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Ranking the best mosquito repellent of 2019

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Many people use mosquito repellents to rid themselves of mosquitoes and the deadly diseases they can carry.

Diseases endemic areas populated by mosquitoes include dengue fever, malaria, West Nile virus, and Zika virus. While many of these diseases are traditionally associated with tropical regions, west Nile has a strong foothold in North America, and Zika may soon be found on the North American continent too.

Even malaria was common in the United States until dedicated mosquito eradication campaigns in the middle of the 20th century pushed it back. Want to protect yourself from mosquitoes? You’ll need one of the best mosquito repellents.

The best approach is a combination of mosquito netting for permanent and semi-permanent locations, like windows, screen doors, and tents, and mosquito repellent for when you are on the move. Using mosquito repellents has the added benefit of protecting against other biting insects, like ticks (which also carry dangerous diseases).

Whether you are packing a mosquito repellent for your bug-out bag or stashing a large supply in storage in your home, you want a high-quality product that works. Our research team sought out the best mosquito repellents to protect you and your family from mosquitoes and the diseases they carry. 

The big picture

Mosquitoes are both irritating and downright dangerous—they carry serious and deadly diseases. Worse, they reproduce fast, so in the aftermath of a natural disaster, you can count on mosquito levels increasing quickly.

A good mosquito repellent should be a core component in any survival kit; we recommend Ben’s 30% DEET Wilderness Formula thanks to its strong but safe DEET concentration, which will last for up to six hours in the backcountry. This mosquito repellent beats out the others due to its efficacy and versatility—it’s equally well-suited for a fully fledged survival kit in your home, or for a bug-out bag in the glove compartment of your car. 

Rankings

1. Ben’s 30% DEET Wilderness Formula

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Our all-around top pick takes the crown thanks to its safe and effective formulation, small size, and versatility. If you are getting just one product for mosquito repellent, this should be it. 

Why we like it: At 30% DEET, you’ll get several hours of protection against mosquitoes, and the concentration of DEET is still safe even for kids. The manual spray design is easy to use, and safe to keep in your car. Finally, it’s light enough to toss in a bug out bag without weighing you down.

Flaws: The Wilderness Formula from Ben’s has pretty much no major drawbacks—manual spray pumps are slightly slower to apply than an aerosol spray, but have the added benefit of being lighter in weight and safe for keeping in your car. 

2. Cutter Backwoods Dry Insect Repellent

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Cutter Backwoods makes a great “dry” aerosol that doesn’t leave a thick, oily residue on your skin like some other sprays and lotions. 

Why we like it: This product’s 25% DEET formulation makes it highly effective and safe for everyone in the family. The dry formulation makes it easy to spray on and head outside immediately. It’s also great if you are using this bug spray in conjunction with sunscreen.

Flaws: If you’re packing a survival kit for your car, you won’t want an aerosol based product, especially if your car is going to be out in the sun. For something you can stow in your trunk, choose a manual spray product instead. Also, if you are going on a day-long excursion, you’ll need to reapply after a couple of hours. 

3. OFF! Deep Woods

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OFF! Deep Woods has been a mainstay mosquito repellent spray for outdoor enthusiasts for a long time. Though small refinements have been made in the formulation (like going to a dry powder-based spray), the basics are the same: OFF! offers a high-DEET spray that’s great for frequent use.

Why we like it: At 25% DEET, this aerosol packs a punch that will keep mosquitoes away for several hours, yet is still safe for the whole family. The four ounce bottles last quite a while, making them great for a home-based survival kit.

Flaws: As with other aerosols, you don’t want to keep this in your car. Day-long excursions into the backcountry will require reapplication, or using a different product with a higher DEET rating. 

4. Sawyer Ultra 30 Lotion

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If you are looking for a super-versatile all-around high-quality mosquito repellent, Sawyer Ultra 30 Lotion is an excellent choice. 

Why we like it: At 30% DEET it’s safe for everyone in your family, but also effective enough for several hours of protection from bugs. Lotions help the DEET stay on your skin longer, and since the bottle isn’t aerosol-based, this product can happily sit in your car for months at a time. 

Flaws: All lotion-based products share a similar flaw, which is the greasy, oily sheen they leave on your skin. They don’t always play well with other products, like sunscreen or moisturizing lotion, so you may want to opt for a spray mosquito repellent if that’s important to you. Finally, lotions are heavier per unit of protection (four ounces of spray liquid goes a lot further than four ounces of lotion), so Sawyer Ultra 30 is less well-suited for kits that need to be as light as possible. 

5. Repel Insect Repellent Sportsmen Max

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This lotion-based mosquito repellent offers very strong protection in a small package. It’s an excellent choice for a small product to keep in your glove compartment as part of a mobile, easily accessible survival kit. 

Why we like it: With a 40% DEET content, Repel Sportsmen Max is extremely potent: you can expect its protection to last reliably for six to eight hours. Using a lotion as opposed to a spray also means a thicker barrier of repellent on your skin versus a spray.

Flaws: Lotion-based products can feel greasy, and this product is too concentrated for small children. It’s a good choice for solo adventures, but not a versatile product for the whole family. 

6. Ben’s 100 DEET 

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Ben’s 100 DEET is the go-to product if you are looking for maximum protection. As the name suggests, this spray bottle contains 100% DEET. 

Why we like it: The 100% DEET concentration will last you the better part of the day, and the ultra-small size makes it great for those who travel light.

Flaws: The super-high concentration of DEET makes this product more likely to cause skin reactions, and it’s not safe for small children. While this product is great for specialized applications, it’s not as versatile as a more moderate DEET content mosquito repellent. 

7. Sawyer Products Premium Permethrin 

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Sawyer Products Premium Permethrin is the best choice for imbuing your clothes or mosquito netting with extra protection. Unlike DEET products, it actually kills mosquitoes. While there are a lot of permethrin-based products on the market, we like the large size and easy spray application of Sawyer’s Premium Permethrin. 

Why we like it: At 14 ounces, this bottle of permethrin packs a bigger volume than many competitors, except for bulk versions that come in tough-to-use jugs. The large, effective spray handle makes it easy to coat a jacket, tent netting, our pants for serious outdoor tasks in heavy mosquito country. 

Flaws: Like other permethrin products, this spray is not for use on skin. While it’s good to have, a DEET based product should be your top priority. Only get permethrin based products if you also need something for longer-term protection. 

8. Repel Insect Repellent Mosquito Wipes

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If you are building a micro-sized bug out bag or survival kit, it’s hard to beat these mosquito repellent wipes. Though they’re single-use, they’ll get you through a several hour hike through mosquito-infested territory.

Why we like it: This pack of 15 wipes has a strong 30% DEET concentration, and is so small and light you can fit it just about anywhere. Even a pocket-sized survival kit could fit these mosquito repellent wipes, and yet they’re still strong enough to last for several hours of bug protection.

Flaws: Needless to say, the small size comes with a big drawback: once a package of 15 has been opened, you have to use all of them, or they’ll dry out and become useless. Although these wipes are great for emergency kits and while traveling, they’re not the best choice for a fully fledged survival kit or a well-equipped home. 

9. Repel Permethrin

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For a fast and easy way to protect your clothing and mosquito netting, Repel Permethrin makes things easy. While it’s no good for skin, it’s a viable way to quickly and efficiently treat lots of netting or fabric for killing mosquitoes on contact. 

Why we like it: If you need to dish out a lot of permethrin (for example, to treat a whole set of outdoor clothing for your family, or a full set of mosquito netting for cots in a shelter), hand sprays can get tiring. The aerosol can makes life a lot easier when applying permethrin.

Flaws: As with other permethrin products, this compound is not for skin application. The biggest drawback is the fact that this aerosol can looks almost exactly like a standard DEET based mosquito repellent, which increases the chances you or someone else could forget that it’s permethrin, and try to use it on skin instead. 

10. Repel Sportsmen Max Pocket Size

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Tiny enough to fit in your pocket, this shrunk-down version of Repel Sportsmen Max is great for ultralight survival kits, though it’s not going to last too long in the backcountry.

Why we like it: If you want an ultra-portable survival kit, but don’t want to rely on single-use mosquito repellent wipes for bug protection, this pocket-sized pump with half an ounce of spray is a good choice. If size and weight are at a premium, this mosquito repellent will barely take up any space but still packs a punch at 40% DEET.

Flaws: Obviously, the tiny size of this spray means you’ll run out of repellent very quickly. It’s not as light as single-use wipes, though it can be used more than once. It’s also too concentrated for small children, so it’s definitely not the most versatile option on the market. 

Who should buy mosquito repellent?

Just about anyone who lives in or travels to areas with mosquitos should have mosquito repellent ready, in case they need to venture outside, especially after dark. Mosquitos breed by laying eggs in standing water, which is extremely inconvenient because mosquitos tend to be concentrated around sources of water—the single most valuable resource during a survival situation.

Even areas with few or no mosquitoes, like the desert, often have mosquitoes along places with frequent water supply, like rivers. Urban areas usually have a very small mosquito population, but that’s mostly attributable to consistent, dedicated eradication efforts and a lack of standing water, which you might not always be able to count on. In the aftermath of a natural disaster, for example, mosquito eradication isn’t going to be a big city priority, and you can bet there will be a lot of standing water as well. 

Mosquito repellent is often useful in survival situations that many survival experts recommend it as a core part of a bug-out bag, right next to first aid supplies and water purification.

In fact, the importance of mosquito repellent is so crucial that original research into its development was conducted by the military, because of the enormous operational problems caused by mosquitoes that exist pretty much anywhere the military might deploy. You can benefit from all of this research by including mosquito repellent as one of your key survival kit components. 

How we ranked

There are two primary criteria that our team considered when formulating our rankings: efficacy and safety. A mosquito repellent is no good if it can’t keep mosquitoes from biting you, and it’s also no good if it contains dangerous or toxic compounds.

We evaluated efficacy on two fronts: first, we only included mosquito repellent products if they used ingredients listed on the Environmental Protection Agency’s list of registered mosquito repellents.

These use ingredients that are known to be safe, and just as importantly, known to be safe to use (1). Next, we used results from independent lab testing of specific mosquito repellent ingredients to determine the most effective doses and concentrations of each ingredient. 

Based on these research-oriented ranking procedures, we identified two categories of mosquito repellents that stood head and shoulders above the rest. The first was DEET-based repellent, which offer the best, longest-lasting protection against mosquito bites (2).

When independent research has compared DEET based products to ones based on citronella, soybean oil, or other competing topical sprays or creams, it easily outperforms the competition. A second category of mosquito repellent that’s worth considering if you are stockpiling for long-term survival is permethrin-based sprays.

These aren’t for your skin; they’re intended for mosquito netting and clothing. By impregnating the fabric with permethrin spray, you can turn regular outdoor clothing into mosquito-repellent clothing with ease. Permethrin also does double duty as an agent to kill bedbugs and lice, which could also become problems in long-term survival situations.

While everyone should get a DEET-based product, people interested in preparing for longer term survival should also consider a permethrin spray, which is why we included a selection of the best permethrin products in our rankings. 

For the DEET-based products, the final criteria was concentration. We eliminated anything below 20% DEET, because these products are demonstrably inferior when it comes to how long-lasting your protection will be. Our top rated products were those that had DEET concentrations around 30%, as this leads to several hours of protection while retaining approval for all members of your family, including children or pregnant women.

We did include DEET products with higher concentrations, because there are still benefits of DEET concentrations above 30% in terms of hours of protection. However, these products are not safe for infants and small children, so they will be less versatile.

In most cases, the four to six hours of protection that you get out of 30% DEET will be the best fit for most users. When it came to method of application, manual spray bottles had one advantage over aerosol sprays: they’re safe to leave in your car, even in extremely hot temperatures.

Though it’s rare, it is possible for aerosol cans to explode if left in a very hot vehicle during the summer. So, we made sure to include several manual spray products in our rankings for vehicle-based survival supply kits. We did exclude DEET-based bracelets, though, as these are almost totally ineffective when it comes to repelling mosquitoes. 

After considering all of these criteria and sorting products based on overall quality and efficacy, we were left with the best-performing mosquito repellents for your survival needs. 

Benefits

Mosquito repellent is an effective way to prevent west Nile virus, Zika virus, and other mosquito-borne illnesses. Mosquito-borne infections are most commonly associated with the tropics, but they are rapidly spreading even in areas previously characterized by no diseases spread by mosquitoes.

West Nile, for example, has over 2,000 cases every year in the United States, of which close to 10% are fatal—and that’s with ready access to medical care. Other mosquito borne illnesses more common in tropical areas include dengue, malaria, or Zika, which all cause serious symptoms or even death. 

Mosquito repellents work by hiding you from the sensing organs mosquitoes use to identify sources for a blood meal. Mosquitoes hunt out potential prey using sensing organs that are specifically adapted to detect lactic acid and carbon dioxide—these are chemicals that your body excretes, particularly when you are breathing hard from physical exertion.

For this reason, having a mosquito repellent is particularly important for strenuous physical tasks, such as cross-country hiking or other long treks on foot. According to research by the National Pesticide Information Center, effective mosquito repellents such as DEET function by binding tightly to these sensing organs in mosquitoes, which effectively blinds their ability to detect you (3).

Laboratory tests confirm these findings: when mosquitoes in a cage are presented with a bare arm from a human volunteer, they’ll quickly flock to it and bite. But if this arm is coated with a good mosquito repellent, they act as if the arm isn’t even there. 

Mosquitoes breed in stagnant water, and a full life cycle takes only 8 to 10 days. One of the reasons mosquitoes are rare in urban areas is that there is very little standing water for mosquitoes to lay eggs (and the standing water that does exist is usually treated with insecticides that kill mosquito larvae or eggs).

However, it doesn’t take much to get this life cycle started again. In the aftermath of a natural disaster like a hurricane or earthquake, there’s bound to be a lot of standing water, whether from broken water mains, flooding, or storm surges.

Since the entire life cycle of the mosquito only lasts eight to ten days, it won’t take very long for an area that’s formerly nearly mosquito-free to be overrun with a fresh crop of mosquitoes. This is why it’s important to keep mosquito repellent in your survival kit and in your home, even if you don’t live deep in the backwoods. 

Recommended usage

A product with DEET concentrations of 30% or more can repel mosquitoes for several hours. Within products that use DEET as their active ingredient, the higher the concentration, the longer-lasting the protection against mosquitos.

One study found that a 25% DEET product provided five hours of protection, while those with under 10% DEET lasted less than two hours (4). Scientifically based recommendations suggest that 20-30% DEET is appropriate for being outdoors for a few hours, but concentrations of 40-50% may be necessary for long excursions deep into the woods, or in territory that is heavily infested by mosquitoes (5). 

As noted in our rankings, aerosol mosquito repellents are great because they are fast and easy to use, but they do have a small chance of exploding if kept in your car on a very hot day.

If you want to completely avoid this probability, use a manual spray bottle or a lotion if you will be keeping a survival kit in your car. For one time use, disposable wipes are great because they take up essentially no space and weight practically nothing, making them excellent options for pocket-sized or glove compartment survival kits. 

After you apply mosquito repellent, it should last for several hours if the DEET concentration is high enough. The benefits of DEET may wear off more quickly if you are sweating a lot, if it is raining, or if you otherwise get wet (for example, when crossing a stream).

If you are using permethrin to protect mosquito netting and outdoor clothing, the anti-mosquito effect will last for five or six washes, or six weeks (whichever comes first). After that, you’ll have to re-apply. 

FAQ

Q: Do DEET bracelets work? 

A: While DEET is an effective mosquito repellent, bracelets that are soaked in DEET don’t seem to be effective at all.

The problem may have to do with the concentration of the DEET that actually makes it out into the air, or the fact that one DEET bracelet can’t do much to protect skin anywhere but on your wrist.

Regardless of the underlying mechanism, DEET bracelets just don’t work—use a DEET spray or lotion instead to get effective mosquito repellent effects. 

Q: Is citronella an effective mosquito repellent? 

A: Like other natural alternatives to DEET, like lemon eucalyptus oil or tea tree oil, some controlled experiments have shown that citronella has an anti-mosquito effect.

However, in real-world testing, these effects wear off very quickly—often in an hour or less. In contrast, DEET based mosquito repellent can last for six hours or more, depending on the concentration. So, compared to DEET, citronella is not very effective as a mosquito repellent. 

Q: Is DEET safe? 

A: DEET is used regularly by millions of people, and while there are rare cases of rashes, hives, or even seizures in response to DEET, these cases are extremely rare and typically occur in people (often children) who have been applying very high DEET concentrations to their whole body for several days. To balance out the risks and benefits, a DEET concentration of 30% seems optimal—you’ll get six hours or so of protection, while 

Q: Can you make your own mosquito repellent? 

A: Making effective mosquito repellents is surprisingly difficult. The US military went through literally tens of thousands of different chemicals, using everything from natural plant products to reagents selected more or less randomly from chemistry supply labs, before identifying DEET as the best mosquito repellent.

Even in the intervening decades, no homemade treatments are as effective as DEET. While it’s possible to use products like lemon eucalyptus oil, peppermint oil, or apple cider vinegar as stopgap solutions, you can’t expect nearly the same level of performance.

Natural products, like soybean oil, can wear off in under half an hour; high concentration DEET will last the better part of a day. The difficulty of making mosquito repellent on your own is one of the reasons why it’s so important to include in your survival kit. 

Q: Is tea tree oil an effective mosquito repellent? 

A: Tea tree oil is often touted as an effective treatment for everything from cold sores to acne and more. Mosquito repellent is just one of its many potential uses.

There are some scientific studies that show some efficacy against mosquitoes, but the fact is that tea tree oil has not been tested in real world applications to the degree that DEET has been tested. For now, DEET is still the superior anti-mosquito product until new, definitive, real-world testing proves otherwise.

Q: Is mosquito repellent safe for kids? 

A: Mosquito repellents that contain DEET at concentrations of 30% or less are safe for kids. Experts recommend avoiding higher concentrations of DEET for kids, because in rare cases, rashes or other side effects have been reported after repeated use of extremely high DEET concentrations in children.

While these have been restricted to a very small number of case studies, it’s still smart to play it safe: Even at only 20% DEET, you can count on four hours or so of mosquito repellent action; after that, you can just reapply.

Similarly to the concerns about mosquito repellent in pregnant women, it’s important to consider the risks of not using mosquito repellent on children: viruses like West Nile are more dangerous for children because their immune system is not as strong as an adult’s.

Q: What is DEET? 

A: DEET is an acronym for N,N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide, a specific chemical that has been found to be extremely effective as a mosquito repellent. DEET’s ability to fight off mosquitoes was first discovered in the 1940s, when the United States military was testing literally anything on the shelf in an attempt to combat mosquitoes that carried malaria and other deadly diseases in southeast Asia.

Despite being introduced over fifty years ago, DEET is still far and away the most effective and best studied mosquito repellent. While many people are interested in natural alternatives like citronella, tea tree oil, or lemon eucalyptus oil, these and other natural alternatives just don’t perform as well as DEET—an observation that has been repeatedly demonstrated in scientific research. 

Q: Can you use mosquito repellent when pregnant? 

A: Yes, mosquito repellents based on DEET are safe for use even by pregnant women. As with DEET based mosquito repellents used on children, keep the concentration at 30% or less and avoid overly aggressive application, according to public health researchers cited in the New York Times (6).

Unlike other potential compounds your body could be exposed to while pregnant, DEET has a significant upside: it could prevent infections like Zika virus, which can cause extremely serious birth defects. Zika isn’t the only virus that may pose a risk for pregnant women: according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, women should take precautions to avoid getting bitten by mosquitoes and infected with West Nile virus (7).

Although other viruses are less well-studied than Zika for their effects on pregnant women and their babies, it’s still best to avoid putting yourself at risk in the first place. 

Recap

Mosquito repellents should be a core component of any well-equipped survival kit. Mosquitoes can quickly infest even bug-free areas in the aftermath of natural disasters, and most backcountry locations are also habitats for mosquitoes, especially near sources of fresh water.

To protect yourself and your family from mosquitoes and the dangerous diseases they carry, a mosquito repellent is the best option you have. Look for products that are DEET-based, and have at least 20-30% DEET.

Products with more than 30% DEET are great for heavily mosquito infested areas and will last significantly longer than products with lower concentrations of DEET, but aren’t necessarily safe for small children. If you want longer-lasting protection, you can supplement your DEET products with permethrin, which can’t be used on skin but is useful for protecting mosquito netting and outdoor clothing.

While it might not be as exciting or flashy as a survival knife or a fire-starter, mosquito repellent still plays a key role as part of your survival supplies, so take care to choose a good one.

For SurvivalAtHome’s #1 mosquito repellent recommendation, click here.

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