How to Choose the Right Mosquito Repellent for Your Family

Mosquito illustration

Illustration by Elly Maddock

Illustration by Elly Maddock

Do not dismiss DEET

Created by the military in the 1940s, DEET is still the gold standard for mosquito repellents. The EPA reviewed research multiple times over the last 20 years and has not identified any risks of concern “to human health, non-target species or the environment.” In fact, the CDC recommends products containing 20% DEET, which it says are safe for anyone over 2 months old when used properly. Still, if you’d rather stay DEET-free, try a repellent that contains picaridin. Introduced to the U.S. in 2005, the synthetic compound is effective against mosquitoes but doesn’t protect against ticks as well as DEET does.

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Verify EPA registration

Look for an EPA registration number on your repellent’s label. This means the manufacturer gave the Environmental Protection Agency technical info about the effectiveness of the product. Some natural products may have EPA approval—which is given from a safety standpoint—but that doesn’t mean they ward off mosquitoes.

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Protection for every outing

Hiking
No Fly Zone clothes and accessories, llbean.com, from $15. Equip your whole family with these items, which have built-in permethrin. 

Insect Shield, insectshield.com, $10 per item or $79 for a pack of 10+ items. Send in your own clothes to be treated with repellent.

Backyard barbecue

Coleman 25% DEET High & Dry Insect Repellent, amazon.com, $8. This spray goes on dry (no waving arms!) and lasts up to eight hours.

Cutter Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent, target.com, $5. A nongreasy and fresh-smelling blend.

Sporting event

Repel Insect Repellent Mosquito Wipes, homedepot.com, $5/ 15. Go ahead and apply DEET wipes without bugging everyone around you. 

OFF! Botanicals Towelettes, walmart.com, $6.50/ 10. These individually wrapped DEET-free wipes are easy to slip into your pocket.

Be realistic about “natural” products

Loads of botanical repellents (like essential oils) are available now, but most don’t work as well as DEET. “I would only recommend them when someone has a known reaction to more effective products,” says Michael Skvarla, PhD, insect identifier and extension educator at Penn State University. Oil of lemon eucalyptus (also called PMD) seems to be the most effective.

Skip wristbands

Repellent-infused bracelets are nothing more than colorful accessories. “I’ve tested wristbands and haven’t found an effective one yet,” says Stacy Rodriguez, MS, laboratory manager at Molecular Vector Physiology Laboratory at New Mexico State University.

Choose clothes with care

A product’s effectiveness can vary with air temperature, water exposure, your perspiration and your personal attraction level—yes, some of us are mosquito magnets. Your best defense is to wear long sleeves and pants plus repellent. “Permethrin pre-treated clothing will repel mosquitoes but can be expensive, so it’s practical in limited circumstances, like for hiking,” says Skvarla.

The best way to apply

DO:

  • Do apply sunscreen first for a solid layer of UV protection.
  • Do spray repellent on palms first, then apply to face.
  • Do avoid cuts, wounds and irritated skin.

DON'T:

  • Don’t let kids younger than 10 put on repellent—apply to your own hands, then spread it on their skin.  
  • Don’t spray in enclosed areas.
  • Don’t forget to wash your hands thoroughly afterward.