As exciting as the end of the cold winter months can be, it's hard to ignore the fact that warmer weather brings bugs — namely, mosquitoes.
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If you live in an area where spending time outside in the summer means risking mosquito bites, you're probably used to taking some basic steps to protect yourself.
In addition to wearing long sleeves and pants, using mosquito nets around your patio or room and avoiding standing bodies of water (read: emptying your bird bath), you should use a mosquito repellent that contains the right active ingredients.
What to Look for in a Mosquito Repellent
There are several very effective repellents on the market today — you just need to know what to look for:
1. DEET or Picaridin
According to both Elmer Gray, an entomologist and public health specialist at the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service, and Diane S. Berson, MD, an associate professor in the department of dermatology at Weill Medical College of Cornell University and assistant attending dermatologist at New-York Presbyterian Hospital, there's no bug spray ingredient that's quite as effective as DEET.
Although DEET has been used since the 1940s, it's still the best option when it comes to hours of protection against mosquitoes, including ones that carry the Zika virus, West Nile virus and malaria, as well as ticks and gnats.
DEET is EPA-approved and safe to use, but it may be irritating for some people, especially if it's used excessively, at a high concentration (over 30 percent) or on those with sensitive skin.
Luckily, you can find DEET alternatives that are nearly as effective against mosquitoes. Other synthetic options include picaridin and the ingredient known commonly as IR3535. Dr. Berson says picaridin may be especially appealing because it's odorless.
2. Plant-Based Alternatives
Botanical or plant-based insect repellents tend to lack the staying power of DEET, Dr. Berson says. But, if you don't mind reapplying more frequently, this isn't necessarily a problem. Gray points to oil of lemon eucalyptus, which is derived from the leaves of lemon eucalyptus trees, as your best option. He adds that products containing catnip oil and oil of citronella can work well, too.
3. The Right Concentration
To a certain degree, the best bug spray is a matter of personal preference — say, whether you like the feel of an aerosol spray versus a wipe treated with repellent, or what active ingredient appeals most to you. However, for longer stays in bug-infested areas or outings where you won't be able to reapply repellent easily, you should use a product with a higher concentration of active ingredients. A stronger product will help ensure you stay protected for as long as possible, Gray says.
Whether you want something lightweight and odorless, or a repellent that's easy to apply on-the-go, there is a product out there to suit your needs. Here, we'll highlight some of the best options available right now.
1. Best Spray: OFF! Deep Woods Insect Repellent VII
There are too many DEET-based insect repellents to count, but this spray-on option from OFF! checks all the essential boxes for an effective — but not excessive — DEET repellent.
Dr. Berson says you tend to start seeing "diminishing returns" when you go higher than a 30 percent concentration of DEET in an insect repellent. OFF! Deep Woods Insect Repellent VII clocks in at 25 percent DEET and should give you eight hours of protection before you need to reapply.
One thing to keep in mind with DEET-based repellents: They can damage some synthetic fabrics, so if you're spraying down your clothes, make sure you're wearing cotton, wool or nylon. And apply it away from plastic or varnished lawn furniture.
Buy it: Amazon.com; Price: $27.98 for a 3-pack
2. Best Botanical: Cutter's Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent
Featuring a clean, cool scent, Cutter's Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent is a DEET-free, plant-based repellent that's also available as an aerosol. Both formulations can be applied directly to the skin or clothes, and they'll protect users for up to six hours.
3. Best Lightweight: Sawyer Picaridin Insect Repellent Aerosol Spray
Picaridin is odor-free and a lighter-weight, less-greasy alternative to DEET, which tends to have a sharp smell and can make the skin feel oily. Sawyer Picaridin Insect Repellent Aerosol Spray promises to work effectively without leaving a residue behind — and it won't damage plastic and synthetic materials, either.
Gray points out that picaridin-based repellents are safe to use on children, and Dr. Berson says it's unlikely to be irritating, even for those with sensitive skin. If you want a product that works like a serious bug spray but doesn't feel like a serious bug spray, look for one made with picaridin.
Buy it: Walmart.com; Price: $7.99
4. Best Lantern: Thermacell Scout Mosquito Repellent Camp Lantern
If you're trying to decide between a lantern and a candle for an area repellent, lanterns tend to be a little more effective in campground or backyard settings, Gray says. He adds that it's important to set them up near you, so that you can be sure you're in the area of coverage.
The Thermacell Scout Mosquito Repellent Camp Lantern works by sending out vaporized, odorless repellent into the air, in a 15-foot area for up to 40 hours. You can use it solely as a lantern or as a repeller, or as both at once.
Buy it: Thermacell.com; Price: $39.99
5. Best Candle: CitroGuard Triple Wick Citronella Candle
The classic citronella candle is a porch staple for a reason — it gives off a pleasant smell along with moderate mosquito coverage. For best results, use it in a somewhat enclosed space, as the citronella vapors tend to disperse too rapidly in wide open spaces.
The CitroGuard Triple Wick Citronella Candle from Cutter is a particularly great option thanks to its long burn time of 40 hours and its sturdy base. The brand suggests using multiple candles for maximum coverage.
Buy it: Amazon.com; Price: $9.99
6. Best for Kids: OFF! FamilyCare Insect Repellent IV
OFF! FamilyCare Insect Repellent IV makes our list because, with 7 percent DEET, it's gentler on kids' sensitive skin than higher concentrations, but it's still strong enough to keep backyard explorers and little hikers well-protected. Due to this lower concentration, however, you'll need to reapply after about two hours.
Gray notes it's important you don't spray children directly with mosquito repellent. Instead, spray some into your hands, then rub it into their skin, he says.
Buy it: Amazon.com; Price: $10.38
7. Best Wipe: Repel Sportsmen Mosquito Wipes
Mosquito repellent wipes have some advantages over sprays: They're lightweight, packable and better for quick reapplications, making them a great option for hikes or camping trips (as long as you're prepared to carry out any used wipes when you leave).
Repel Sportsmen Mosquito Wipes have a 30 percent concentration of DEET and give you up to 10 hours of protection. Available in packs of 15, these wipes are powerful repellents, perfect for avid outdoors people who don't want a swarm of skeeters ruining their recreation time.
Buy it: Amazon.com; Price: $3.82
8. Best Lotion: Avon Skin So Soft Bug Guard
Avon Skin So Soft Bug Guard works double duty as a combination sunscreen and insect repellent lotion, thanks to the active ingredient IR3535. It's hypoallergenic, fast-absorbing (read: easy to apply), non-comedogenic (meaning it doesn't clog pores) and won't leave skin feeling greasy. You get about two hours of protection, but you should reapply after you go swimming.
Buy it: Avon.com; Price: $15
Tips for Applying Mosquito Repellent
Stay safe when using bug repellents by following these steps from the Environmental Protection Agency:
- Always follow the directions on the product's label.
- Apply the repellent only to exposed skin and on top of clothing, never underneath clothing.
- Avoid your mouth and eyes, and use it sparingly around your ears.
- Never spray repellent directly on your face. Instead, spray it into your hands, then rub it on your face.
- Never put repellent on any cuts or wounds, and avoid using it on irritated skin.
- Don't breathe in the repellent while you're spraying it (and avoid spraying it in an enclosed area).
- Never use repellent near food.
- When you go indoors, wash the repellent from your skin and clothes with soap and water.
Mosquitoes are known to spread a variety of serious illnesses, including West Nile virus, Eastern equine encephalitis and the Zika virus, but there is no evidence to suggest that they can spread the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, Gray says.
Nevertheless, it's important to stay vigilant when it comes to protecting yourself against mosquitoes as the weather gets warmer and bug populations grow. At worst, you don't want to catch a mosquito-borne illness, and at best, you'd probably rather not spend the first cookout of the year swatting and scratching.