Bug Off!

Which mosquito repellents work best?

Illustration by Nina Frenkel.
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Come summertime, three topics dominate every conversation in my hometown of Memphis, Tenn.: who makes the best barbecued ribs, what really constitutes blues music, and which mosquito repellent works best. Everybody—and I do mean everybody—has his or her own bug remedy, ranging from sticks and sprays containing concentrated chemical or homeopathic agents to eccentric treatments involving bright-colored clothing and Bounce fabric-softener sheets. It’s no wonder citizens of the Bluff City take their mosquito combat so seriously: 126 years ago, a yellow fever epidemic killed 5,000 residents.

Yellow fever may be uncommon today, but mosquitoes are capable of spreading it and other diseases like encephalitis, West Nile virus, and malaria. They’re also incredibly irritating. How to fight them? For decades, people used DEET for personal protection until serious toxicity concerns surrounding environmental and health hazards surfaced in the 1980s. (Click here for more information.) While the Environmental Protection Agency has since declared that high doses aren’t toxic for humans and the CDC endorses DEET, the compound still incites a soupçon of anxiety in some and is unpopular among parents of young children.

Consequently, a host of DEET alternatives have come on the scene. As of April 2005, the CDC endorsed two additional repellent agents—picaridin, a colorless and odorless chemical, and the all-natural oil of lemon eucalyptus. While DEET is believed to disable the insect’s antennae receptors—thwarting its ability to detect body heat, carbon dioxide, or lactic acid, the three clues that an all-you-can-eat blood buffet is near—picaridin forms a barrier on the human skin, similarly deterring hungry insects. The stinky oil of lemon eucalyptus confuses the bugs, masking both carbon dioxide and lactic acid exhalations. Repellents featuring these ingredients represent only a fraction of products on the market today, so the question that bears asking is: Which one works best?


I set out to test two categories of personal repellents: chemical agents and natural treatments. First, I surveyed drugstore shelves for popular brands. I also polled mosquito experts—including a dermatologist, an epidemiologist, and a fisherman. After paring down my list to nine products, I devised plans for three rounds of tests. The first two rounds occurred with friends at backyard cookouts. The third round consisted of a group of friends and me on the bluffs of the Mississippi—prime mosquito territory. For three hours we rubbed, we sprayed, we drank several cases of beer. Many of us were bitten incessantly; a lucky few fared well with our choices.

All participants rated repellents on three factors. Ease of use (10 percent of total score): Is the repellent easy to apply? Does it require multiple applications? Practicality (20 percent): Would you wear this to an outdoor evening wedding or a romantic meal down by the river, or is the scent too overpowering? Does it stain clothes? Is it sticky? Effectiveness (70 percent): How durable is the product? Does it work as promised? Most importantly, does it successfully fend off bloodsuckers? And finally, natural products received a five-point bonus.

The results, from worst to best:

L.L. Bean’s Buzz Off Adirondack Baseball Hat
Price $29 at
Category: chemical agent
Active ingredient: permethrin

L.L. Bean has created an entire apparel line for adults and children devoted to repelling insects—ranging from T-shirts to socks to blue jeans. Clothes are treated with the patented Buzz Off Insect Shield, an insect-killing pesticide, not a repellent, and are guaranteed to ward off ticks, no-see-ums, and mosquitoes through 25 washings.

Given L.L. Bean’s simple endorsement: “As long as you are wearing Buzz Off apparel, you’re protected,” everyone fought for an opportunity to try on this cap. The pesticide itself was invisible and odorless, and as long as you don’t mind getting hat head, you can sport it in style. But we quickly learned that the whole Buzz Off wardrobe is necessary to fend off Memphis mosquitoes: The hat was helpless against bugs buzzing below the neck and ankles; arms and wrists were bitten mercilessly. At $29, that’s a high price to keep only your head pest-free.

Ease of use: 8 (out of 10)
Practicality: 12 (out of 20)
Effectiveness: 2.1 (out of 70)
Total: 22.1 (out of 100)

Cutter Advanced Spray
Price: $5.95 at
Category: chemical agent
Active ingredient: picaridin

Cutter Advanced depends on 7 percent picaridin, not DEET, to repel mosquitoes. What does that mean for you? Well, for starters, it’s odorless, and it glides onto your skin without any stickiness. It can cause eye irritation, however, so you have to wash your hands after application. And although the instructions on the back of the pump bottle recommend spraying yourself every three or four hours, our testers found that gnats were immediately attracted to the area, and mosquitoes flocked back after a mere 90 minutes. Given this short-term protection, Cutter failed to make the cut.

Ease of use: 7
Practicality: 14
Effectiveness: 28
Total: 49

Avon Skin-So-Soft Bug Guard Plus Spray
Price: $10 at
Category: chemical agent
Active ingredient: beta-alanine, carboxylic acid, and IR3535

When Avon Skin-So-Soft lotion first came on the market, housewives in the know quickly recognized a fringe benefit: The lotion’s perfuming agent, called coumarin, also wards off mosquitoes. As Skin-So-Soft’s “underground” reputation grew, Avon developed its Bug Guard Plus formula. The new recipe relies on IR3535, a water-resistant coumarin compound that, unlike DEET, doesn’t have to be washed off after use.

Testers were initially pleased with Avon’s results; the odorless spray has a cooling effect with no greasy residue, and Skin-So-Soft boasts an SPF of 15, additional vitamin E, and a water-resistant formula. But within an hour (Avon promises four-hour protection), bites welled up on arms and feet. And after repeated applications, the aerosol sprayer went on strike, squirting tiny bits of gummed-up repellent. Nonetheless, a few testers remained impressed with Skin-So-Soft’s scentless, sunscreen-boosted formula, and vowed to buy their own can, despite the need for repeated application.

Ease of use: 6
Practicality: 16
Effectiveness: 28
Total: 50

Bite Blocker Herbal Spray
Price: $8.99 at
Category: natural treatment
Active ingredient: soybean oil

Bite Blocker has flower power going for it: This nontoxic spray is made from coconuts, geraniums, and soybeans, giving it a more pleasant scent than other products on the market. And it feels cool going on—an important factor for sultry summer nights. That’s the good news. Testers also reported that Bite Blocker is sticky and has a tendency to burn superficial cuts. And although it promises to be as effective as DEET, those pesky bloodsuckers were biting 90 minutes after application.

Ease of use: 8
Practicality: 10
Effectiveness: 35
Natural ingredient bonus: 5
Total: 58

Quantum Buzz Away
Price: $9.99 at
Category: natural treatment
Active ingredient: citronella

This herbal spray, derived from essential oils of citronella, cedarwood, lemongrass, peppermint, and eucalyptus, has the American Academy of Pediatrics—who recommend it as a DEET alternative for children under age 6—on its side. Its handy pump bottle is easy to use, and, like most other sprays, it also guarantees to repel gnats, flies, and no-see-ums. But this repellent stinks—no cozying up to your honey while you’re wearing it. And because it must be applied every hour, there’s no chance of toning down the scent. That said, you will enjoy peace of mind while liberally spraying this concoction: Its plant-based formula contains zero chemicals. And even in Memphis, it kept mosquitoes at bay for up to two hours.

Ease of use: 6
Practicality: 2
Effectiveness: 65
Natural ingredient bonus: 5
Total: 78

Repel Sportsmen Mosquito Spray and Wipes
Price: $6.21 at
Category: chemical agent
Active ingredient: DEET

While Outdoor Life Network host and champion fisherman Bill Dance suggests that you use a DEET-based repellent and a permethrin-treated wardrobe whenever outdoors, he says in most cases, Repel Sportsmen Mosquito Wipes or Spray will do the trick. Per his instructions, I sprayed the back of my neck, and my head, arms, and ankles with Repel Sportsman Spray, followed by a swab of a Repel Wipe around my eyes. I recoiled from the strong scent, but his folksy advice reverberated in my ear: “I want a little odor to know that it’s working. If I can smell it a little, you bet those mosquitoes can smell it a lot!”

True to Dance’s claim, this 30 percent DEET formula kept the bugs away. But the leftover DEET remaining on my palms from the wipes proceeded to erase the ink from my beer bottle label, as well as the paint from a few aerosol cans in our test pile. As a result, Repel Sportsman failed to take top marks.

Ease of use: 2
Practicality: 6
Effectiveness: 70
Total: 78

Off! Deep Woods Spray
Price: $4.99 at
Category: chemical agent
Active ingredient: DEET

After a single whiff, one tester remarked that this repellent smells like roach killer. That comment, combined with the repellent’s 30 percent DEET solution, scared off most other testers. But I was excited to test it. Despite the toxicity, Dr. John D. Huber of the Memphis Dermatology Clinic swears by this product, recommending it to his patients as well as his family—and his three children are ages 4, 6, and 8. Off! Deep Woods lived up to his recommendation—just one application, and no bites all night. But friends were repelled by our DEET aura, and you can forget about enjoying food and drink. Our sinus cavities were so dulled we couldn’t taste anything—not even the cold hops in a bottle of beer. We may have been bite-free, but it took a hot bath and a good night’s sleep to restore our equilibrium.

Ease of use: 8
Practicality: 4
Effectiveness: 70
Total: 82

Repel Lemon Eucalyptus Spray
Price: $5.19 at
Category: natural treatment
Active ingredient: p-menthane-3,8-diol

This tiny spray bottle packs a wallop—one pump of the formula, which is 40 percent lemon eucalyptus oil, will singe your nostril hairs and the strong scent means cuddling under the moonlight is out. But does it keep the bugs away? The folks at the CDC knew what they were talking about when they added this active ingredient to the list of effective repellents. Whether at a backyard cookout or down in the stagnant river bottoms, Repel lived up to its name, lasting all night long with just a single application.

Ease of use: 8
Practicality: 4
Effectiveness: 70
Natural ingredient bonus: 5
Total: 87

Off! Botanicals Lotion
Price: $6.59 at
Category: chemical agent-meets-natural treatment
Active ingredient: p-menthane-3,8-diol and 7 percent DEET

The Off! Botanicals packaging touts its plant-derived formula extracted from eucalyptus leaves and twigs, but a closer look reveals that the product has a small percentage of DEET on its list of ingredients. Still, according to the EPA, Off! Botanicals isn’t harmful to the environment and it can be applied judiciously without risk. Testers were thrilled to discover a mostly natural formula that could offer big-league protection: One application lasted upwards of two hours. The downside: While this lotion felt surprisingly light and nongreasy, its “garden scent” smelled like a cheap air freshener. Nevertheless, it did the trick, and we could rest easy in the great outdoors—no small feat in Memphis. The mosquitoes might hate it, but our test group gave Off! Botanicals a resounding “Amen.”

Ease of use: 7
Practicality: 15
Effectiveness: 70
Natural ingredient bonus: 2.5
Total: 94.5

The author thanks Jennifer Ward, medical epidemiologist for the Memphis and Shelby County Health Department.