There once was a time when choosing an insect repellant was a relatively straightforward process. You know, because there weren’t 3000 options staring at you when you went to the store to buy some. As with many other products, such as sunscreen, shopping for bug spray has become a headache. In this post, we will look at some concrete evidence to help you make the best choice before your next trip.
What deters bugs?
When we say bugs, we are primarily talking about mosquitoes. Yes, there are ticks and plenty of other creepy crawlies that can inflict harm, but mosquitoes carry the most weight in the world of tropical diseases. Bug sprays employ chemical or natural ingredients. If they use chemical agents, it is most likely DEET or picaridin.
You’ve probably heard about DEET. It has been known to dissolve certain plastics and irritate the skin. Sound dangerous? The accepted wisdom on DEET is that there is a certain percentage that is both safe and effective – 30-40%. Some folks will opt for 100% DEET which will certainly repel the insects, but it may not not be the best choice when it comes to other aspects of your health.
Picaridin is also widely considered to be an effective repellant, but the body of evidence is much slimmer. Consumer Reports has conducted a study rating insect repellants and one product with picaridin made the cut while most of the recommended repellants have DEET. It is also worth noting that picaridin has shown to be less effective over longer periods of time.
Natural insect repellants
Don’t want to get anywhere near the aforementioned chemicals? There are a few natural options but none of them have approached the effectiveness of DEET or picaridin. Most natural products use lemongrass, citronella or eucalyptus as active ingredients. You may find varying rates of success with these products, but it is difficult for us to endorse them here if our priority is avoiding bites as much as possible.
Furthermore, citronella candles have been shown to be ineffective in repelling mosquitoes. While there have been less comprehensive studies done on citronella applied directly to the skin, this does not bode well for its effectiveness.
The best insect repellants on the market
Consumer Reports has this 3M bug repellant tied for first with several others. For us it is the right combination of protection, ease of application, and effective duration. While it may not protect you for the 12 hours stated on the packaging, it certainly doesn’t require the every-hour re-application that is needed for so many other bug sprays.
If you are concerned by the health risks of DEET, try Natrapel with picaridin. This is another spray that was highly rated by Consumer Reports and it is also highly reviewed, for the most part, on Amazon.com from users of the product itself.
Finally, we recommend a product like Sawyer Permethrin Clothing Insect Repellent which you can apply to clothing and gear. Permethrin will actually kill mosquitoes on contact and it is a valuable addition to your travel health arsenal. In addition to clothing, you can also put this product on tents and mosquito nets in order to have an added layer of protection.
Just to add to this, I have been using permethrin while traveling in Africa, and it has made a noticeable difference in the presence of mosquitoes whether I am staying in a hotel room or in a tent. I would strongly recommend traveling with it. You can pick some up on Amazon (I have included the product link to the left).
There are reports of new innovative bug sprays that use less harmful chemicals but most of these have not yet been approved for use. Feel free to leave your own personal recommendations in the comments below.