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Insect Repellents (Bug Dope): How to Choose

Insect Repellents

DEET and Picaridin-based insect repellent sprays and lotions (bug dope) are available from a wide range of brands and in a variety of form factors. How effective are they are repelling mosquitos and ticks? What are the best concentrations to get? Which ones are the safest to use for children and pregnant women? Can insect repellents damage clothing and gear? Are lotions and wipes more effective than pump sprays or aerosol cans? Are there any natural products that have also proven effective at repelling mosquitos and ticks?

Insect Repellents: Key Takeaways

  • DEET and Picaridin insect repellents are more effective and longer-lasting than most natural insect repellents and oils
  • 20% and 30% concentrations are just effective as 100% but may need to be applied more often
  • Repel Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus (OLE), a natural insect repellent, is also quite effective in a 30% concentration. Other natural products are not effective.
  • Insect repellents are best used in conjunction with protective clothing. Wear a long sleeve shirt, long pants, and a head net when insects are most active.
  • Apply Permethrin to clothing or purchase Insect Shield treated clothing, which repels insects and helps prevent them from biting through clothing.
  • Wrist bands, clip-on fans, citronella candles, and natural repellents like lemongrass, cinnamon, cedar, clove, rosemary, or spearmint don’t work very well.
  • Read insect repellent instructions carefully and apply them as directed. Many questions are answered by reading product directions or manufacturers’ safety sheets, found online.

Insect Repellents: In-depth

DEET

DEET (N, N-diethyl-meta-toluamide) is found in Ben’s 100 Max Formula Insect Repellent (95%) and Repel 100 Insect Repellent Spray (98%). In use since 1946, it’s the most widely used insect repellent today, and highly effective against mosquitos and ticks. The smell of DEET is highly offensive to mosquitos who avoid the scent.

Studies have found that the 20%-30% concentrations of DEET are just as effective as the 100% concentrations listed above, but need to be applied more frequently. DEET with a 100% concentration can last up to 12 hours, while 30% DEET concentrations last up to 6 hours before requiring reapplication.

Lower concentration 30% DEET is also available in slow-release lotions, which can last up to 12 hours before needing to be reapplied. Ultrathon 34% Insect Repellent is the most popular long-lasting formulation and ideal for overseas travel to areas infested with malaria-carrying mosquitos because a little goes a long way.

One of the downsides of DEET-based insect repellent is that it will fog plastic lenses on watch faces, smartphones, and glasses. It also dissolves synthetics-based clothing, so be very careful when applying it to keep it away from plastic and clothes you care about.

30% concentrations of DEET are safe for use by pregnant women and small children. When applying DEET to children, don’t let them apply it themselves. Instead, spray it or rub it on your hands before rubbing it on exposed skin. Do not apply near eyes and mouth, and apply sparingly around ears. Avoid applying DEET to their hands because children frequently put their hands in their mouths and eyes. Only apply to skin that is exposed and not under clothing. Avoid the use of DEET near food and water. Wash with soap and water at the end of the day.

Picaridin

Picaridin became available in the United States in 2005 and is a synthetic compound, related in structure to black pepper. It repels mosquitoes, ticks, biting flies, sand flies, gnats, chiggers, and midges. It is widely used in Europe and recommended by the World Health Organization for the prevention of malaria in 40 countries.

The most effective concentration of Picaridin is 20% and will last up to 8-12 hours before repeat application is required. Lower concentrations, sometimes found in wipes are only moderately less effective.

Unlike DEET, Picaridin is safe to use around plastics, synthetic apparel, and gear with synthetic coatings such as fishing lines, sunglasses, watches, GPS units, or phone screens.

Picaridin is considered to be safe for children as young as 2 months of age and pregnant women. Contact with the eyes and mouth should be avoided, however, and the usage directions followed carefully.

Lotions, Wipes, Aerosols, and Pumps

Insect Repellent lotions last considerably longer than sprays of comparable DEET or Picaridin concentrations because the repellent is rubbed into the skin, delaying evaporation. It’s also far more accurate than applying insect repellent with a spray or pump because it’s easy to accidentally miss areas. Wipes also provide an effective way to apply insect repellent to the skin but result in additional waste which must be disposed of after use.

Spray-on and pump sprays containing DEET are also harder to direct accurately when applied and can ruin plastic gear or synthetic garments if the spray is accidentally applied to them. If you accidentally apply DEET to gear and clothing, immediately rinse it off with plenty of water to prevent damage.

Natural Insect Repellents

Research studies by the Centers for Disease Control, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Consumers Union have shown that Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus (OLE) is the only effective natural insect repellent proven effective against mosquitos and ticks. It’s important not to confuse this product with Lemon Eucalyptus Oil which is a very different product.

OLE, available as Repel Lemon Eucalyptus is effective for up to 6 hours in a 30% concentration. However, OLE has not been well-tested on children, and the CDC and Consumer Union advise against using it on children under 3 years of age.  Natural insect repellents including citronella, spearmint, clove, lemongrass, and other botanicals have not proven to be effective insect repellents for mosquitos and ticks.

What’s your preferred insect repellent for mosquitos and ticks?

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23 comments

  1. Picaridin. I can’t stand the ‘clammy’ feel of DEET on my skin, not to mention what it does to plastics.

  2. Picaridin all the way. Though I find it starts to “wear off” after 5-6 hours of hiking. That’s probably more due to sweat carrying it away though.

  3. I haven’t used bug repellant applied to my skin in over a decade. All of my clothing is Insect Shield treated, either from the manufacturer or sent to IS after purchase. Wearing IS treated clothing I have not had a single tick and mosquitos do not land.

  4. Repel was great except around Great Barrington. Smells nice and feels good.

    Insect Shield seemed to keeps the ticks at bay on my thru, just found one. Or I got lucky.

  5. I have been in some pretty bad places for mosquitos and ticks. Have you ever seen a tick habitat sign? I have and it’s not a good sign! In cases like this, I will apply permethrin to my clothes and let them dry overnight. I have found that it works well. It’s never 100% in tick habitat…

    I have used Deet products, which will melt the plastic as stated above. I would also take care with it around weapons that have plastic on them.

  6. I’ve been using Bens for many years. I have triec a few other products, but always went back to Bens ( the 30%).

  7. First used Picaridin 7 years ago in the Wind Rivers where in some areas the mosquitoes were voracious. They were flying close but not landing!
    Made a believer out of me. A year ago in north-central Nebraska the ticks were thick! I wish I would have had some Picaridin with me!

  8. Stuart Crawford

    I lived in Rotterdam for 2 years and mosquitoes were part of life in the summer there. I used to smear my face and hands at night with a fresh lemon – it was effective. I use the same method when I’m in the garden here in the Tarn region of France. The Tiger mosquito is now a part of life here, I may have to buy something stronger.

    Having lived behind the Sierra Nevada mountains in Andalucia and taking our dogs for long walks in the Tierra Malos/Badlands ticks were an ever present problem. The vegetation was always only ever very short so I would check every few minutes to see if I had a tick on my lower legs. They only seemed to like the dogs which I would total body check after every walk. It was horse owners who seemed to be effected most.

  9. The triple defense: Pre-treat clothes with permethrin. Picaridin spray for any exposed skin. Bug net for when it’s really bad. It works!

    • I carry my bug net on all hikes that are not winter hikes. Such a lightweight lifesaver. (I mean that almost literally; I know I would have gone completely mad on my hike last weekend when the black flies were buzzing my eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and hair.)

  10. I am a recent convert to Sawyer Picaridin lotion after decades of deet. I love that it’s a lotion rather than a spray and that it doesn’t dissolve fabrics etc (I’m pretty sure I lost a couple of cheap watches to deet before I realized what was going on). Note that if you are wearing clothing with logos or images on them the deet can dissolve them and also stain your skin or other fabrics with the dissolved coloring – not great. Anyway, the picaridin lotion is amazing! Mosquitoes love me but when I’m wearing the lotion they stay away completely, yay! I’ve always been suspicious of sprays not only because you can easily miss spots but also that so much of it just goes into the air and not on the thing you are trying to spray – seems like a big waste to me.

    Heads-up that permethrin is toxic to cats. Supposedly only the liquid is and once it dries it is no longer toxic but I don’t want to take that chance so alas, I avoid treating my clothing with it even though it’s a great idea.

    • Could not agree more. Love the Picaridin lotion. I once put DEET on my face and it made my lips go entirely numb for atleast 5 minutes. That cannot be good for your skin. Plus I cannot stand the oily residue. All I want to do is take a shower after I put that stuff on, which isn’t a luxury on a multi day hike. Picaridin has none of this, and appears to be just an effective. If you get the Sawyer lotion, just made sure to replace the cap with something that doesn’t open up accidentally so easily.

    • My clothes are treated by insectshield.com which contains permetherin. Once it is dry, it goes through a molecular change and is nthen not harmful to cats. My cat sits on my lap and snuggles against all my clothing, including those that have been treated with permetherin. it has never adversely affected him. I do not apply permetherin myself while at home as I do not want to inadvertently harm him or any other wildlife.

  11. I carry the Sawyer picaridin spray pen in my pack, but rarely use it. Almost all of my clothing is either Insect Shield treated or treated at home with Martin’s 10%, and I don’t mind wearing long sleeves in 90F weather.

  12. I use Murphy’s Naturals Lemon Eucalyptus Oil pump spray. It keeps the mosquitoes away but I have a coughing fit when I use it. I can’t spray it near my eyes for obvious reasons but those little dickens will go behind my glasses and bite me around my eyes! So I’ll be waving my arms like a crazy person swatting them away from my eyes. Therefore I hate summer, I hate humidity, and I love winter. It’s June and I should have been bitten by now but I haven’t. Coconut soap and hand lotion is supposed to repel mosquitoes so I bought both. Maybe it works??

  13. Regarding ticks: oddly, I’ve never seen it recommended that you drink lots of bourbon on the theory that ticks don’t like the taste of alcohol in your blood. I feel more research is needed.

  14. My clothes are treated by insectshield.com which contains permetherin. Once it is dry, it goes through a molecular change and is nthen not harmful to cats. My cat sits on my lap and snuggles against all my clothing, including those that have been treated with permetherin. it has never adversely affected him. I do not apply permetherin myself while at home as I do not want to inadvertently harm him or any other wildlife.

  15. There’s a Maine based manufacturer; out of Windham, Maine, of a product called “‘Skeeter Skidaddler.”

    It has no DEET or citronella. Just a blend of essential oils. I have found it to be the ONLY product effective against the Maine State Bird, the black fly. Also repels ticks and mosquitos. I can personally attest to its effectiveness.

    Problem: it’s oily. Must be reapplied at least every 6 hours, more often if skin gets wet from brushing against wet foliage or rain.

    Pros: doesn’t stain clothing. Safe for children (over 2 years) and pets. Smells really good. It can be worn under clothing without the chemical vapor effect.

    I use this product and a head net and get away with few, if any bites. What I love is that I can apply it to my face and neck without worry of ingesting chemicals.

    Pregnant women: read the ingredients. Some of thier line contains peppermint oil. This oil is known to cause contractions based on concentration. Never ingest peppermint oil. The oil specifically.

    Small children: adults apply the product. Don’t apply to the hands of small children. Some products contain pepper.

  16. Trail maintainer in the mid Atlantic. I wear Permethrin treated clothes either bought from Insect Shield or my personal trail clothes (long and short sleeve shirts, pants, and socks) which were sent to Insect Shield for their heat sealed permethrin treatment. Lasts for up to 75 washings. For hats and backpacks, spray with Sawyer Permethrin after a couple of outings. For any exposed skin, definitely prefer Picardin over DEET.

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