Best Bug Spray: Great Insect Repellents for Outdoor Adventure

Person spraying bug spray


Whether you're hiking, camping, or spending time on the water, bugs are unavoidable in the outdoors. And there's no surer way to ruin outdoor activities than being eaten alive by insects. Who among us hasn't been swarmed while camping or backpacking?

Bug bites are not only annoying, but they can also be dangerous. Mosquitoes carry everything from the West Nile virus to Malaria, and ticks can carry Lyme Disease.

To keep the bugs from biting, you need an effective bug repellent. We've done the research for you, rounding up the best bug sprays and lotions on the market. Here you'll find everything from the best all-around bug spray to our favorite mosquito repellent. We compare the pros and cons of each repellent to help you make an informed decision.

Next time you're planning an outdoor adventure, add one of these tick and insect repellents to your packing list. It could make or break your trip!

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The Best Bug Sprays - Our Top Picks

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What to Look for When Shopping for Bug Spray

Form

  • Spray: Most bug repellents are sold in spray form. Aerosol cans and pump bottles are quick to use and convenient, allowing you to cover clothing and exposed skin in seconds. Bug spray is so ubiquitous that we typically lump all repellents into the “spray” category, but lotions are available as well.
  • Lotion: Some insect repellents come in lotion form, especially those intended for kids and sensitive skin. Using lotion gives you more control over the application, with zero risk of overspray. Lotions can last longer than sprays, as well. However, lotions take longer to take effect and they cannot be applied to clothing.

Length of Effectiveness

The best bug sprays and lotions last for several hours, with most offering 10-12 hours of protection. Length of effectiveness is directly tied to active ingredients. When applied to clothing, permethrin can last up to 6 weeks (or 6 washings). Repellents containing picaridin typically last 12-14 hours, and DEET can last 10 hours or longer. Natural repellents containing essential oils do not last nearly as long.

Active Ingredients

You may already be familiar with DEET, the most well-known active ingredient in bug repellent. But there are other options on the market today, including picaridin and permethrin. Each of these chemicals are registered with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and proven to be effective at repelling pesky bugs.

Developed by the U.S. Army in 1946, DEET is applied directly to the skin. It works by masking your scent, making it tough for insects to find you. DEET has a very strong odor and can feel oily on your skin. While DEET effectively repels mosquitoes, ticks, and other biting bugs, it can harm clothing and gear.

Picaridin is our top recommendation because it lasts longer, smells less, and is more versatile than DEET. You can safely apply 20% picaridin to both skin and clothing. Plus, it won't make you smell like bug spray.

Permethrin is a fabric treatment designed to be used on gear and clothing. If you want to increase protection (especially from ticks), it's a good idea to treat your clothes, backpack, tent, and other outdoor gear with permethrin while also using picaridin or DEET on exposed skin.

Best Overall - Sawyer Picaridin Continuous Spray

Sawyer Picaridin Continuous Spray

SPECS

  • Form: Spray
  • Length of effectiveness: 12 hours
  • Active ingredients: 20% Picaridin

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Sawyer Picaridin Continuous Spray is our pick for the best all-around bug spray. This long-lasting product repels mosquitoes and ticks for up to 12 hours while warding off biting flies, stable flies, black flies, gnats, chiggers, and sand flies for up to eight hours. Sawyer's 20-percent picaridin formula is odorless and safe to use on both skin and clothing. You can safely use it with sunscreen, during pregnancy, and on kids as young as six months. This one checks all the boxes.

Sawyer Picaridin comes in a six-ounce continuous spray can for easy application. Some users have found the spray bottle to be a little fussy, but it generally sprays evenly and dries without leaving a sticky or greasy feeling on your skin. While you can find cheaper options, none are as well-rounded as Sawyer Picaridin Continuous Spray.

What We Like

  • Lasts up to 12 hours
  • Safe for gear and clothing
  • Odor-free
  • Not sticky or greasy

What We Don't Like

  • Costs more than some options
  • Spray bottle can be tricky to use

BUY: Sawyer Picaridin Continuous Spray

Best For Kids - Sawyer Family Controlled Release

Sawyer Family Controlled Release Insect Repellent

SPECS

  • Form: Lotion
  • Length of effectiveness: 11 hours
  • Active ingredients: 20% DEET

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When it comes to kids and families, you want a repellent that will last all day without any mess. Sawyer Family Controlled Release Insect Repellent is a great option. This controlled-release DEET lotion lasts 11 hours, so there's little need to reapply. It's not greasy or smelly, either, thanks to the low concentration of DEET. And it mixes well with sunscreen so you won't have to worry about burns.

As with all lotions, Sawyer Family Controlled Release Insect Repellent may take longer to be effective than bug spray. It's best applied at home, or in your tent or RV before setting out for the day. You won't be able to apply it to clothing, either, so consider treating your children's clothing with permethrin for additional protection.

What We Like

  • Lasts up to 11 hours
  • Odor-free, non-greasy lotion
  • Works well with sunscreen

What We Don't Like

  • Can't be applied to clothing
  • May take longer to kick in than bug spray

BUY: Sawyer Family Controlled Release Insect Repellent

Best Natural Repellent - Natrapel Essential Oil

Natrapel Essential Oil Insect Repellent

SPECS

  • Form: Spray
  • Length of effectiveness: Not specified
  • Active ingredients: Thyme oil, geraniol, lemongrass oil

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If you're concerned about using chemicals on your skin or clothing, essential oil-based repellents are a good alternative. While they are generally less effective and do not last as long as chemical repellents, essential oils do provide some benefits. Our favorite is Natrapel Essential Oil Insect Repellent For Pets And People.

Natrapel Essential Oil kills fleas, ticks, and mosquitoes on contact. It's made with a blend of natural ingredients including Thyme and Lemongrass. This spray is safe for pets, so it's worth grabbing a bottle if you have an adventure dog or cat. Just be aware that you'll likely need to reapply more frequently than with chemical-based repellents.

What We Like

  • Contains natural ingredients
  • Safe for use on pets and people
  • Kills fleas, ticks, and mosquitoes without DEET

What We Don't Like

  • Essential oils are less effective than other repellents
  • Doesn't last as long as other bug sprays

BUY: Natrapel Essential Oil Insect Repellent For Pets And People

Best Long Lasting - Sawyer Permethrin Pump Spray

Sawyer Permethrin Pump Spray

SPECS

  • Form: Spray
  • Length of effectiveness: Up to 6 weeks (or 6 washes)
  • Active ingredients: Permethrin

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If you want to treat your clothing with repellent, permethrin is your best bet. Sawyer's Permethrin Pump Spray lasts up to six weeks (or six washes) on clothing, gear, and tents. The 24-ounce bottle contains enough spray to cover four full outfits, including socks.

Permethrin keeps ticks, chiggers, mites, and mosquitoes off your clothing and gear for weeks. Because it shouldn't be used on skin, you'll also want to purchase another type of repellent. The other drawback of permethrin is its application: You'll want to apply it to fabric outdoors and let your gear dry for two to four hours before using it. With a little patience, permethrin can keep your clothing and gear bug-free for weeks.

What We Like

  • Provides 6 weeks of protection for clothing and gear
  • Odorless
  • Covers four full outfits

What We Don't Like

  • Can't be applied to skin
  • Requires 2-4 hours to dry

BUY: Sawyer Permethrin Pump Spray

Best For Ticks - Ben's Tick Repellent

Ben's Tick Repellent

SPECS

  • Form: Spray
  • Length of effectiveness: 12 hours
  • Active ingredients: 20% Picaridin

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If you're hiking or camping in tick country, you don't want to mess around with subpar repellents. Ticks can carry dangerous diseases such as Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, tick-borne encephalitis, and more. Ben's Tick Repellent provides long-term tick protection in the form of a convenient picaridin spray. You can safely use it on skin, gear, and clothing, and the family-friendly formula is safe for kids, too.

We like Ben's Tick Repellent because it isn't greasy and doesn't need to be rubbed in—just spray it on and go. The only downside is that this spray may be less effective at repelling other bugs (like mosquitoes and flies), but if ticks are your primary concern, Ben's will get the job done.

What We Like

  • Formulated to fight ticks
  • Lasts up to 12 hours
  • Safe for skin, gear, and clothing

What We Don't Like

  • Less effective against other insects
  • Product is scented

BUY: Ben's Tick Repellent

Best For Sensitive Skin - Sawyer Picaridin Insect Repellent Lotion

Sawyer Picaridin Insect Repellent Lotion

SPECS

  • Form: Lotion
  • Length of effectiveness: 14 hours
  • Active ingredients: 20% Picaridin

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If this product looks familiar, it's because Sawyer Picaridin Insect Repellent is included on our list in its Continuous Spray version. Both repellents use 20% picaridin to ward off everything from mosquitoes and ticks to biting flies, stable flies, black flies, gnats, chiggers, and sand flies. The main difference is the form, lotion provides extended protection and is easier to control when applying.

Let's say you have a cut on your arm that you'd rather not spray stinging chemicals into. With the lotion, you don't have to worry about overspray at all. Just apply it where you want, avoiding sensitive areas. Lotions can't be easily applied to clothing and typically take longer to apply than a quick spray-down. But Sawyer Picaridin Insect Repellent Lotion is just as effective as the spray version when it comes to repelling bugs.

What We Like

  • Provides up to 14 hours of protection
  • Lotion is easy to apply
  • No risk of overspray on sensitive skin

What We Don't Like

  • Not for use on clothing
  • Takes longer to apply than spray

BUY: Sawyer Picaridin Insect Repellent Lotion

Best DEET - Ben's 100 DEET Tick and Insect Repellent

Ben's 100 DEET Tick and Insect Repellent

SPECS

  • Form: Spray
  • Length of effectiveness: 10 hours
  • Active ingredients: DEET

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Some folks swear by DEET, and for them, this is the bug spray to buy. Ben's 100 contains the maximum concentration of DEET to effectively deter ticks and insects. It comes in a pocket-sized 1.25-ounce bottle, perfect as a backup if your main bug spray isn't cutting it.

The compact size of this bottle makes it particularly useful for backpacking. If you're heading out into the wilderness for a few nights, every ounce counts. DEET won't let you down, but it does have its drawbacks. Not everyone loves its strong odor and it shouldn't be used on clothing or gear.

What We Like

  • Compact bottle
  • Very affordable
  • Up to 10 hours of protection

What We Don't Like

  • DEET has a strong smell
  • May damage clothing or gear

BUY: Ben's 100 DEET Tick and Insect Repellent

Best For Mosquitoes - Sawyer Jungle Juice 100 Insect Repellent

Sawyer Jungle Juice 100 Insect Repellent

SPECS

  • Form: Squirt bottle
  • Length of effectiveness: 10 hours
  • Active ingredients: DEET

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Like Ben's 100 DEET, Sawyer Jungle Juice 100 Insect Repellent contains the maximum allowable amount of DEET—and mosquitoes don't like it. This mosquito repellent comes in a small squirt bottle and you only need 4-6 drops per application for it to be effective. Sawyer Jungle Juice 100 Insect Repellent offers all the benefits (and drawbacks) of DEET in a conveniently sized bottle that will last you a long time.

What We Like

  • Up to 10-hour protection
  • A few drops are effective
  • Convenient bottle size

What We Don't Like

  • Not for use on gear (although it can be cautiously applied on some fabrics)
  • Strong odor

BUY: Sawyer Jungle Juice 100 Insect Repellent

FAQs About Bug Spray


Which bug spray is most effective?

Picaridin, DEET, and permethrin-based bug repellents are the most effective. These EPA-approved chemicals can keep bugs away for 10 to 14 hours or longer.

How often should I spray bug spray?

Check the label of your bug spray for the length of effectiveness. Most chemical-based repellents last at least 8 hours, so you shouldn't have to reapply often. Essential oil sprays may need to be applied more frequently.

What smells keep bugs away?

In addition to chemical sprays like picaridin, DEET, and permethrin, bugs shy away from certain essential oils. According to the EPA, catnip oil, oil of citronella, and oil of lemon eucalyptus are registered repellent ingredients.

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