Bug off: Rating effectiveness & smell of 10 insect repellents
Has news of a brutal West Nile season scared the living DEET out of you? Have you been walking around in a mosquito net? (Please send pictures.) Then may we suggest investing in some bug repellent?
No, it’s not how we’d like to smell either (although some claim to be odorless or even smell good), but if you’re going to be in buggy areas anytime soon, it couldn’t hurt to spray yourself down. And no, this being 2012, you don’t have to buy DEET repellents if you don’t want to.
There are a number of active ingredients in various insect repellents that promise to keep bugs away. Some of the more popular, listed by the Environment Protection Agency, include:
DEET: This is the active ingredient found in many insect repellents. It repels biting pests, such as mosquitoes and ticks. Formulations registered for direct application to human skin contain 4% to 100% DEET.
Picaridin: This is a colorless, nearly odorless liquid active ingredient, which repels against biting flies, mosquitoes, chiggers and ticks. Products contain a range of 5% to 20% of picaridin.
(These are derived from such natural materials as animals, plants, bacteria and certain minerals.)
Oil of lemon eucalyptus: This is found naturally in eucalyptus leaves and twigs. Products contain a range of 30% to 40 %of the active ingredient.
Oil of citronella: This comes from dried, cultivated grasses and has a distinctive odor that masks the CO2 or lactic acid on our bodies that mosquitoes and other pests find attractive. However, oil of citronella is included on the list of chemicals that may not require EPA registration in some cases. Unless a product containing citronella is EPA-registered, it has not been subject to EPA review and EPA cannot corroborate its safety and effectiveness. These products are commonly sold as candles, and skin-applied products only offer some protection in certain circumstances. Most skin-applied products contain about 5%. citronella.
Before you use any insect repellent, particularly DEET products, be sure to read the instructions and use as directed. If you do choose DEET repellents, click here for the EPA’s guidelines and here for bug spray poisoning information from the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
Now the question: Which repellent works best? We scoured the Internet for a number of repellents and checked out the reviews so you don’t have to. While no products received A’s across the board from online reviews, some definitely stood out as fan favorites.
The active ingredient is derived from the leaves of the Eucalyptus citriodora tree. This spray is designed to repel mosquitoes for up to six hours.
Reviews: Repel received some rave reviews by users. Most found the smell to be pleasant: “Although 30% DEET was more powerful as a repellent when we were walking directly next to the swamps, the Repel Lemon Eucalyptus product was plenty effective and so much more pleasant when we were in more usual mosquito (and sand flea) territory back at our base camp,” said one reviewer. The only potential downside: Many had to reapply after a few hours; one had to do so after one hour. ConsumerSearch rated this product as the best natural insect repellent in its review.
EcoSmart Insect Repellent
The all-natural formula is made from organic plant oils and repels mosquitoes, ticks, gnats and other pests for hours. The active ingredients are 0.5% rosemary oil; 0.5% cinnamon leaf oil; 0.5% lemongrass oil; 1.0% geraniol; and 97.5% isopropyl alcohol, isopropyl myristate and wintergreen oil.
Reviews: This repellent received mixed reviews online. Some thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread, while others were bitten within seconds of applying the spray. One reviewer found that the smell attracted bees and questioned: “Would you rather be eaten by mosquitoes or would you rather be engulfed by a swarm of bees?”
Burt’s Bees Herbal Insect Repellent
The natural blend of rosemary, lemongrass, citronella oil and other essential oils “form a scented force field between you and those biting and stinging party crashers,” according to the company’s website. It promises to ward off bugs with a refreshing herbal scent.
Reviews: This repellent received mixed reviews. Some reviewers liked this spray, although some complained that it was too oily and didn’t spray a mist but rather “shoots out a grease jet that splatters.” Most thought it smelled good. A few had no luck with it.
Herbaria Citronella Mist
Citronella Mist contains eight essential oils known to repel mosquitoes and other bugs. The company combined citronella with lemon eucalyptus, catnip and lavender and more. It’s free of bug-attracting emulsifiers, heavy, greasy oils and alcohol that may dry your skin.
Reviews: Many online reviewers found this repellent to be effective against pests. One wrote: “I love your Citronella Mist! It really works! We live in Florida and have tons of mosquitoes, but no bites with this spray! Thank you for a great, natural and SAFE product that really works.” One user who gave Burt’s Bees a poor review even recommended this repellent: “I found a great 100% natural insect repellent, non-oily, safe for kids. I use it on the dogs, smells and works fantastic. It’s by Herbaria and it’s called Citronella Mist.”
All Terrain Herbal Armor Spray
The DEET-free insect repellent uses six natural-repelling oils, including oil of soybean, oil of citronella, oil of peppermint, oil of cedar, oil of lemongrass and oil of geranium. A time-released encapsulation is 100% effective for two hours and 95.8% for three hours. Herbal Armor promises to be sweat and water-resistant.
Reviews: Online reviewers like this products. They found it effective and thought it had a fresh lemon scent.
OFF! FamilyCare Insect Repellent I (Smooth & Dry)
OFF! Smooth & Dry, with 15% DEET, uses a powder-dry formula that dries on contact, leaving skin smooth and dry.
Reviews: Here’s what one reviewer wrote: “Works as advertised, goes on dry, pleasant smell and keeps the bugs away.” Most seemed to agree. ConsumerSearch’s review of repellents named this OFF! product as best DEET repellent spray.
Repel 100, which is 100% DEET, promises up to 10 hours of protection from mosquitoes, ticks, gnats, chiggers, no-see-ums and biting flies. The company suggests using the repellent in areas of high infestation or prolonged periods of outdoor activity.
Reviews: Online reviewers raved about Repel 100. One even claimed: “I highly recommend this spray if you are going to the jungle.” However, with 100% DEET, people with sensitive skin should be cautious. And the smell? “Works great at making you unpleasant to everyone and yourself, as well as bugs,” one reviewer wrote.
3M Ultrathon Insect Repellent
The time-release protection means DEET is slower to evaporate and provides protection for up to 12 hours of protection; this means 3M uses less DEET. Ultrathon Insect Repellent was initially developed for the U.S. military to provide up to 12 hours of protection for troops. It contained 25% DEET.
Reviews: Most thought it was effective but complained about the strong chemical smell.
Unscented Backwoods Cutter Insect Repellent Aerosol
Formulated for prolonged outdoor activities, Cutter’s repellent has 23% DEET and protects for up to 10 hours against mosquitoes, ticks, biting flies, gnats, no-see-ums, chiggers and fleas.
Reviews: Many online reviewers found this repellent kept the bugs away. And while the product claims to be unscented, most say it does have a smell, although it’s not as strong as some of the other products.
Sawyer Ultra 30 Liposome Controlled Release
The liposome, a natural compound, in this repellent envelops the DEET and slowly time-releases it as needed. The liposome base also makes the 30% DEET lotion to be nongreasy, with little to no odor. The company promises effectiveness for up to 11 hours.
Reviews: Online reviewers like this product. “I have seen mosquitoes approach me, get 6 inches away and turn around,” one wrote. Although the bottle claims this repellent is odorless, one reviewer said she could smell the chemicals.
Click here for Consumer Reports’ own rating of 10 repellents.