longer it will last throughout the day. In general, a product with a 10% DEET content is effective for about 2 hours, and then every 5% increase in DEET adds about another hour of protection. So a product with 15% DEET content is effective for about 3 hours, a product with 25% DEET content is effective for about 5 hours, and so forth. At our maximum recommended DEET content for adults, 30%, it is effective for about 6 hours.
Picaridin Effectiveness. Picaridin is as effective as DEET, and is recommended by the WHO for repelling at effectiveness levels similar to, and sometimes superior to, DEET. It also has a lot of positive attributes in contrast to DEET, including its low odor, non-toxic nature, low irritation and allergic profile, and less greasy feel. It is excellent at repelling both ticks and mosquitoes, including those that carry diseases. Just as with DEET, the higher % of Picaridin in a repellent, the more effective it is and longer it will last throughout the day. In general, a product with a 10% Picaridin content is effective for about 2 hours, and then every 5% increase in Picaridin adds about another 3 hours of protection. So a product with 15% Picaridin content is effective for about 5 hours, a product with 20% is effective for about 8 hours, and so forth. A 20% Picaridin content is about the highest you'll find on the market.
IR3535 Effectiveness. The research available for the effectiveness of IR3535 is relatively low, given its recent release to the US market. In one study published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, a product with 7.5% IR3535 was only effective for about 23 minutes against mosquitoes, which is much less than the effectiveness of a 7.5% DEET formula (about 1.5 hours), or a 7.5% Picaridin formula (about 1.5 hours). Other research has shown, however, that a 10% or 20% IR3535 content is effective for several hours, and may even have a similar protective efficacy to DEET for mosquitoes; there is some research suggesting it's not quite as effective against ticks, however, at least in comparison to Picaridin. Because the research findings are mixed, we prefer using the products that have more consistently demonstrated their effectiveness, such as Picaridin.
Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus Effectiveness. The natural Lemon Eucalyptus essential oil itself is only effective for about 1 hour after application, but the Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus, or PMD, shows very high efficacy. The CDC suggests that it is nearly as effective as DEET in repelling mosquitoes, when used in higher concentrations. For instance, a 50% PMD concentration is as effective as a 20% DEET in repelling mosquitoes, and a 30% PMD has been found similarly effective to a 15% DEET. It is also highly effective against ticks, and has been shown to be effective for several hours and even days against ticks. It can also be applied repeatedly due to no evidence of toxicity, and very low rates of skin irritation.
Other Various Ingredients Effectiveness. Of the 15,000+ bug repellent products on the market, there are a ton that market themselves as all-natural, organic, and highly effective against ticks and mosquitoes. We want to caution parents against buying into any of these claims, as the research tends to show very low effectiveness of most products against mosquitoes. In most cases, things like Castor Oil, Geranium Oil, Soybean Oil, Cedarwood or Citronella Oil, Peppermint or Lemongrass Oil, etc, (the ingredients of the popular Buzz Away Extreme) actually can be effective against mosquitoes and ticks, but there are a few things to think about. First, many of these ingredients are allergens, so be careful if your child tends to have sensitive skin. Second, many of these ingredients can be effective, but for very short durations, requiring re-application every 15-20 minutes. Third, the effectiveness of these ingredients, even within the first 15-20 minutes, is nowhere near the effectiveness of DEET, Picaridin, IR3535, or Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus (PMD). So, all things being equal, these mosquito and tick repellants are not very effective, not long-lasting, and can cause allergic reactions. We also want to consider Permethrin as an insect repellent. Permethrin is as effective as DEET, but not only repels mosquitoes and ticks, it also kills them on contact. However, while it's great for protecting clothing, it's not recommended for use on bare skin.