We’re heading into prime mosquito season — although if you’ve been freaking out about Zika reports, it probably feels like we’ve been there for a while. The Environmental Working Group just released its bug repellent guide and here’s the unvarnished truth: Your best shot at protection from Zika, West Nile, Lyme Disease, and the myriad of other bug-carrying diseases is to embrace your good friend Mr. DEET and other insect repellents for kids. Sorry Earth Mama, but the natural stuff just isn’t as effective.
That’s not to say you should be getting crazy with the bug spray. You shouldn’t; especially at higher concentrations. And understand that are pros and cons to each of the major EPA-registered and approved bug repellent chemicals. Some are absolutely not recommended for kids under 3 (like anything with Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus). Some are not registered with the EPA (like most of those essential oils). And nothing is recommended for infants under 2 months (for them, get a stroller net and wheel them around shouting “Look, I caught a human baby!”).
So, where do you start when you’re standing in the bug spray aisle at Walgreens for hours on end? Go with a pump, make sure it has the right concentration of chemicals, and then hermetically seal your entire family in your house until late December. Or you can have fun outside and just take a few precautions. Whatever sounds like the better option.
Keeping Insects Away
- Reach For The Bottle Last: Chemical repellents should be your last resort after taking other appropriate measures. In especially buggy areas, wear long sleeves, tuck pants into socks, and use nets over strollers and outdoor eating areas. If your kid’s going to camp this summer, you might even want to pack some mosquito netting for their bunk. And extra clean underwear.
- Where My Bugs At?: EWG notes that if you’re in a place that doesn’t have a high risk for bug-borne diseases you probably don’t need to get too crazy with repellents. The areas most prone to Lyme are the 13 Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states, from Virginia to Maine, and the upper Midwest, mostly in Wisconsin and Minnesota. You’re most likely to catch it between late April and mid-July. West Nile is basically everywhere, but most prevalent in Texas, California, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi and Oklahoma, primarily in the summer and peaking in August. Time to invest in that summer home in Arctic Circle.
- Ticks Vs. Mosquitos: Check to make sure that no matter how often you’re putting bug spray on, it’s effective against the bugs you’re trying to block. Ticks generally DGAF about your botanicals and essential oils, while mosquitos can be kept away by a few different ingredients. (EWG has fortunately done that ingredient legwork for you here.)
What Insect Repellent Ingredients Mean
- The Deal With DEET: DEET is one of the most effective chemicals for keeping bugs at bay, but it gets a bad rap. When it was first introduced in the late 60s, there were some concerns about neurological problems associated with its use (not a strong start), but extensive research has shown those rumors don’t check out. The FDA now says DEET is safe for babies over 2 months. At less than 10 percent concentration, DEET can protect against ticks and mosquitos for up to 2 hours; jacked up to 20-30 percent, you’ll be good all day long. But you should definitely choose lower concentrations when it comes to kids, and don’t go above that 30 percent mark for yourself.
- When To Pick Picaridin: Researchers are starting to think Picaridin might have a slight edge over DEET, and it has a lower toxicity profile. It’s definitely the favored pick when it comes to kids and lower concentrations are enough for similar protection levels: A 5-10 percent concentration can guard against ticks and mosquitoes for 2-4 hours, and a 20 percent concentration should last all day. You can remember it by this fun nemonic device: Pic(aridin) a lower concentration when it comes to your kids. Or you can just remember it.
- Oil Of Lemon Eucalyptus Is The Best of The Botanicals: A 30-percent concentration of this DEET alternative will be effective for up to 6 hours for you. It’s definitely not safe for kids three and under, though.
- Essential Oils, Not So Essential: If you can’t get past a hatred for synthetic chemicals, the geniuses over at the Disease Control Department, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine have determined some combination of soybean and geranium oil (and prayer) is your best bet. Popular formulations using peppermint, citronella, and whatever your mom uses in her matzo ball soup have been proven to be less effective at best, ineffective at worst, and unfit for truly disease-prone areas under any circumstances.
Once Insect Repellent Is On Your Kid
- Hand-To-Hand Contact: Apply repellent to your own hands, and then just smear that all over your kids (avoiding the mouth, eyes, and ears). You don’t want them putting it on their hands themselves, because they’re kids and hands and mouths go hand in hand.
- Keep An Eye On The Clock: A lower concentration of the ingredient means you’ll have to reapply more frequently. You’ll put up with the re-up (and the squirmy kid running away from you) because you don’t want to use a higher concentration than necessary for the amount of time you’re spending outside.
You might also be tempted to look into spray alternatives, but things like bug zappers aren’t very effective, and might even attract more mosquitos (and kill the “good” bugs). Along with zappers, treated wristbands, clip-on repellents, and candles are all on the EWG’s “don’t’s” list.
Here are some top options for you and your kid— but remember, always check ingredients and do your own research based on your local bug population before determining what you’re most comfortable dousing them in.
Insect Repellents for Kids Three And Under
(Note that no spray is recommended for infants under two months)
Bite Blocker Wipes (5% Geranium Oil)
This repellent is a DEET-free bug spray with a “tropical sunbreeze scent.” It’s also non-flammable. For it to be as effective as bug spray with seven percent DEET, put it on every two to three hours.
Avon Skin-So-Soft Bug Guard Plus Picaridin (10% Picaridin)
Also DEET-free, Avon Skin-So-Soft Bug Gaurd Plus is repellent with nearly no odor. Depending on which bugs you’re worried about, it should be reapplied between two to eight hours (but no more than twice a day).
Insect Repellents For Kids Four+
Cutter All Family Insect Repellent (7% DEET)
Complete with a spray pump that can turn 360 degrees, Cutter All Family Insect Repellent is an option for those who don’t mind bug spray with DEET.
Sawyer Picaridin Insect Repellent (20% Picaridin)
This spray is long lasting. It claims to protect against ticks and mosquitos for 12 hours. For other bugs, including gnats, it will last eight hours.
Repel Lemon Eucalyptus (30% Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus)
Check out this bug spray for protection from mosquitos and deer ticks for roughly eight hours. Plus, it has a lemon scent.
All Terrain Kids Herbal Armor
This is a DEET-free bug spray that uses six oils to repel insects. You can buy it in four bottles ranging from two- to eight-ounces.
Insect Repellents For You
Ben’s 30 Percent DEET (30% DEET)
Rated a Consumer Reports Best Buy, Ben’s protects against bugs and stays on your skin’s surface (instead of absorbing). If that’s not enough, it’s odorless, too.
Coleman Dry Formula (25% DEET)
This quick-drying spray is 25 percent DEET and repels insects for eighth hours. It comes in a four-ounce aerosol can.
Natrapel 8-Hour (20% Picaridin)
Unlike the two repellents listed above, Natrapel 8-Hour uses Picaridin instead of DEET. And, you guessed it, it protects for roughly eight hours. It also won’t destroy synthetic materials, so it’s not a problem if it gets on some of your gear.
Total Home Woodland Sent Insect Repellent (30% DEET)
This CVS-brand bug spray is Consumer Reports‘ top-rated insect repellent. Not only is it efficient at protecting against insects, but CR says it performed well “at resisting damage to materials.” It’s available in CVS stores.
Off! Deep Woods Sportsman Insect Repellent (30% DEET)
With an equal amount of DEET to Ben’s and Total Home, the Off! Deep Woods Sportsman Insect Repellent shoes away bugs for about eight hours. It comes in a six ounce can, and is available for purchase in a one- or two-pack.