Best Insect Repellents for kids — with a special look at Zika. Updated March of 2017.
Insect bites can wreak havoc on summer fun, especially in places where mosquitoes and other biters are plentiful (like, ohhh… everywhere?).
At best, insect bites can make kids miserable. At worst, mosquito and tick bites can transmit nasty diseases like West Nile Virus, St. Louis encephalitis, Lyme disease, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. And now, there’s the threat of Zika crossing into our borders.
In the Caribbean and parts of South America, certain types of mosquitos (Aedes) can transmit the Zika virus, which can make people very sick and worse, can cause terrible birth defects like microcephaly. Let’s discuss….
My good friend (and Lucie’s List contributor) Heather Reed contracted Zika in early December of 2015 on a trip to Cuba. Her 10-year old son got it as well. They were some of the first cases reported in Northern California (needless to say, the CDC was called in — exciting!!).
They say many Zika cases are asymptomatic, but I will tell you it was nothing short of awful for her. Though her son recovered within days, she was hospitalized for fever, fatigue, and a terrible body-wide rash. She described it as, “the worst sunburn you’ve ever had, then stabbing little needles into it.” Six months later, she still suffers from itching and swelling in the joints of her hands.
What I’m saying is: Zika is no picnic.
Thank goodness she was not pregnant, but if YOU are pregnant, I would strongly advise avoiding the Caribbean, South America and other places where Zika is prevalent (and yes, it IS in Cuba, despite the maps that you see). Your partner should also avoid these areas if you are pregnant or planning on becoming pregnant, as Zika can be transmitted sexually as well.
Luckily, no cases have yet been traced to mosquito bites received on the U.S. mainland, though experts predict it’s a matter of time before it could emerge and take hold in areas where Aedes mosquitos live, such as Florida, Texas, and other Southern states. [Update August 2016: it’s heeeeee-eeere!!]
Please note the map below show the approximate range of the Aedes mosquito that have and could *potentially* transmit Zika in the future.
Consumer Reports conducted an emergency study of various mosquito repellents on the Aedes mosquito. Please reference that article (free) for more information (it’s quite good!).
In essence, the testing performed by Consumer Reports discovered the most effective repellents against the Aedes species are the usual suspects: DEET, Picaridin and lemon eucalyptus, which can be found in the products we’ve always recommended such as Naturapel, OFF! and Repel Lemon Eucalyptus (see below).
Ticks are nasty little suckers that can cause fun diseases like Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever.
Lyme disease is also on the rise. Caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, it is transmitted through the bite of infected deer ticks (aka blacklegged ticks). It’s most prevalent in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern states (note to self: avoid tick bites in Jersey and CT, dang!) as well as the Great Lakes area.
* While it occurs in all states, most cases of Rocky Mountain spotted fever occur in North Carolina, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Missouri during the months of June and July.
For those in tick country, make a habit of doing a tick-check after spending time outside with your munchkin. This is best done during a diaper change or bath time when your boo is good and nekkid. Make sure to check their hair, under the arms, in and around the ears, behind the knees, blah blah blah. Check it all because – many times – ticks can be removed (and killed) before they’ve actually bitten.
Protecting Little ‘Uns
As with sun protection, the strategy to protect your babe from insect bites and stings is multi-fold:
- Cover up: The most effective way to prevent bites is to keep your kid covered: long sleeves, pants, socks, etc. Pants and sleeves are a tough sell in hot weather, so this will only get you so far in the summer time.
- Avoid perfumes and lotions: Scented perfumes, lotions, and creams attract insects. Opt for odorless sunscreens and lotions.
- Netting: You can purchase mosquito netting, like the one below, for your stroller/car seat when you’re strollering about.
- Use insect repellent on exposed skin (more below).
- If in extreme conditions, treat clothing with Permethrin (more below).
Like most matters that involve kids and chemicals, there are differing opinions on what’s best.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends using products that have been shown to work in actual scientific trials and contain active ingredients that have been registered with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Two ingredients have unequivocally demonstrated a higher degree of efficacy in peer-reviewed, scientific literature. These ingredients have also been blessed (with caveats) by the AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics):
- DEET [Per the AAP: do not use DEET products with concentrations higher than 30%, and not at all on infants less than 2 months.]
The Deets on DEET…
*Don’t confuse DEET with DDT (a highly toxic, banned chemical). They aren’t related at all.
- The stuff works really, really well! DEET repels mosquitoes by activating the olfactory receptor neuron in the antennal sensilla of mosquitoes.
- Is it safe for pregnant women? “If you are pregnant, and you are in an area with serious mosquito-borne diseases, use repellant with high amounts of DEET, and reapply it as often as necessary”, says Dana Boyd Barr, professor of exposure science at Emory University in Atlanta. So, yes. Your other option is to cover up — or just stay indoors.
- DEET can have adverse health effects with frequent, long-term use. According to Dr. Martin Belson, a pediatrician and medical toxicologist, “No definitive studies exist in the scientific literature about what concentration of DEET is safe for children… but no serious illness has been linked to the use of DEET in children when used according to manufacturer’s recommendations.”
- Higher concentrations of DEET don’t make it work better, per se, it simply makes it last longer. Therefore, Belson continues, “If you can regularly reapply the insect repellent when you are out for long periods of time, or if your child will only be outside for a few hours, a repellent with 10% or less DEET should be enough.”
Picaridin (or icaridin), considered the most effective alternative to DEET, has been widely used in Europe for more than 10 years. Picaridin is as effective as DEET, but doesn’t cause skin irritation. Americans have always been die-hard DEETers, but Picaridin is slowly making its way onto the shelves of American households.
Generally speaking, pediatricians are okay with using lower concentrations of DEET and Picaridin on children with the caveat that they haven’t been studied in the long term. Dr. Cara Natterson adds, “The worst data on DEET doesn’t hold a candle to the worst data on West Nile or Lyme.” Or Zika, for that matter.
There are also non-DEET/non-Picaridin repellents that seem to work moderately well. These repellents use natural ingredients such as citronella, cedar, soybean, etc. Let me be very clear: these repellents do NOT work as well, but they may be good enough for those trying to avoid stronger chemicals. (As seen in the Consumer Reports study, many of these products offered less than one hour of protection — some, none at all.)
Lastly, there is Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus [or synthesized PMD], which has been shown to be equally as effective as DEET. But sadly, it isn’t recommended for children under 3, ONLY because studies haven’t been performed for that age group. This is unfortunate.
The bottom line is that repellents with DEET and Picaridin work waaaaaaay better than the natural stuff, but you don’t want to use them more than you have to. Dig?
Most of these products come in both spray and wipe versions. I definitely prefer using wipes on children (vs. spray) because I have way more control over where it’s going (I like to do a little dab on the forehead and ears, which would be very difficult with a spray). Plus, they aren’t inhaling the stuff, like with a spray or aerosol. I can usually cover both my girls with just one wipe towelette, so you can get more mileage out of them than you think.
The Hardcore/High Efficacy Stuff
[In order of increasing strength]
1. Cutter All Family Wipes (15 ct) — 7.15% DEET ~ $6
These 7.15% DEET wipes work very well at keeping the bugs off your babes. However (again), because it’s only ~7%, you may have to apply it more frequently than you would with a stronger blend (roughly every 3-4 hours, which may be plenty of time for most play sessions). If you’re concerned about DEET sensitivity, I would definitely opt for #2.
2. Avon Skin So Soft Towelettes (8 ct) — 10% Picaridin ~ $14
The Skin So Soft Formula that we all know and love from growing up + 10% Picaridin = very happy campers. And you don’t even have to know an Avon lady!
3. Natrapel® Wipes (12 ct) — 20% Picaridin ~ $7
The gold standard for providing 8 hours of protection from Aedes and Culex mosquito species, this highly effective, non-DEET repellent uses 20% Picaridin to keep mosquitos away. When we vacation in the summer in Florida and Virginia, I put this on the kids in the afternoon knowing it will last through dinnertime – and they NEVER get bitten (well, almost never).
Natrapel is mosquito kryptonite, y’all. I love these wipes because I don’t have to worry about my kids ingesting the spray. One wipe is enough for 2 small kids. You can also get it in a spray version. See also: Sawyer brand (manual pump), which is highly, highly rated as well CR agrees).
*Remember, don’t use any of these repellents on infants less than 2 months old.
The Gentler Stuff
*None of these are recommended for preventing the spread of Zika
Badger Anti-Bug Balm ~ $8
Badger Bug Balm uses Citronella oil, Cedar oil, Lemongrass, Rosemary oil, and Geranium oil to keep bugs at bay. Best of all, it doesn’t reek like some of the other natural solutions. Parents say it works pretty well…
Honest Company Bug Spray ~ $13
Honest Bug Spray uses the usual suspects to keep bugs at bay: soybean oil, castor oil, citronella, cedar, lemongrass, rosemary, geranium, and peppermint. While I couldn’t find efficacy data on this formula, parents say it works pretty well. *Frequently out of stock, sorry.
If your kid(s) are over 3, check out the enormously popular Lemon Eucalyptus spray by Cutter (if your kids are under 3, remember it’s not recommended, but ONLY because it hasn’t been studied with this age group. Derrrrp). This DEET-free spray uses the highly effective oil of lemon eucalyptus plant to repel bugs for up to six hours. Perhaps the most highly-rated insect repellent on the market.
Did you miss?
- Part 1: Best Baby & Kids Sunscreens
- Part 2: Best Swim Diapers
- Part 3: Sun Protective Clothing for Kids
Next in the Summer Series