Bug Sprays Rated​: This Year's Safest & Most Effective Insect Repellents​ (PHOTOS)

Maressa Brown | May 13, 2015 Healthy Living

woman applying bug sprayIt's almost summer, and in addition to all the beauty and green and warmth that brings, it'll also mean busting out the bug spray. But conundrum: Only about a third of Americans believe insect repellents on the market are safe for adults, according to a recent Consumer Reports survey. Even fewer -- 23 percent! -- believe they're safe for kids.   

It's no surprise. No matter how much you hate clawing at mosquito bites, you probably loathe the toxic idea of dousing yourself in deet. But are natural alternatives effective?

Well, good news: For the first time ever in Consumer Reports’ tests of insect repellents, new, safer products—made with milder, plantlike chemicals—were the most effective.

So which ones should we be using -- and how? Here, the most useful findings from Consumer Reports' latest bug spray investigation.

What will you be using to keep mosquitoes away this summer? 

bug sprays rated

Image via iStock.com/powerofforever

  • (More) Natural Ingredients FTW!

    1

    The top scoring products -- which outperformed deet! -- rely on the active ingredients picaridin and oil of lemon eucalyptus, chemically synthesized compounds that are similar to or come from natural ingredients. They're not side-effect free, but "those problems are much less severe than deet," says Urvashi Rangan, PhD, executive director of Consumer Reports' Food Safety and Sustainability Center.

  • Just How Well Deet Alternatives Work

    2

    The repellents with 20 percent picaridin and 30 percent lemon eucalyptus kept mosquitoes away for at least 7 hours and kept deer ticks away for at least 6 hours. But the concentration is important: A spray that contained just 5 percent picaridin performed worse than a 7 percent deet product.

    It also bears noting that the Food and Drug Administration says oil of lemon eucalyptus should not be used on children under age 3. Picaridin is a better choice for kids, although it can cause some irritation of skin, eyes, and lungs.

  • If You Must Do Deet ...

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    The best deet pick was Repel Scented Family($11.70, amazon.com), which came in as the third best choice overall. But get this: It scored three whole points less than the top picaridin repellent when it comes to guarding against aedes mosquitoes (a variety that likes to feed on humans, is active all day long, and carries chikungunya). Two less when compared to the top lemon eucalyptus choice.

  • More Details on Deet

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    If you don't know how much deet a repellent should contain for it to be considered safe, you're not alone. Sixty-four percent of people surveyed by Consumer Reports admit they're in the dark on this. But figuring out what's effective and safe when it comes to deet is tough. The report authors say that products with 15 percent or more deet do work. (Off! Deep Woods Vlll, $9, walmart.com, which is 25 percent, came in at #5). But concentrations above 30 percent are no better, past tests have found. And deet, especially in high concentrations, can cause rashes, disorientation, and seizures. For that reason, avoid repellents with more than 30 percent deet, and don't use it at all on babies younger than 2 months. And don't go too low -- concentrations of 7 percent and lower won't fend off bites.

    More from The Stir: The 4 Best Bug Sprays to Protect You & Your Family This Summer

  • But Don't Bother With ...

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    ... "all-natural" plant oil repellents that are solely citronella, lemongrass, rosemary, peppermint, etc. Or wristbands. None of these products lasted more than one hour against aedes mosquitoes, and some failed almost immediately.

  • Don't Buy Into Hype or Combo Promises

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    Back in 1993, Consumer Reports found that cult fave Avon's Skin So Soft -- which makes no repellent claims and is made from mineral oil and emollients only -- doesn't keep mosquitoes away at all. Now, however, other Skin So Soft products are marketed as repellents -- like Skin So Soft Bug Guard Plus IR3535 Expedition ($16, avon.com), a sunscreen plus bug spray. But the report warns against a combo product, because it could lead to high doses of the repellent, as you're supposed to put on sunscreen much more often than a bug spray.

  • The #1 Repellent Is ...

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    Sawyer Fisherman’s Formula Picaridin ($7, outdoorstuffs.com) got the highest rating out of 15 products tested. The pump spray protected for 8 hours against mosquitoes (including the aggressive ones that spread chikungunya) and protected for more than 8 hours against ticks. It also has less serious side effects, especially for kids. The drawbacks: It’s a little pricey, and it discolored leather and vinyl and removed nail polish.

  • And the Runner-Up ...

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    Repel Lemon Eucalyptus ($9, amazon.com) ranked #2 and was least likely to damage or discolor materials. But it did take off nail polish.

    More from The Stir: 9 Non-Toxic Ways to Protect Babies From Bugs

  • Application & Cleanup Matter

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    The report emphasizes just how important it is to apply any repellent properly, which means only to exposed skin or clothing (as directed by label) and never under clothing. Use just enough to cover and only for as long as needed; heavy doses don’t work better. When applying to your face, spray first on your hands, then rub in, avoiding your eyes and mouth, and using sparingly around ears. And at the end of the day, wash treated skin with soap and water, and wash treated clothes in a separate wash before wearing again.

  • For a Pest-Free Backyard, Don't Rely on Citronella

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    Consumer Reports tested methods that purportedly keep mosquitoes at bay when you're in the backyard: an Off! Citronella Bucket ($8.50) containing a candle with 0.5 percent oil of citronella, a Bug Band Portable Diffuser ($20), which uses a battery-operated blower to propel the scent of 20 percent geraniol, another plant oil, and an oscillating pedestal fan set to its highest speed. The winner: the fan! Where the citronella and geraniol failed, the fan cut mosquito landings up to 65 percent, at least among people sitting closest to it. 

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