The 5 best bug sprays and repellents, for fending off mosquitos, ticks, and other bothersome insects

  • Bug spray helps fend off mosquitos, ticks, and other bugs that can be a nuisance while spending time outdoors.
  • Sprays and repellents are also effective in warding off bugs that might carry dangerous diseases.
  • Our top pick, OFF! Deep Woods Bug Spray, uses DEET and is highly effective at repelling insects.
  • For those who don’t want to use DEET, Sawyer Premium Insect Repellent is our favorite alternative.

Bug spray isn’t always the first thing you think of when deciding what to pack for a camping or backpacking trip. Despite being often overlooked, it’s a vital addition to anyone’s pack (along with general mosquito repellents) — dealing with swarming bugs or mosquito bites is never an enjoyable way to spend time outdoors. 

DEET (diethyltoluamide) remains the most popular bug spray ingredient due to its effectiveness at protecting from ticks, mosquitos, other bugs, and all the diseases they carry. Decades of research prove DEET to be the best for protecting humans from these bugs, though it is toxic to aquatic creatures like fish.

Worthwhile alternatives to DEET are either picaridin and permethrin, both of which are less toxic and likely just as effective at repelling bugs. However, the scientific community is still testing these alternatives, so DEET remains king.

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And while chemical bug sprays may or may not harm you or the flora and fauna you encounter, they’re highly toxic to many aquatic animals, can trash your clothes, and often smell terrible. Some people are even allergic.

For anyone sensitive to DEET or other chemical bug sprays, I’ve found a few eco-friendly picks that won’t hurt you or the environment as much as other sprays. Just know that DEET and picaridin are still the most effective at repelling dangerous ticks and mosquitos. 

A note to parents: The nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG) does not recommend using any bug spray on children under six months of age but suggests treating clothes with permethrin. After a child reaches six months, picaridin is the safest choice.

To learn more about which compounds are best for you and your needs, visit the EWG’s page on insect repellents.

Here are the best bug sprays:

  • Best bug spray with DEET: OFF! Deep Woods Spray Pump
  • Best bug repellent with picaridin: Sawyer Premium Insect Repellent with 20% Picaridin
  • Best bug spray for clothing: Sawyer Premium Permethrin
  • Best natural bug spray: Repel with Lemon Eucalyptus Oil
  • Best DIY bug repellent ingredients: Oil of lemon eucalyptus, geranium, cedarwood, lavender, rosemary, grapefruit, citronella, garlic, thyme, eucalyptus, peppermint, and lemongrass 

The best overall with DEET

OFF! Deep Woods Bug Spray has an optimal 25% concentration of DEET that keeps the greatest number of blood-sucking bugs at bay.

Pros: Possibly the most effective bug repellent out there

Cons: Toxic to aquatic creatures, destroys clothing, smells terrible, and makes you horribly sick if accidentally ingested

Most Americans have probably used OFF! bug spray at some point in their lives, and while the debate over the relative toxicity of DEET still looms large, research commissioned and/or conducted by the EPA and CDC continues to suggest that for humans, there isn’t much to worry about.

OFF! bug spray will keep blood-sucking insects like mosquitos and ticks well away from you and help you avoid the dangerous illness these bugs pass to humans.

DEET is still the best, most effective bug repellent in the US. The seven-plus decades of research data we have on DEET suggest that its potentially harmful side effects to humans are not that significant. However, that’s not so for aquatic animals, so consider keeping away from the water when wearing it whenever possible.

The best overall without DEET

Sawyer Premium Insect Repellent with 20% Picaridin is safe to use on adults and young kids, plus, it’s almost as effective as DEET at repelling ticks, mosquitos, and other bugs.

Pros: Less toxic than DEET, potentially as effective, won’t ruin plastics or plastic-based clothing

Cons: Not yet enough long-term research suggesting its efficacy over DEET, still toxic to wildlife though not as toxic as DEET

Sawyer Premium Insect Repellent with 20% Picaridin is excellent at warding off insects of the gnat, sandfly, and mozzie varieties. Picaridin, the active ingredient found in this spray, has recently been deemed nearly or as effective as DEET in warding off ticks, though we’d like to see more research before we can confidently recommend it as our top pick.

Ticks are a big problem in North America because the continent has the largest contiguous deciduous forest on earth, and it’s just the kind of environment in which the little buggers proliferate. Plus, cases of Lyme disease are on the rise worldwide.

But, for those who choose to avoid DEET for one reason another, we like picaridin as an alternative. While it’s still toxic to the ecosystem, it is considerably less damaging than DEET. Picaridin isn’t half as offensive to the nostrils as products containing DEET, either.

You can read more about the latest research on picaridin at the National Pesticide Information Center’s website, and on the EPA’s fact list for bug spray.

The best for clothing

Sawyer Premium Permethrin doesn’t just repel bugs, it mercilessly kills anything that lands on it. 

Pros: Excellent efficacy on clothes and other fabrics

Cons: Evaporates from skin within 15 minutes, kills most insects that set foot on it

I don’t like killing anything more than you do, but “live and let live” just doesn’t fly when some pestilent little blood-sucking insect or arachnid threatens to sentence me to a slow, agonizing disease or, you know, death. Sorry little critters, but Lyme Disease and Malaria are no joke.

Permethrin, which is what doctors prescribe to patients with lice and scabies, is an odorless solution that works wonders against most any creepy crawly thing this planet might toss at you. The only shortcoming is that it does not stay on our skin for much longer than 15 minutes, so it’s hardly effective at all unless you’re wearing clothes.

For hunters and anglers, giving off any scent, let alone one so unnatural and odorously offensive as that of DEET is death to their pursuit. In fact, if a serious enough hunter or angler catches you applying the stuff on the way into the woods or out onto the sea, they are likely to make you shower it off, or worse, leave you in the parking lot.

I have a friend who bans both sunscreen and bug spray on their boat because, according to them, the scent it produces on the line makes fish that much more wary of taking a bait. A quick test proved them right.

Sawyer Premium Permethrin is the stuff the hunters I know swear by, and if anyone can attest to its efficacy, I’m sure it’s them. Whenever I go into the woods, I do my best to reach for permethrin because, even though I’m not much of a hunter, DEET can send plenty of animals running. Further, I do happen to be an angler, and I prefer to capture my quarry alive, and free of chemical spoilage.

Sawyer Premium Permethrin is also a good choice for babies and youngsters, so long as they’re well-covered, of course. Campers would also best serve themselves by spraying down tents, hammocks, sleeping bags, and any other fabrics they take camping with a permethrin-based product like Sawyer’s spray repellent.

The best natural

Repel with Lemon Eucalyptus Oil smells good, does a sufficient job of keeping bugs away, and does not harm the environment as much as our other picks.

Pros: Smells better than DEET, inexpensive, nontoxic

Cons: Less effective than Picaridin or DEET

For those of you who are seeking alternatives to DEET, permethrin, and picaridin, natural ingredients work moderately well, but “oil of lemon eucalyptus” or PMD may be the next best thing. Repel’s bug spray with Lemon Eucalyptus Oil is effective and safe to use.

According to the EWG, a longevity study that took place between 2000 and 2013 showed that PMD evaporates from skin much more slowly than DEET or picaridin.

It’s important to note that while it may be effective to some degree, it does not quite stack up to chemical repellents, so if you live in an area with lots of ticks or deadly mosquitos, we recommend something stronger like DEET or picaridin.

Still, it smells good, and it does seem to do a pretty good job. Just don’t expect to find me relying on this stuff in the Cambodian jungle.

The best DIY

A combination of essential oils is almost guaranteed to smell better than DEET, and while it’s effective, it’s not fool-proof, so use your best judgment.

Pros: These essential oils will smell far better than DEET to most, and they won’t kill fish and/or insects you might otherwise want to let live

Cons: Not as effective as DEET, picaridin, permethrin, IR3535, or PMD

If you want to make your own natural bug repellent, there is a whole host of essential oils that deter blood-thirsty bugs, but, again, they probably won’t do as good of a job as DEET or picaridin.

For mosquitoes, thyme, lemongrass, citronella, lavender, geranium, grapefruit, and cedarwood are all popular essential oils. At least a 40-drop combination of any of the above is best, but try to keep the concentrations on the high side. It’s probably not worth putting together more than about four at a time unless you’re making a boatload of the stuff.

Certified Aromatherapy Health Professional Marian Grande at Medium has several recipes for deterring ticks. The easiest of which involves just half a cup of water, 20 drops of eucalyptus oil, and 20 drops of lemongrass oil. Another calls for geranium, cedarwood, lavender, lemongrass, and water.

Of course, it’s also a good idea to follow general precautions, like staying well-covered, spraying down all clothing and fabrics with your concoction of choice, tucking your pant legs into your socks, staying on trails when possible, and keeping clear of low-hanging branches.

It’s worth noting that not even DEET itself is completely bugproof, so be sure to check all your clothes, as well as your friends and family, to make sure there aren’t any hangers-on.

What we're looking forward to testing

Thermacell E55 Rechargeable Mosquito Repeller

Though it isn’t a bug spray, Thermacell’s E55 Rechargeable Mosquito Repeller is a repellent, so it certainly deserves consideration for this guide. On paper, it says it’s able to create a 20-foot “mosquito protection zone” and can run for up to 12 hours on a single charge, making it ideal for setting up at a campsite or in your backyard. Just don’t forget to pack a portable charger if you head out on a camp trip with it. 

I’ve used similar Thermacell products like this in the past and have always been impressed with how well they work. If it functions as advertised, the E55 could be a staple in my outdoor kit all summer. — Rick Stella, fitness and health editor

Most common bug spray ingredients

Picaridin (pih-CARE-a-den)

Bayer AG came up with picaridin in 1980, but it didn’t start to hit shelves until 1998 around the world and 2005 in the US. Picaridin is a derivative of the plant genus Piper and a less but still “moderately toxic” compound for rainbow trout.

The EPA’s recent research suggests that it’s as effective against ticks as DEET, and on average, lasts longer. The EPA, CDC, and WHO all agree that it’s a comparable DEET alternative.

The compound is more popular in Australia and Europe, where it has been available since 1998 and tick-borne illnesses are slightly less common, but DEET remains the staple in the United States. 


Developed by the US Army to protect soldiers from tropical disease-bearing insects, DEET or N, N-Diethyl-m-toluamide has been the most popular bug repellent in the US since it hit the mass market in 1957. While there has been some degree of controversy over its toxicity, it is highly effective at warding off ticks, mosquitos, and other insects.

Scientific research published in 2018 by the CDC (Center for Disease Control) shows that of the 650,000 cases of vector-borne (blood-feeding insect-originated) diseases reported in the United States over a 12-year period from 2004-2016, more than 75% were from ticks.

DEET provides great protection against the serious diseases you can get from ticks, mosquitos, and so on. The real issue with DEET is that it’s highly toxic to aquatic creatures.


A synthetic derivative of the chrysanthemum flower, permethrin is an insecticide used to exterminate mites like lice and scabies, but it’s also effective with other insects, which is why the US Army has been treating its combat uniforms with it for the last two decades.

Permethrin is the most odorless and perhaps the least toxic of all the chemical-based bug repellents, but it’s also the least effective on bare skin, where it can wear off in as quickly as 15 minutes. On the other hand, it lasts many weeks when applied to clothing — even after several washes — and because it’s odorless, it’s the ideal bug spray for hunters, anglers, and wildlife stalkers.


In the 1970s, Merck developed something called IR3535, which stands for “Insect Repellent 3535,” and could probably stand to take on a common name. It was only introduced to the mass market in 1999 and is billed by the EWG as being a “strong” mosquito repellent, and a “good” tick repellent, which isn’t quite good enough to knock DEET or picaridin off their thrones, at least at this point.

Essential oils

While not exactly clinically proven, a combination of essential oils is endorsed by many, and, as someone who spends countless hours in tick-infested wooded and shrub-strewn areas, I haven’t found a tick on myself since I started using them, particularly the formula put together by Burt’s Bees, which also, in my opinion, smells kind of nice, too. I also like that you can rub them all over your face without worrying about ingestion.

Check out more Insider Reviews outdoor guides

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