brown mosquito

Insect Repellents: How to Choose and Best Buys

9 minutes

The great outdoors can be an amazing experience, but dealing with insect bites and itches can be a hassle. With the increasing number of diseases transmitted by insects, it’s important to choose and use insect repellents wisely.

This article breaks down the different options available to help you make the best choice. We also give a review of some of our best buys to keep you bite-free!

Types of insect repellent

When it comes to insect repellents, you have three main choices:

Repellents applied to the skin

These are the most effective options, but they need to be applied carefully and repeatedly. Chemical repellents like DEET and picaridin offer long-lasting and wide-ranging protection against mosquitoes, ticks, and many fly species. Natural or synthetic plant oils, such as lemon eucalyptus oil and IR3535, are also effective but provide shorter protection and repel fewer bugs.

Repellents applied to clothing

Insect-repellent clothing provides protection for a wide range of bugs and is ready to use as soon as you’re dressed. Permethrin, a synthetic chemical derived from chrysanthemums, is commonly used in mosquito- and tick-repellent clothing. You can buy clothing that is already treated with permethrin or treat your own clothes with spray-on products. However, repellents applied to clothing are not effective against flies, so combining them with skin-based repellents is recommended for comprehensive coverage.

Airborne insect repellents

These repellents create a zone of mosquito-free airspace around you without the need for direct application to the skin or clothing. They are convenient for staying in one area, such as a campsite, but they only work against mosquitoes and are not effective in windy conditions or when you’re on the move.

It’s important to note that different repellents work on different bugs. Most repellents are effective against mosquitoes and ticks, but not all of them work on flies or stinging insects. For example, if you’re dealing with yellow jackets, trap-style products would be a better option.

Active ingredients to look out for

When choosing an insect repellent, consider the active ingredient, the duration of protection, and the insects it repels. Here’s a comparison chart of common active ingredients and their effectiveness against different insects:

Active IngredientTypeInsects AffectedDuration
AllethrinSynthesized chrysanthemum plant ingredientMosquitoesAs long as emission device is running
Citronella candleNatural plant oilSome mosquitoesAs long as the candle burns
DEETChemicalMosquitoes, ticks, some fliesUp to 12 hours
IR3535Synthesized plant oilMosquitoes4-8 hours
Oil of lemon eucalyptusSynthesized plant oilMosquitoesUp to 6 hours
PermethrinSynthesized chrysanthemum plant ingredientMosquitoes, ticksUp to 70 washings in pretreated clothing; up to 6 washings when sprayed on
PicaridinSynthesized pepper plant ingredientMosquitoes, ticks, fliesUp to 14 hours
Plant oils (soybean, lemongrass, cedar, citronella, etc.)Natural plant oilSome mosquitoesEstimated 30 min. to 2 hours
“Wearable” plant oils (integrated into wristbands or clip-on products)Natural plant oilSome mosquitoes (in the vicinity of the wearable item)Multiple days

Best insect repellent applied to the skin

Sawyer Products 20% Picaridin Insect Repellent

Best insect repellent applied to the skin

The Sawyer Products 20% Picaridin Insect Repellent provides effective protection against mosquitoes, ticks, flies, and other biting insects. It contains 20% Picaridin as its active ingredient, which is a synthetic compound that has been proven to be highly effective in repelling insects.

Picaridin offers comparable effectiveness to DEET while eliminating concerns about plastic degradation and other potential effects on gear. A spray containing a 20% concentration of picaridin is an effective alternative to DEET without the associated drawbacks. I like this Insect Repellent due to its intelligent and compact bottle design, which allows for easy and precise application. Unlike aerosol competitors, the pump spray minimizes the risk of overspraying or leaving a residue on the skin.

Also the secure, two-capped design prevents accidental leaks when stored in a backpack or bag. Sawyer’s repellent is widely available in various sizes, including smaller ones for backpacks and a larger size for convenient placement near the front door, and is priced around $27 for 4oz.

Picaridin does not have the greasy feel commonly associated with DEET products. However, it may leave a temporary sheen on the skin until it is fully absorbed. The sheen is typically subtle and fades quickly as the product dries. There is a mild, pleasant scent that can be described as citrus, as mentioned on the website. While I agree with this description, I personally find it difficult to provide an exact description of the scent.

I have watched mosquitoes flying around me multiple times while using this product, but they did not land on me. Overall it’s a great product for avoiding bites.

Best insect repellent applied to clothing

Sawyer Premium Insect Repellent Clothing Treatment

Best Insect Repellent applied to clothing

We picked up Sawyer Premium Insect Repellent Clothing Treatment for around $17, and went to work. Sawyer insect repellent is a stand-alone product in which you soak your clothing or material you want to deter bugs. The repellent Permethrin, is an insecticide that was registered with the EPA, and put on the market in 1977. This pyrethroid basically repels or kills insects on contact. Sawyer insect repellent contains less than 1% permethrin.

We chose to test this insect repellent using a mosquito net, and two of our four-memeber crew would use it on their clothes. Four of our friends were heading out camping and fishing for the weekend and knew the area was bound to have a few mosquitoes.

The insect repellent came in a 9 oz. can, and Sawyer states the insect repellent is effective for 6 launderings, so we figured it would definitely last the three days our crew would be camping. Tough life!

It worked well. There were mosquitoes around the campsite, but I didn’t get bit wearing the clothing. (Sawyer insect repellent also repels and kills ticks, chiggers and mites). It did take a little time spraying my clothing beforehand. I might try their soaking method next time (Sawyer also carries an insect repellent that you soak your clothing in).

I thought putting the stuff on the mosquito net was a great idea. None of us were bit at night. I did receive one bite on my neck, but with as many mosquitoes that were around I think that was not too bad. Maybe I missed spraying that area. It doesn’t have a bad odor, which I thought it might.

We thought using the Sawyer insect repellent with the mosquito net would give us a good idea on its effectiveness. It seemed to work well, and we’d suggest you try this for your next camping trip.

We feel Sawyer Insect Repellent is an effective repellent. We’d suggest you might try the military style brand and soak instead of spray. It’s a little cheaper, and it may be more effective covering all of the material you’re using.

Best Airborne insect repellent

Off! Powerpad Lamp

Best Airborne insect repellent

We really rate the Off! Powerpad Lamp. This SC Johnson product’s purpose is to keep an area 15 x 15 sq. feet, free from bugs. You’d use this on a patio, in your camp, or around the barbeque. So how did the Powerpad lamp measure up?

We used the Off! Powerpad lamp during an evening dinner on the back patio of a friends home. The Powerpad lamp pack we purchased was around $50 at Amazon. The package contained one reusable lantern, and 1 repellent pads and candle. You can also assemble a 4 foot high pole to hang the repellent. We were disappointed that the Powerpad lamp contained only 1 repellent pad, but you can buy refills. One pad lasts for around 4 hours.

The lamp was ignited and the candle easily lit for us. The area that the Powerpad lamp was used in is prone to mosquitoes. If you aren’t wearing some type of bug repellent, you’re bound to catch a bite or two. Not good! So did it work?

The area stayed bug-free for the three hours we sat on the patio. No one received a bad bite. There were many bites of food taken, but those were good bites. We would recommend the Powerpad lamp, another great Off! repellent. However, we would also suggest that you pick up a refill pack when you order this great device. That way you will have three extra refills handy.

How to treat a mosquito bite if you’re not at home

Not all insect repellents are 110% effective, but we have a tip on how to stop the itch from mosquito bites if you’re not at home. That solution is for campers, hikers, or those people with no time to stop and mix up a home remedy. Follow as many of these steps as possible.

  • First, clean the infected area with soap and HOT water.
  • Stop scratching the mosquito bite! We know, not easy, but it only aggravates the bite. Have your child slap the bite if it’s difficult to stop them from scratching. It’s quick relief without the irritation.
  • Rub the bite with rubbing alcohol if available. This will cool the bug bite and also disinfect it.
  • Take a couple tablespoons of baking soda and mix it with water to create a pasty substance. Apply the paste to the mosquito bite.
  • If baking soda is unavailable, rub soap on the bite and leave it on.
  • Go to the store and purchase some calamine lotion to have on hand next time.
  • While you do your best to avoid getting bit; no repellent can stop 100% of mosquito bites. Following these few tips should help alleviate that darned itch.

In summary

Insect repellents are our secret weapon against those annoying bugs that can ruin our outdoor adventures. So say goodbye to those critters with one of the products above! With the right insect repellent, you can enjoy the great outdoors without worrying about those unwanted bug bites.