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Now that spring is here, the time is ripe for everything from hiking and camping trips to spending long evenings relaxing on the porch. But whether you’re traipsing through the deep woods or enjoying your backyard at twilight, protecting yourself against the bites of ticks and mosquitoes—and the diseases they can spread—is an important precaution.
The number of bug-borne diseases is on the rise. Not only are new diseases appearing—the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that since 2004, at least nine new mosquito- and tick-borne diseases have been reported in the U.S. and its territories—but cases of familiar bug-borne disease are also increasing in number.
In a 2021 study, the CDC estimated that 476,000 cases of Lyme disease occurred in the U.S. each year between 2010 and 2018—a significant increase from the agency’s estimates of 329,000 annual cases in 2005–2010. And there’s always the possibility that, as with the Zika virus, previously obscure diseases could emerge as widespread threats.
“We need to continue growing our arsenal for controlling mosquitoes and ticks at the community level,” says Benjamin Haynes, a CDC spokesman. “And personal protection will always be most important.”
A vital component of personal protection? Insect repellents. And Consumer Reports’ bug spray testing can help you find one that works. This year, we have 52 repellents in our ratings, and 23 recommended ones, so it’s easy to find a way to beat the bugs that’s right for you.
But not all bug sprays are equally effective. One factor that matters significantly: a product’s active ingredient.
“We expect that differences in formulation, and how the active ingredient is incorporated into a repellent, can make a large difference in how effectively it repels insects,” says Chris Regan, test project leader for insect repellents for CR. “However, among the products we’ve tested, we have found deet, at levels of 25 to 30 percent, to afford the most reliable protection against mosquitoes and ticks.”
Other active ingredients in our recommended products, if you prefer not to use deet, are picaridin and oil of lemon eucalyptus (more on those below).
Here, five of our top-rated repellents, in alphabetical order. (Digital and All Access CR members can see the full insect repellent ratings.)
How We Test Insect Repellents
At our insect repellent testing lab, a testing day begins with applying a standard dose of repellent to a measured area of skin on our test subjects’ arms. The standard dose is determined from the Environmental Protection Agency’s product testing guidelines.
After 30 minutes, these volunteers then place their arms into the first two of four cages of 200 disease-free mosquitoes for 5 minutes. Our testers watch closely to see what happens inside the cage, and they count every time a mosquito lands on a subject’s arm, uses its proboscis (its long mouth) to probe the skin in an attempt to find a capillary, or bites the subject’s arm and begins to feed—which the testers can tell by watching for the insect’s abdomen to turn from gray to red or brown.
After 5 minutes, the subjects withdraw their arms, then repeat the process by placing their arms into a second pair of cages of disease-free mosquitoes of a different species, for another 5 minutes. The subjects then walk around for approximately 10 minutes, to stimulate sweating—this is to mimic a real-world setting, in which users might exercise while wearing repellent.
Half an hour later, this procedure is repeated once, and then again once every hour after that until a repellent fails our test, or until 8 hours have passed since it was applied. We consider a failure to be two confirmed mosquito bites in one 5-minute session inside the cage, or one confirmed bite in each of two consecutive 5-minute sessions.
Our ratings are primarily based on how long a product protected test subjects against the two species of mosquitoes. Our highest-rated ones protected for 6.5 hours or longer; our lowest-rated ones lasted 2 hours or less. We currently test repellents only against mosquitoes, but in past years of testing we’ve found that repellents that worked well against mosquitoes also worked well against ticks. We also test whether repellents damage materials that repellents are likely to come into contact with, including the polycarbonate of eyeglass lenses, a leather belt, cotton, and polyester.
Putting Active Ingredients to the Test
Fifteen of our 23 recommended insect repellents use deet as their active ingredient. Three are made with 20 percent picaridin, one is made with 10 percent picaridin, and four contain 30 percent oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE). Most plant-oil-based products we’ve tested—including several containing citronella oil, peppermint oil, soybean oil, or others—have performed poorly. (OLE, although it occurs naturally in the lemon eucalyptus plant, is not an essential oil. It is synthesized chemically for use in commercial bug repellents.)
Our testing suggests that when it comes to effectiveness, what matters most is the type and concentration of active ingredient in the repellent.
For example, all deet products we’ve tested that contain 25 to 30 percent score Very Good or Excellent in our ratings. Two 15 percent deet repellents score Very Good (and earn our recommendation), though two others with that concentration earn a rating of only Fair.
And with deet products, an effective repellent can come in many forms. For example, three wipes (Ben’s Tick & Insect Repellent Wipes, Off Deep Woods Insect Repellent Towelettes, and Repel Insect Repellent Mosquito Wipes) and a lotion (Sawyer Ultra 30 Insect Repellent) have made our recommended list.
Overall, about three out of every four deet-based repellents that we’ve tested have earned our recommendation. That’s not too surprising, because deet has a long track record as an effective bug repellent, and is even often used as the standard by which scientists test the efficacy of other types of repellents.
The picture gets a bit murkier when it comes to other active ingredients. We’ve found some sprays that use the active ingredients picaridin or OLE that perform well, and others that don’t. And in a few instances, we’ve found that products containing 20 percent picaridin score well as a spray but not in another form, such as a wipe or lotion. “At the very least, we’re seeing OLE and picaridin fall short of deet,” Regan says.
Still, if you want to avoid deet, 20 percent picaridin or 30 percent OLE are your best bets. Importantly, whenever we’ve tested so-called natural repellents—products whose active ingredients are essential oils—all earned a rating of Poor for protection against mosquitoes.
Keep in mind: The safety of deet has been extensively researched by the EPA. When it’s used according to the directions on the label, it should not be harmful. And according to the CDC, rare problems with rash or skin irritation from deet usually arise from using too much or too high a concentration of deet. Consumer Reports doesn’t test products with more than 30 percent deet for this reason—and our tests show it’s not necessary to expose yourself to higher concentrations in order to get top-notch protection.
How to Apply Insect Repellent Properly
For best results, follow the directions on the label and these five tips:
1. Apply a thin coat to all exposed skin, but avoid eyes and mouth, and use sparingly around your ears. You can also spray repellent on top of your clothing, but do not apply under clothing.
2. Adults should dispense repellent on their hands to apply to children. Don’t spray repellent onto kids or apply to their hands to avoid it getting into their eyes or mouth, and avoid applying to cuts or irritated skin. (Insect repellents with deet should not be used on children younger than 2 months.)
3. Frequent reapplication isn’t necessary. Wash hands after applying and wash off repellent at the end of the day.
4. Never spray directly onto the face. Spray on palms, then apply to the face.
5. When using towelettes, be sure to use enough of them to cover all exposed skin with repellent.
Jeneen Interlandi contributed reporting to this article.
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