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Best Insect Repellents for Kids

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….

Zika

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!!).

cuba-zika

“Cuba: it was still worth it!”

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.

Feet-Zika

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!

DeerTick

A deer tick

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:

Alice hool ahoop

  • 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.netting
  • Use insect repellent on exposed skin (more below).
  • If in extreme conditions, treat clothing with Permethrin (more below).

Repellents

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):

  1. DEET [Per the AAP: do not use DEET products with concentrations higher than 30%, and not at all on infants less than 2 months.]
  2. Picaridin

The Deets on DEET…

*Don’t confuse DEET with DDT (a highly toxic, banned chemical). They aren’t related at all.

Asian Mosquito

  1. The stuff works really, really well! DEET repels mosquitoes by activating the olfactory receptor neuron in the antennal sensilla of mosquitoes.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.”
  4. 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

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.

Alternatives

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.)

alternative bug sprays

Alternative bug sprays

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.

Decisions, decisions

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

cutter family wipes

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

Avon SSS

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

natrapel wipes

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.

For heavy-duty mosquitos (camping by the lake in Canada, for example), we recommend Ben’s Wilderness Formula or OFF! Deep Woods VIII. *Note that both of these contain more than 20% DEET.

The Gentler Stuff

*None of these are recommended for preventing the spread of Zika

  1. 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…

    Badger Anti-Bug Balm

    Badger Anti-Bug Balm

  2. 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. 

    Honest Bug Spray

    Honest Bug Spray

  3. Cutter Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent Pump Spray ~ $9

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.

cutter oil of eucalyptus

* Other alternatives include California Baby, Burt’s Bees, and All Terrain.

Happy outdoors’ing!


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This article has 43 comments

  1. Since you stated you dont’t need to know an Avon lady to get them, where can we buy the Avon wipes? Thanks.

  2. Bug Soother! Look into it…. amazing stuff!

  3. I Love your reviews! I love your article. God bless you!

  4. Thank you for the bug spray guide. I’m not sure how you do it but you always send out your guides at the perfect time for me. I was just thinking this weekend about how I needed to figure out which bug spray to buy because my daughter, Lucy, got several bites over the last couple days. Last week’s life jacket guide was perfectly timed as well. Thank you again for all of your helpful articles!

  5. Did you try or research Babyganics? It seems to have good reviews.
    http://www.toysrus.com/product/index.jsp?productId=11130360#showReviews

  6. Angela Muckenthaler
    Monday 30 June 2014, 1:56 pm | Reply

    Have you ever used the braclets or replent stickers? My little one is eight months and I was a little concerned about sprays and wipes. She has sensitive skin.

  7. I have used the Lafe’s Organic Baby bug repellent and really like it. Again, not as strong as deet, but it’s something AND it’s not oily, which is nice.

  8. Would you apply these wipes before or after sunscreen application?

  9. Thanks for all of this info. I am putting together some information
    for the homeless population for National Mosquito Awareness Week
    and will use your information, and you will be cited.
    I have never heard of Picaridin, will look into it as far as donations go.

    Thanks so much!!
    Patti

  10. I’m an entomologist (i study mosquitoes) with a newborn living in an area of the country where both west nile virus and la crosse virus are common. I highly recommend using the off clip which basically creates a bubble of deet/repellent around the child (including my son). You have to watch the on/off switch or it will be used up quick but each one gets us through the daytime and twilight hours.

  11. Did you know CATNIP is 10X more effective in repelling mosquitos than DEET?

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2001/08/010828075659.htm

    Have you tried or researched Ava Anderson Non Toxic bug spray? It is safe and effective–and it smells great too!

    avaBUGS Ingredients: water (purified), aloe barbadensis (organic aloe vera juice), eucalyptus citriodora (organic lemon eucalyptus) essential oil, cymbopogon citratus (organic lemongrass) essential oil, lavandula hybrida (organic lavandin) essential oil, mentha piperita (organic peppermint) essential oil, rosmarinus officinalis (organic rosemary) essential oil, nepeta cataria (organic catnip) essential oil, xanthan gum

  12. I love the Honest bug spray. I actually haven’t even tried it with kids, but instead use it as an adult. I’m a magnet for bugs and get red welts when bitten, but this seemed to protect me! We brought it to Hawaii and New Zealand and it was amazing at repelling almost everything. It also smells good (and not like those chemical deet bug sprays). I highly recommend it!!!

  13. While I was researching this for our camping trip I saw that Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus is also not recommended for pregnant woman. Pretty much the same recommendations for kids under 3 are recommended for pregnant women. Good to know for growing families!

  14. Brittani McClaflin
    Monday 8 June 2015, 12:51 pm | Reply

    We just returned home from camping for the weekend with our 3 year old & 8 month old. We camped right by a lake in the woods. The only bug repellent I used was Honest Co & it worked great! Not a single bite on any of us & that was with a single application! You don’t need all the toxic chemicals to keep bugs away!

  15. We do mosquito net at night and doTerra TerraShield diluted in water in a spray bottle.

  16. […] Best Insect Repellants for Kids – 2015 […]

  17. We use the awesome natural bug repellent bars from here for our kids and they work real fine: http://thesolidbarcompany.com/collections/bug-bars. Will recommend for sure!

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  20. Very well-written and funny at times. Thanks for the information!

  21. Thank you so much for a balanced and really informative post. Best wishes from the old home country.

  22. According to this article http://www.consumerreports.org/insect-repellents/mosquito-repellents-that-best-protect-against-zika/ other than Eucalyptus, natural bug repellents don’t work against the Aedes mosquitoes, which can carry the Zika virus. While I doubt we’ll see this mosquito in NJ where I live I’m still worried since I have a 2 year old and a newborn. Do you have any recommendation for DEET kid safe products that have more than 7% concentration or do you just recommend more frequent application? Also is Picaridin safer than DEET or are they about the same? Thanks so much for your help.

  23. I really needed this article! Thank you!!

  24. Honest Company and many other Essential oil blends are not safe for babies and toddlers. Certified aromatherapists have age guidelines on every single product and much to my dismay, Honest Company contains wintergreen as an inactive ingredient, which isn’t supposed to be on anyone no matter the age.

    Here’s the age guidelines for reference:

    Citronella 6 mo
    Cedar 6 mo
    Geranium 6 mo
    Lemongrass 2 years
    Peppermint 6 years
    Rosemary 10 years
    Wintergreen avoid in general due to methyl salicylate content

    It also said to use a smaller amount of lemongrass & peppermint as a topical because both can cause skin irritation.

    • Thanks Brittany! Can you provide our readers with any back up to this? Any links to reputable articles would be great!

  25. What products are recommended/ safe to use when breaatfeeding?

  26. I love No Mosquitoz and No Natz by this company: http://www.nonatz.com/

  27. So what is recommended for a 4 1/2 month old who is teething and constantly has his fingers, hands, arms, feet etc… in his mouth!? We do a lot of hiking in upstate NY where ticks and mosquitoes are prevalent.

    • Hi Tiffany! Give the Honest spray a try. Do not apply it to the hands or face. Simply dab some on the forehead and ears.

  28. Natrapel has a manual pump spray version that is easier to control and much less greasy. That’s our go-to spray!

  29. […] using scented perfumes or lotions, which attract many types of bugs, and spraying their skin with a safe insect repellent before they go out to play. In areas with high grass and brush, it’s a good idea to have them wear […]

  30. […] their socks high and put on a long sleeved shirt when walking through the woods.  Otherwise, buy a child-safe bug repellant.  If products with harsh chemicals pose a concern, seek those with natural ingredients such as […]

  31. Please note that oil of lemon eucalyptus is not recommended for young children (under 3) because it is VERY bad for eyes. I’ve been researching the topic extensively as I lived in Hawaii and am now headed to Colombia with two young children, 2 and 5. Both lemon eucalyptus and picaridin measure up in effectiveness to DEET (check CDC and Consumer Reports), but picaridin is the safest choice for anyone under three or who has a tendency to rub their eyes. I can’t find the toxicity report on humans and eye contact but it was a high level of damage and I would absolutely recommend against using it on children. I hope everyone stays safe and best of luck!

  32. […] their socks high and put on a long sleeved shirt when walking through the woods. Otherwise, buy a child-safe bug repellant_kmq.push(["trackClickOnOutboundLink","link_579b2ffd385be","Article link […]

  33. Which goes on first, sunscreen or bug spray?

  34. I like the Cutter products but they are definitely too chemical based for my liking. The ZERO Insect Repellent goes on really easily and it seems to work as well, it’s also oil of eucalyptus lemon but with a shea butter carrier. No chemicals at all. Happy Mom.

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