Mosquitos and ticks can spread serious diseases such as Lyme disease, human babesiosis, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. But fortunately several products tested by Consumer Reports actually can provide real protection and have safe ingredients if carefully used.
One key chemical ingredient, a pesticide known as "deet," is safe when used as directed, but it has caused rare toxic reactions when misused, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Several repellents that contain deet in varying levels were effective in Consumer Reports tests, protecting against deer ticks and two common types of mosquitos for up to 8 hours or more.
But deet shouldn't be applied to infants less than 2 months old. The American Academy of Pediatrics advises against using repellents with deet concentrations higher than 30 percent on any children. Consumer Reports says that no one really needs a repellent with more than 30 percent deet.
Using deet repellents safely
• Do not apply to hands or near eyes and mouth of young children.
• Do not allow young children to apply the product themselves.
• Do not apply over cuts, wounds, or irritated skin or under clothing; do not spray directly onto face.
• Use just enough repellent to cover exposed skin and/or clothing; avoid over-application.
• After returning indoors, wash treated skin with soap and water; wash treated clothing before wearing it again.
• Beware of sunscreen-deet combination productions. Several combination products are currently available, but they should be avoided, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Because sunscreens are meant to be applied liberally and frequently while deet products should be used sparingly, combination products might promote unnecessarily high exposure to deet.
Deet-free, plant-based repellents that work
Picaridin is a chemical repellent that’s considered as effective as deet at the same concentration by the CDC. When used properly, it’s also considered safe by the EPA. Our tests found Natrapel 8-Hour with 20 percent picaridin scored better than one repellent with 7 percent deet. Testers found it has a floral odor and is a little greasy.
Oil of lemon eucalyptus, a plant-based chemical repellent, is also considered by the CDC to be as effective against mosquitos as deet at the same concentration. Repel Plant-based Lemon Eucalyptus did well in the tests and gave 8-hour protection against both ticks and mosquitos—slightly better than Natrapel. However, oil of lemon eucalyptus product labels specify that they should not be used on children under three years old. Testers found Repel had a plastic beach-ball and citrus odor and left little residue.
Tips for safe use
When applying any repellent, follow directions. Use your hands to apply it to your face, avoiding your eyes and mouth, and don't apply it to cuts. Use just enough to cover exposed skin. Some directions suggest using it on clothes, but most tested repellents damaged leather and vinyl, and some of them stained synthetic fabrics. Wash repellent off your skin and launder treated clothes. For extra protection:
• Wear light-colored, loose clothes and avoid using scented products when outdoors, especially at peak feeding hours—dusk to dawn for most mosquitos.
• Remove standing water near your house. It can be a mosquito breeding ground.
• To avoid ticks, tuck pants into socks and wear closed shoes and a hat.