Best Insect Repellents

Consumer Reports
Finding a Good Insect Repellent

'Tis the season of barbecues, hiking, camping … and biting bugs. A good insect repellent can help you enjoy the outdoors without the company of mosquitoes and ticks.

At an outside lab, brave testers bared their arms in mosquito-filled cages and let ticks crawl on them. We recorded how long it took for mosquitoes to start biting and for ticks to crawl over treated areas. Our bugs were free of disease, but wild mosquitoes in the U.S. can carry West Nile virus or St. Louis encephalitis. Travelers outside the U.S. might encounter mosquitoes carrying malaria, yellow fever, or dengue fever. Ticks can spread Lyme disease, human babesiosis, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

Highly rated: We found that the sprays
pictured above protected against deer
ticks and two common species of
mosquitoes for 8 hours or more.

Six repellents protected against deer ticks and two common types of mosquitoes for 7 hours or more. Four of those contain deet in varying levels. The Environmental Protection Agency judges deet safe when used as directed, but it has caused rare toxic reactions when misused. It shouldn't be applied to infants less than 2 months old. The American Academy of Pediatrics advises against using repellents with deet concentrations higher than 30 percent on any children. We think that no one needs a repellent with more than 30 percent deet.

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The active ingredient in Repel is oil of lemon eucalyptus. (It's not recommended for children under 3.) Almost as effective was Natrapel, which protects with picaridin, a chemical newer than deet.

Consumer Reports Ratings

Off Deep Woods Sportsmen II
Overall effectiveness score: 98

Cutter Backwoods Unscented Insect Repellent
Overall effectiveness score: 98

Off FamilyCare Smooth & Dry
Overall effectiveness score: 98

3M Ultrathon Insect Repellent 8
Overall effectiveness score: 98

Repel Plant Based Lemon Eucalyptus
Overall effectiveness score: 97

Natrapel 8-Hour with picaridin
Overall effectiveness score: 87

Avon Skin-So-Soft Bug Guard plus IR3535 Expedition SPF 30
Overall effectiveness score: 73

Bite Blocker Xtreme (Organic)
Overall effectiveness score: 56

Cutter Skinsations Clean Fresh Scent
Overall effectiveness score: 55

Burt's Bees All Natural Herbal
Overall effectiveness score: 24

What we Found

Most of the tested products will do the job if you're going to be outside for only a couple of hours, but look for a highly rated product to protect you on longer excursions.

The six top choices worked for at least 7 hours, though they feel and smell somewhat different. Cutter Backwoods leaves little scent or sensation; Off Deep Woods has a citrusy odor and filmy residue panelists wanted to wash off; Off FamilyCare has a fruity odor and dries quickly; 3M Ultrathon has a strong odor and leaves an oily feeling on the skin at first; Repel has a plastic beach-ball and citrusy odor and left little residue; Natrapel has a floral odor and is a little greasy.

When applying any repellent, follow directions. Use your hands to apply it to your face, avoiding your eyes and mouth, and don't apply it to cuts. Use just enough to cover exposed skin. Some directions suggest using it on clothes, but most tested repellents damaged leather and vinyl, and some of them stained synthetic fabrics. Wash repellent off your skin and launder treated clothes. For extra protection:

• Wear light-colored, loose clothes and avoid using scented products when outdoors, especially at peak feeding hours—dusk to dawn for most mosquitoes.

• Remove standing water near your house. It can be a mosquito breeding ground.

• To avoid ticks, tuck pants into socks and wear closed shoes and a hat.

• Inspect yourself for ticks after venturing into wooded or grassy areas.

Testers are bugged by Clip-On Repellent

The claim

The label on Off Clip-on Mosquito Repellent, $10, claims "head to toe protection up to 12 hours." The device, which uses a fan to circulate repellent, attaches to a waistband, belt, or purse. It's approved as a spatial repellent (not for skin). Its active ingredient is metofluthrin, a neurotoxin. The label says, "Avoid breathing vapor," but it's hard to imagine how, with the repellent swirling around you.

The check

We attached Off Clip-on repellent to the waists of four testers for 12 minutes every hour and sent them one at a time into screened enclosures with 1,000 hungry, disease-free mosquitoes. (We added 500 new mosquitoes for each tester's subsequent session.) Between sessions, we kept the devices running but stored them away from the testers and enclosures.

Bottom line

Ouch. Although Off Clip-on initially reduced the number of mosquitoes near our testers, two of them still received one bite each during their first session. That's far less protection than the 7-plus hours of complete protection we've seen with many skin-applied repellents. By the third session (2 hours after the device was activated), we had stopped testing on all four subjects because of bites. Instead of clipping on this Off device, consider buying one of the highly rated sprays from our recent tests.

Copyright © 2006-2011 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction, in whole or in part, without written permission.


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