Critics' Pick

The Best Insect Repellents for Your Next Backyard Picnic or Cookout

published May 22, 2020
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
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It’s incredibly easy to get into the (tick-infested) weeds when you start researching insect repellents. There are just so many studies and experts with their own suggestions. While we, of course, considered lots of this, we are a food site — what we’re really after is just finding the best bug spray to put on for a backyard picnic or cookout. (Because very few things can ruin a night of eating outside like having to move things inside.) So we looked to see what some other sites and experts had to recommend and then wrapped those suggestions up with our research.

Most Common Ingredients in Insect Repellent

There are few things to know before we get started. (We promise, we’ll keep this part short.) For starters, there’s a list of EPA-registered repellent ingredients — the most known ones being DEET, picaridin, and oil of lemon eucalyptus. Ideally, you want something with at least 20 percent of one of these ingredients.

  • DEET gets a bad rap, mostly because it stinks, leaves an oily film behind, and can damage some clothes or furniture. (Despite what a lot of people think, the EPA says DEET does not present a health concern when used according to the label directions.) You should avoid repellents with more than 30 percent DEET. The EPA gives no age restrictions for DEET, but it’s generally not recommended to use bug spray on babies 2 months or younger. While DEET is effective, it hasn’t been proven to be any more effective than picaridin, which is good news for people looking for an alternative.
  • Picaridin has been widely used as an insect repellent in Europe and Australia, but has only been available in the United States since 2005. Picaridin is also safe for children, again, as long as it’s used correctly.
  • Oil of lemon eucalyptus is a naturally derived active ingredient from the lemon eucalyptus plant and it is not the same as essential oil of lemon eucalyptus, which is not recommended for use as repellent. The Food and Drug Administration recommends against using it on children younger than 3 years old.

“Before they can be marketed, most skin-applied repellents must be registered by EPA,” the EPA website explains. If a product is registered, that means it’s been evaluated and approved for human safety and effectiveness when applied according to instructions on the label. Look for the EPA Registration Number on the product label (for example, 123456-1) before you purchase it.

Of course, just because a product is EPA-registered doesn’t mean it will work for you. Some people seem to attract mosquitos and bugs more than others. And there are so many different types of bugs, depending on where you live. With all of this in mind, let’s take a look to see what’s being recommended out there.

The Best Bug Repellent, According to Wirecutter

Sawyer Products Premium Insect Repellent, $13 for two 4-ounce bottles

The folks at Wirecutter tested 15 repellents and spoke with experts at the EPA, the American Mosquito Control Association, and more before deciding on this stuff. It has a 20% picaridin formula, which makes it it effective against mosquitoes and ticks for up to 12 hours. (Wirecutter likes picaridin because they said it has the most positives and the fewest negatives of any EPA-approved repellent. But it should be noted that Wirecutter did not test for efficacy because there were too many variables to consider.) Other 20 percent picaridin repellents should be relatively similar in terms of efficacy, but it was the spray bottle that helped this one stand out: It sprays more evenly and accurately than its competitors, it doesn’t over-spray or puddle repellent, and its two-cap design prevents accidental leaks.

The Best Insect Repellent, According to Consumer Reports

Ben’s Tick & Insect Repellent Wipes got a Consumer Reports rating of 96 (out of 100). According to the report, the DEET wipes were “excellent” at repelling mosquitoes and didn’t cause much damage to things like clothing or outdoor furniture. Consumer Reports did test the repellents multiple times with real people and cages of 200 disease-free mosquitoes. The tests found that products with 15 to 30 percent DEET fell in the sweet spot (anything higher can come with risks and anything lower can be ineffective). These wipes are 30 precent.

The Bestselling Insect Repellent on Amazon

OFF! Deep Woods Insect & Mosquito Repellent VIII, $8 for two 4-ounce bottles

It’s no huge surprise that this would be the bestselling bug spray on Amazon, considering it’s probably what comes to mind first for most people. Satisfied reviewers mostly talk about how it keeps the mosquitos away and a few say it’s the only thing that works in their neck of the woods (pun intended). It’s formulated with 25 percent DEET.

Kitchn’s Thoughts on the Best Bug Repellent

Between all of us here at Kitchn, we’ve tried all three of these and have happily reported decent results. We were, however, surprised not to find any outlets touting oil of lemon eucalyptus and so we’d like to add one more suggestion to this list: REPEL Plant-Based Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent. It’s formulated with 30 percent OLE and a bestseller on Amazon, with more than 3,500 five-star reviews. We’d also like to call out these Madison James Flyaway Sticks, which are so beloved, they tend to sell out every year (but are in stock now!).

Do you have a preferred insect repellent? Tell us about it in the comments below!