The Battle of the Bugs: Choosing a Repellent that Works for You

Navigators of harsh and rugged terrain we may be, but when it comes to navigating the technical terminology on the back of a bottle of bug spray, let’s face it, most of us feel a little bit lost! Do I go with DEET, or DEET-free? What on earth is Picaridin? Are these active ingredients safe for my kids? Of the hundreds of bug sprays out there, which one is actually going to tick off the ticks and let me adventure in peace? Ultimately, different repellents work for different people in different regions for different reasons, so I’ve compiled some resources that can help you navigate the bug spray question and choose the repellent that is right for your adventure.

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Active Ingredients

The first thing to determine in selecting a bug spray is which active ingredient is best for you. No repellent can absolutely guarantee you will never get nibbled, but generally speaking, stronger ingredients such as DEET, Picaridin, or IR3535 are a little more effective than the more natural alternatives of Lemon Eucalyptus Oil or Nonsynthesized essential oils (soybean, lemongrass, or cedar). While harsher active ingredients raise greater health concerns (especially for small children, pregnant women, or people with sensitive skin), anything EPA registered is considered “safe” for humans. It is true that chemicals sprayed on the skin will be absorbed into the body to a degree, so you should weigh these factors against the risks of contracting whatever diseases are carried by insects in your area. Zika virus and Lyme disease are very serious and may merit exposing yourself to stronger chemicals, but if those are not a concern in your area, you might be just as well warding off the majority of little pests with a natural alternative and take a bite or two in stride.


As a general rule, insect repellents do not kill mosquitos or other bugs, rather they mask the scents that attract them. For this reason, higher concentrations of active ingredients do not necessarily increase the effectiveness of repellents, but rather increase the length of time they are effective. For example, a 5% DEET formula is said to provide protection from mosquitoes for approximately 90 minutes, whereas a concentration of 100% DEET would last for approximately 10 hours. So if you’re going on an all-day hike, you may want a more potent spray, but if you’re having a backyard barbeque where you’ll only be outside for a few hours and could reapply the repellent at any point, something meek and mild would likely do the trick.

Meet the Active Ingredients

DEET (N,N-diethyl-3-methylbenzamide)
Effective Against: mosquitoes, biting flies, chiggers, fleas, and ticks

DEET is considered the most effective insect repellent. It has been used in the United States since 1957 and is probably the most thoroughly tested repellent to date. There is some debate as to whether pregnant women should use products containing DEET, though The American Academy of Pediatrics has stated that repellents with up to 30% concentration of DEET are safe for the entire family excepting infants under two months of age. A concentration of 20% DEET or greater is required to be effective against ticks, though concentrations as low as 5% can be relatively effective for mosquitos. Concentrations of 50% DEET or greater can be used on clothing, but should not be applied to the skin.

Picaridin (2-hydroxyethyl-1-piperidinecarboxylic acid 1-methylpropyl ester)
Effective Against: mosquitoes, ticks and chiggers

An odorless alternative to DEET, Picaridin has also proved to be a very effective repellent. It was originally developed in the 1980’s and has been widely used in Europe and Australia, though it has only been used in the United States since 2005. Picaridin is less likely to damage clothing than other repellents and is considered safe for all ages, excepting infants under two months of age.

Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus (para-Menthane-3,8-diol [PMD for short])
Effective Against: Mosquitos

Though a synthesized oil, Lemon Eucalyptus is a slightly more natural approach to beating the bugs. It is only effective for approximately 6 hours, as opposed to its chemical counterparts which can last up to 12 hours, but is still very effective, especially for mosquitos. Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus is not recommended for children under three years of age, as it can be a skin and eye irritant, but it is considered less toxic overall than the chemical repellents.

Natural Plant Oils (Nonsynthesized)

Natural oils such as soybean, lemongrass, citronella, cedar, peppermint, lavender, geranium or geraniol, are considered by the EPA to be safe for humans, but are not specifically endorsed, primarily because their effectiveness has not been fully tested. Typically, natural oils are effective, but for much shorter periods of time (30 minutes to 2 hours), and can sometimes cause skin irritation.