The Best Bug Sprays of 2022, According to a Dermatologist

The expert-recommended Sawyer Picaridin Insect Repellent is our favorite

In This Article

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Bullfrog Mosquito Coast Bug Spray tout
Courtesy of Amazon

Warm weather brings us fun in the sun, but it also means encounters with pesky bugs that can cause serious harm. Mosquitoes and ticks carry bacteria, parasites, and viruses — including Zika, dengue, and Lyme disease — that they transfer to humans through biting. Protecting yourself with bug spray before heading outdoors is the best way to lessen your risk of contracting an illness from a bite.

We spoke with Dr. Sonya Kenkare, a board-certified dermatologist and assistant professor at Rush University in Chicago, about what types and brands of bug sprays to use. Dr. Kenkare is preparing to go on a medical mission trip to Zambia, where numerous mosquito-borne illnesses are endemic to the area.

Ours and Dr. Kenkare's favorite bug spray is Sawyer's Picaridin Insect Repellent because it's gentle enough for the whole family to use, doesn't damage clothing or gear, and is made from picaridin instead of DEET. (Dr. Kenkare and her patients prefer picaridin products over DEET because it doesn't have a harsh smell like the traditional bug spray ingredient.) If you're looking for something that also provides sun protection or want an essential oil-based product, there are also great options out there for you.

  • Here's our breakdown of the best bug sprays.

Best Overall

Sawyer Products Picaridin Continuous Spray Insect Repellent

4.5
Picaridin Continuous Spray Insect Repellent

Amazon

Why We Love It: Made from 20 percent picaridin, this product is user-friendly for the whole family and lasts all day long. 

What to Consider: The formula is slightly greasy. 

Studies show that products containing 20 percent picaridin work just as well as DEET products and don’t give off the harsh smells that often come alongside bug sprays containing the popular active ingredient. Sawyer Picaridin Insect Repellent is among the options that protect against ticks and mosquitoes and the diseases they spread without the unpleasant odor. It also repels stable flies, black flies, gnats, chiggers, and sand flies, and protects for up to 12 hours. The formula is fragrance-free and won’t damage your clothing or gear. 

“I like the spray because you can put it on a little kid’s arm without putting them in a cloud of bug spray,” says Dr. Kenkare. “And the smaller container is great to take with you for hiking.” The spray is available in 3, 4, and 6-ounce bottles at Amazon, and you can get Sawyer Picaridin Insect Repellent in lotion form if you prefer a cream application. The company also makes a repellent spray specifically for clothing and gear

Price at time of publish: $9 for 3 ounces

Active ingredient: 20 percent picaridin | Protection Duration: 12 hours | Sizes: 3 to 6 ounces

Best with Sun Protection

Bullfrog Mosquito Coast

4.8
bullfrog mosquito coast spf 50 repellent

Amazon

Why We Love It: The waterproof formula stays on for the long haul. 

What to Consider: This spray can leave an oily residue.

Bullfrog is known for bringing great sun protection to users, and this combo sunscreen/bug spray formula is a double win for those trying to enjoy time outdoors. It’s waterproof and provides SPF 50 protection, and the bug spray portion is DEET-free and repels insects for up to eight hours. It’s also free from oxybenzone, a reef-damaging ingredient commonly found in sunscreens. Calming aloe and vitamin E bring skin-soothing comfort to the formula, so it’s pleasant to use at any age. 

Price at time of publish: $15

Active ingredient: 3 percent avobenzone, 5 percent octocrylene, 10 percent homosalate, 7.5 percent octyl methoxycinnamate, 5 percent octisalate | Protection Duration: 8 hours | Size: 5.5 ounces

Best Eco-friendly

Repel Plant-Based Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent

5
REPEL DEET Free

Walmart

Why We Love It: The pump spray bottle helps direct the oil onto skin easily. 

What to Consider: The lemon eucalyptus oil gives off a strong scent.

DEET is approved by the EPA, but there are people who still would rather choose a DEET-free, natural product for bug spray. Repel’s mosquito repellent is DEET-free and made with lemon eucalyptus oil instead, which repels mosquitos for up to six hours. Despite what you might expect, the lemon eucalyptus oil base doesn’t leave your skin feeling greasy, and the 4 ounce bottle size is perfect for throwing in a fanny pack, purse, or backpack while traveling. 

Price at time of publish: $11

Active ingredients: 30 percent oil of lemon eucalyptus | Protection Duration: 6 hours | Size: 4 ounces

Best for Kids

OFF! FamilyCare Insect Repellent

OFF! FamilyCare Insect Repellent IV, Unscented
Courtesy of OFF!.

Why We Love It: The powdery formula leaves no oily mess on skin.

What to Consider: It can leave residue on clothing if you spray too close.

We all know kids can be wiggle worms, especially when you're trying to apply bug spray or sunscreen on them before they run off to play. We like this bug spray from OFF! for its powder-dry formula that doesn't leave skin oily or greasy. Simply spray it on and go without having to worry about drying time or grease-stained clothing. The aerosol can makes application fast, and it also works on outer surfaces of clothing. It repels flies, gnats, ticks, chiggers, and fleas in addition to mosquitoes, so spray away and leave your stress at the door.

Price at time of publish: $12

Active ingredient: 15 percent DEET | Protection Duration: 6 hours | Size: 4 ounces

Best for Sensitive Skin

Proven Insect Repellent Spray

Proven Insect Repellent Spray

Courtesy of Amazon

Why We Love It: No harsh smells are a perk not often found with bug spray.

What to Consider: Despite the listed application window, you should apply more than once every 14 hours.

According to Dr. Kenkare, picaridin products are best for sensitive skin. This bug spray from Proven contains 20 percent picaridin, which is just as effective at repelling insects as DEET, as the active ingredient. It repels mosquitoes and ticks for up to 14 hours, and can repel flies, chiggers, gnats, and no-see-ums for up to 8 hours. The formula is odorless, so that chemically smell often associated with bug spray is gone here. The formula also isn't sticky or greasy, so you can use it without ruining your clothes. Proven is an EPA-registered, family-owned company that sources ingredients from the United States and Germany.

Price at time of publish: $13

Active ingredient: 20 percent picaridin | Protection Duration: 14 hours | Size: 6 ounces

Best Long-lasting

Sawyer Controlled Release Insect Repellent

sawyer deet family formula insect repellent

Walmart

Why We Love It: This slow-release DEET spray is non-greasy and sweat-resistant.

What to Consider: You need to shake well before using to make sure the formula hasn't separated.

Whether you're going on a lengthy hike or sticking to backyard fun, this controlled-release repellent from Sawyer is a winner. Here, the DEET is encapsulated in a protein that dissolves slowly, releasing the bug-deterrent over a longer period of time. It will last up to 11 hours. It's also designed to be used with sunscreen, so feel free to slather that on as well before a day of adventure. The repellent protects against mosquitoes and ticks and is odorless, non-greasy, and sweat-resistant.

Price at time of publish: $8

Active ingredient: 20 percent DEET | Protection Duration: 11 hours | Size: 4 ounces

Best Essential Oil-based

Auntie Fannie's Mosquito Spray

Aunt Fannie's DEET-Free Mosquito Spray

Aunt Fannie's

Why We Love It: This bug spray has a surprisingly pleasant smell.

What to Consider: All of the essential oils make the formula very oily on skin.

Enjoy up to four hours of mosquito-free fun with Aunt Fannie's repellent spray. The DEET-free spray is family-friendly and powered by citronella oil, peppermint oil, cedarwood oil, lemongrass oil, soybean oil, and geranium oil. Aunt Fannie's also makes an entire collection of natural, pet-friendly pest control products. The spray goes on like a dry body oil instead of a water-based spray, so be aware that you need to apply and then rub it into your skin.

Price at time of publish: $10

Active ingredients: 2.5 percent citronella oil, 1.5 percent cedarwood oil, 1 percent peppermint oil, 1 percent lemongrass oil, 1 percent geranium oil | Protection Duration: 4 hours | Size: 3.38 ounces

Best for High Activity

Sawyer Insect Repellent Lotion

Sawyer Insect Repellent Lotion

Amazon

Why We Love It: The lotion-based formula allows the DEET to absorb into your skin rather than wicking off with sweat.

What to Consider: The lotion is slightly greasy.

For intense bike rides or an outdoor soccer game, you need something that stays with you when you're sweating. This DEET-based repellent is a lotion that absorbs into your skin better than spray-on repellent. It will protect for up to 11 hours against mosquitoes, ticks, flies, chiggers, fleas, and no-see-ums, and at 30 percent DEET, it's more potent compared to other bug sprays on the market. The formula also gives off less odor than many bug sprays and can be used with sunscreen.

Price at time of publish: $15

Active Ingredients: 30 percent DEET | Protection Duration: 11 hours | Size: 4 ounces

Best for the Woods

Ben's Clothing and Gear Insect Repellent

Ben's Clothing and Gear Insect Repellent

Amazon

Why We Love It: The strong formula lasts through a long camping trip or numerous outdoor getaways.

What to Consider: Clothing needs to hang for at least two hours to dry before wearing after spraying with Ben's.

If you're headed out on a camping trip into the deep woods where monster mosquitoes and bugs thrive, it's best to use a repellent that you can spray on your clothes, tent, and gear to keep bugs away from you and your campground. Ben's makes a permethrin-based repellent spray that Dr. Kenkare recommends. Permethrin is a CDC-approved insect repellent that can be used on fabrics, which is super important while out in deep woods. "I like this formula from Ben's because it not only repels mosquitoes, but ticks too, which can be a whole other problem in deep woods," she says. Ben's repellent also repels flies, gnats, and other insects as well. Just spray your clothes and gear with the repellent, and you're good to go. The formula bonds to the fabric for up to six weeks, and even lasts through several washes, so you won't need to reapply every single day or even every week.

Price at time of publish: $18

Active ingredient: .5 percent permethrin | Protection Duration: 6 weeks | Size: 24 ounces

Tips for Purchasing Bug Spray

Know the pros and cons of your active ingredient options

DEET, picaridin, and natural oils like lemon eucalyptus oil are all very common ingredients in bug repellent. Some people prefer to stay away from DEET, as it can burn when it gets in your eyes and often comes with a potent smell. However, it’s worth noting that DEET is EPA approved and highly recommended for use over oil-based repellents and in deep woods. “If you’re camping, etc., you need DEET,” says Dr. Kenkare. “The formulas using essential oils are not as effective, and if you’re really a savvy outdoor person, you can put yourself at risk of diseases.” 

Picaridin, on the other hand, is another great ingredient often used in bug repellent and an effective alternative if you don’t want to use DEET. Products containing 20 percent picaridin work just as well as DEET-based products, studies show, offering an array of options for consumers. “Picaridin is great for sensitive skin, plus it doesn’t smell bad, and people are really excited to have another option aside from DEET,” says Kenkare. 

Again, oil-based products just generally don’t offer quite as much protection as those with DEET or Picaridin. You’ll also find yourself reapplying more with essential oil-based products. If you still want to opt for essential oils, lemon eucalyptus oil, citronella oil, cedarwood oil, and rosemary oil are commonly used to repel mosquitos.

Consider scent and texture

One downside to bug sprays are the harsh smells that often come with the formulas. DEET, picaridin, and even essential oil-based formulas all can have strong, foul odors that make you contemplate not even wearing bug spray (don’t do this, just endure the smell). There are products out there with less potent and more pleasant smells to them, but keep in mind insect repellant is meant to deter bugs: they’re not supposed to smell like sunshine and roses. Cope with the odor by remembering your bug spray is doing its job and keeping you safe from harmful insects. 

Lots of bug sprays are also greasy, oily, and sometimes even gritty. This is a combination of the ingredients inside the bottle, which again are combating mosquitoes and other annoying bugs. Essential oil-based products are obviously going to be, well, oily, but if you’re looking for something that’s not, try to find a quick-drying powdery formula or a lotion that absorbs into your skin. 

Frequently Asked Questions
  • How does bug spray work?

    Firstly, let's distinguish insecticide versus insect repellent. Insecticide is designed to kill bugs and is mainly found in products meant for your yard and such. Insect repellent keeps bugs from approaching us and is designed for us to use on our bodies.

    Insects are attracted to our bodies because we naturally produce carbon dioxide from our breath, pores, and sweat. This carbon dioxide is what insects are looking for in order to find food (a.k.a. blood for mosquitoes and ticks), which is why they sniff us out and attack us. Insect repellent masks the scent of carbon dioxide so insects can't find us. This is also why you might still find a mosquito on one small spot on your forehead or the back of your leg after applying bug spray, for example. If you miss one spot, they can smell that carbon dioxide and will bite you, which is why it's important to fully cover yourself with bug spray when applying. Insect repellent also generally comes with a strong smell that bugs hate, which further dissuades them from swarming.

  • Does bug spray expire?

    Many bug sprays expire after three years, but you should always check your individual products for expiration dates and follow the guidelines carefully.

  • How often do I need to reapply?

    You'll need to follow the instructions on the bottle of bug spray for reapplication times. All bug sprays are different — some only last an hour or so and some last half a day.

  • Can pregnant persons use bug spray?

    The CDC says you can use insect repellents containing up to 30 percent DEET or 20 percent picaridin during pregnancy as long as the products are EPA-approved. Just use the products as recommended. You can find the EPA database with approved products here.

Why Trust Travel + Leisure

T + L writers are adventure and travel experts who use personal experience and expert recommendations to choose the best items for shoppers. For this article, Amanda Ogle interviewed a board-certified dermatologist, researched dozens of bug sprays, and used her expertise as a travel writer to craft the perfect list of bug sprays for you.

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