The weather is warm, the grill is hot, and you’re ready to spend some time outside! Unfortunately, so are the neighborhood mosquitos. Mosquitos are ubiquitous whether relaxing in your backyard, boating at the lake, or going off the grid for some camping.
Read on to learn about the best mosquito repellents that actually work so you can enjoy the outdoors safely.
Our Top Picks
OFF! Deep Woods
Repel Lemon Eucalyptus
OFF! Deep Woods Insect Repellent
OFF! has been in the bug business for decades, and that’s because it works! This insect repellent, containing 25% DEET, is one of the best mosquito repellents on the market.
Although DEET has gotten a bad rap, it is, in fact, not only considered safe for the general population by the Environmental Protection Agency but is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as the gold standard for mosquito repellents.
- Contains 25% DEET
- Protects against mosquitos, ticks, biting flies, gnats, and chiggers
- Powder-dry feel
- May result in a rash on users with sensitive skin
- Can leave a white residue
Sawyer Picaridin Insect Repellent Lotion
For those looking for something DEET-free, Sawyer’s Picaridin Insect Repellent Lotion is the best mosquito repellent you can find. This mosquito repellent is long-lasting, giving you up to 14 hours of protection against mosquitoes and ticks and 8 hours of proven protection against biting flies and chiggers.
- Long-lasting protection
- Low odor
- Non Greasy–goes on like a moisturizer or lotion
- Comes in a bottle with an insecure cap, which can pop open when in, say, a backpack
Repel Lemon Eucalyptus
This Repel mosquito repellent is a plant-based option that is another great choice for those who want to avoid DEET. The lemon eucalyptus oil at the heart of this mosquito repellent gives it a nice, citrusy scent.
Note, however, that the oil of lemon eucalyptus is not the same as lemon or eucalyptus essential oil.
- Protects against mosquitos for up to 6 hours
- Non Greasy
- Good for sensitive skin
- Some users find the scent to be overpowering
Sometimes you need a little more of a protective bubble to keep the little nasties away. This Sawyer repellent is specifically designed for clothing and gear, so even if your body-worn repellent wears off while you’re sleeping peacefully, you can still be protected from mosquitos, ticks, chiggers, and spiders. That added halo of protection makes this one of the best mosquito repellents we’ve tried.
Note, however, that you should never apply a permethrin mosquito repellent to the skin. It’s for gear only.
- Bonds to fabric fibers for up to 6 weeks or through 6 washings (whichever comes first)
- Doesn’t stain or damage clothing, fabrics, plastics, finished surfaces, or outdoor gear
- Dries odorless
- A little does not go a long way with this product. If you need to use it for a lot of gear, prepare to buy several bottles
Want to avoid creams and sprays altogether? Try the ThermaCell Ex90 Rechargeable Mosquito Repeller! This gadget comes with a spill-proof locking mechanism, so you don’t need to worry about it leaking all over your gear.
So, how does it work? An internal heater, powered by a lithium-ion battery, warms and activates the mosquito repellent inside the internal cartridge. The repellent then disperses to repel mosquitos within a 20-foot radius (though that’s under ideal conditions, like when there’s no wind). This process is continuous as long as you have the unit powered on.
- No mess
- 9-hour battery life, and can be charged while using
- Only effective in about a 20-foot radius, in wind-free conditions
- Cartridges don’t last long and are pricey to replace
- There’s a “warm-up” time–15 to 20 minutes–before it starts working
Mosquito Repellent Buyer’s Guide
Mosquitos have evolved over the past 30 million years to be good at their work. In that time, they have honed their complex sensor systems. Mosquitos use chemical, visual, and heat sensors to stalk their prey (delicious humans, among others). Understanding these sensors can help you better evaluate the best mosquito repellent for your needs.
As we all know, birds and mammals (humans included) exhale carbon dioxide. They also give off lactic acid. Mosquitos love both of these things! Mosquitos are also super attracted to chemicals in sweat, so people who sweat a lot tend to get bit a lot.
Mosquitos are more likely to “see” you if you’re wearing bright, contrasting colors. You’re even easier to see if you’re moving a lot.
Mosquitos can detect body heat, which helps them find the warm-blooded prey they like to bite.
These abilities may leave you assuming there’s no way to beat a mosquito. Luckily, science has been working to address our disadvantages for decades, and we are now graced with effective mosquito repellents.
And it’s a good thing, too, as mosquitos are well-known to carry diseases like malaria, yellow fever, dengue fever, and West Nile virus.
Common Types of Mosquito Repellents
First, if possible, mosquito-proof your environment. Ensure there’s no standing water, providing a breeding ground for the insects. Another way to protect yourself is by covering as much of your body with clothing as possible.
Beyond that, mosquito repellents are the way to go.
The most effective mosquito repellents are made with N-diethyl-meta-toluamide or DEET. Sprays, lotions, and wristbands infused with DEET repel mosquitos rather than kill them.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention affirm that DEET is safe, and, when used in products with anywhere from 4% to 100% DEET (note that higher concentrations of DEET in mosquito repellent mean the protection will last longer, not that it’s stronger).
Picaridin is a synthetic chemical that works as an odorless mosquito repellent. It was discovered in the 1980s but wasn’t authorized for use in the United States until 2005. It’s based on the natural compound piperine, which is found in plants that are used to produce black pepper. Like DEET, picaridin repels but doesn’t kill mosquitos. You might see it listed as “icaridin” on a product label.
Permethrin (the repellent you add to your gear, not your body) affects mosquitos’ nervous system, resulting in death. However, humans and dogs (cats are more sensitive) are safe from these effects because we can break the chemical down much faster than insects.
One of the best plant-based mosquito repellents is the oil of lemon eucalyptus. This compound is refined from oil extracted from the Australian plant Corymbia citriodora.
The oil of lemon eucalyptus contains a chemical called p-Menthane-3,8-diol, or PMD, which repels mosquitos. Western scientists learned about PMD after studying an effective Chinese mosquito repellent, Quwenling. After DEET, the oil of lemon eucalyptus is the best mosquito repellent to date.
Other natural mosquito repellents may be effective for people who aren’t big bug attractors. Lavender, peppermint, and citronella can be effective for these lucky folks.
Repellent Wristbands and Patches
Sorry, parents (us included), mosquito-repelling wristbands you slap on your kiddos before dropping them off at summer camp are ineffective. Although they are impregnated with effective mosquito repellent, thin wristbands and sticker patches don’t provide enough whole-body repellent to be effective.
The Science Behind Mosquito Repellents
Like mosquitos themselves, the science behind mosquito repellents has evolved. The ancient Egyptians and Romans, also bothered by these flying pests, used smoke to deter mosquitos (still an effective method in an outdoor space).
Although the exact way DEET repels mosquitos and other biting insects is still being studied, research thus far indicates that DEET interferes with receptors on the mosquitos’ antennae that detect carbon monoxide and lactic acid.
It’s less clear how picaridin works, but researchers believe the chemical somehow makes prey unrecognizable to mosquitos. This mosquito repellent creates a sort of vapor once applied, and mosquitos don’t want anything to do with whatever is on the other side of that vapor.
As you can imagine, the research into how less-common mosquito repellents work is scant. Bottom line: as long as a natural or plant-based mosquito repellent has been deemed safe for humans by the CDC or U.S. Food and Drug Administration, it’s safe to use.
Factors to Consider When Choosing a Mosquito Repellent
Application and Effectiveness
First and foremost, do understand that no mosquito repellent will be effective unless you apply it to all exposed parts of your body. Just dabbing it here and there will not do the trick.
And, unfortunately, caking it on won’t make a mosquito repellent more effective. Strive for a full-body, even application, and reapply per the product’s direction.
Duration of Protection
As we mentioned, the higher the percentage of DEET in a product, the longer it’s effective. A higher DEET percentage does not equal strength of protection! A mosquito repellent with 30% DEET provides the most protection; anything higher than that just increases the duration of your protection.
A 20% picaridin lotion can be effective for up to 14 hours; a spray can last about 12 hours.
Permethrin will remain effective on your gear for about 6 weeks or up to six washings. After that, its effectiveness fades, and you should reapply to get this mosquito repellent’s benefits.
Plant-based and other natural mosquito repellents vary in effective duration. The oil of lemon eucalyptus products can last about 4 to 7 hours.
As you may imagine, keeping mosquito repellents out of your eyes and mouth is a good idea. Some users of lemon eucalyptus oil claim that, even with the utmost care when applying, they end up tasting lemon after use.
Otherwise, all of the best mosquito repellents we’ve listed have been deemed safe by the FDA or CDC. Check a product’s information label to ensure there are no age restrictions on mosquito repellent. Some repellents are not recommended for young kids.
Ease of Application
How do you prefer to apply your bug repellent? Many people like the ease and relative cleanliness of a spray-on mosquito repellent, me among them.
Lotions and creams are other common vehicles for some of the best mosquito repellents. However, they take about 20 minutes to take effect, unlike sprays, which are effective immediately. Although lotions and creams are easier to apply to sensitive areas, like your face.
The environmental impacts of different mosquito repellents have not been widely studied; however, it is known that DEET and picaridin break down in the environment in a matter of days to weeks.
DEET is slightly toxic to birds, fish, and aquatic invertebrates, while picaridin appears to be nontoxic to these groups. Thus far, none of the mosquito repellents we discussed significantly impact aquatic ecosystems.
Essential oils and other natural products that may have repellent properties have not been tested enough to determine their environmental impact.
Best Practices for Using Mosquito Repellent
How to Apply
For sprays, use a slow, sweeping motion to apply. It’s a good idea to repeat the application on each body part as a “second coat.” Apply spray-on mosquito repellents to your face by spraying your hands, then applying them to your face.
For creams and lotions, apply a thick layer and rub it in until it’s absorbed into your skin. Apply mosquito repellent to every square inch of your exposed skin.
Additional Measures for Mosquito Bite Prevention
Covering skin and employing environmental controls–like limiting standing water–are other ways to limit exposure to mosquitoes and their bites. Wood fire smoke and devices–like the Thermacell repeller above–can also help eliminate annoying mosquitoes in your outdoor space.
Remember to Repel
Keep the best mosquito repellents in your outdoor adventure go-bag and on hand for just hanging outside. Mosquitos are not only annoying, but they can carry dangerous diseases. Don’t let these small pests ruin your outdoor fun!
Check out more of our posts on enhancing your outdoor experience–including information on the best mosquito repellents for kids, the best natural mosquito repellents, and all you could ever want to know about mosquito head nets!
- About the Author
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Ronda Lindsay is a professional writer and editor who has worked in government communications for nearly two decades.
Growing up in Portland, Oregon, she fostered her love of nature and the outdoors by exploring the Pacific Northwest’s many natural playgrounds before moving to the Washington, DC, area to see what the eastern side of the country had to offer. She’s also spent plenty of time camping, hiking, and floating around central Texas, where she now lives.
With a bachelor’s in English and a master’s in professional writing, Ronda loves to learn and write about the latest trends in outdoor adventuring and share that information with Beyond the Tent readers.