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Best Insect Repellents for Kids

Summer Series Part 4: Updated May 2019

Insect bites can wreak havoc on summer fun, especially in places where mosquitoes and other biters are plentiful (like, ohhh… everywhere?). Here, we’ve broken down all of the different ways to keep bugs at bay, including the best bug repellents for kids.

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.

Mosquitos

Zika was a concern for a while, but didn’t materialize in the US the way it was originally feared (phew!). That said, it continues to be a concern in the tropics, so take note if you are traveling south for a Babymoon.

Yes, if you’re pregnant, the CDC still advises against traveling to the Caribbean, South America and other places where Zika is prevalent. Your partner should also avoid these areas if you are pregnant or planning on becoming pregnant, as Zika can be transmitted sexually as well (though not nearly as common).

If you are planning to travel to a place where Zika is spreading, the most effective repellents against the Aedes species (the ones that carry the virus) are the ones we recommend anyway: DEET, Picaridin and lemon eucalyptus, which can be found in the products we’ve always recommended below such as Naturapel, OFF! and Repel Lemon Eucalyptus (see below).

Ticks!

Ticks are nasty little suckers that can cause fun diseases like Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, Lyme is transmitted through the bite of infected deer ticks (aka blacklegged ticks).

kids insect repellent - DeerTick

A deer tick

A couple of years ago, Zika was at the top of our worry list when it came to insects — but now, it’s Lyme disease.

The condition, which has been around for thousands of years, was recognized in the United States in the 60s and 70s, and it’s been on the rise.

Goudarz Molaei, the director of the Connecticut’s CAES tick testing program, said about 40 percent of the more than 2,600 ticks checked so far this season are carrying Lyme disease. “This is roughly 10 percent higher than what we have typically seen over the last five years,” Molaei said.

Lyme Disease Reports for 2018

“Ticks are pretty much everywhere [in the Northeast],” Andreadis warned. “There’s virtually no wooded area you can venture into that doesn’t have these ticks.” He said anyone walking through wooded or brushy areas should use tick repellents and/or wear tick-repellent clothing.

A big factor in the increase in Lyme disease is habitat destruction (building further and further out into the suburbs), which increases the population of mice due to the habitat destruction of foxes, hawks, and owls who prey on them. In fact, mice infect up to 95 percent of ticks that suck their blood (ewww). In fact, most of the ticks carrying Lyme disease in the northeast were infected by mice.

To make the problem worse, the ticks that are the most likely to transmit the disease are also the smallest! Yes, ticks that are in the “nymph” stage are the most likely to transmit the disease; unfortunately, they can be teeny, tiny and very difficult to see: about the size of a poppy seed. See photo below from the CDC that went viral on Twitter.

Given their tiny size, nymphs can bite people and remain virtually undetected. They also burrow into your or your pet’s skin.

I don’t know about you, but that’s enough to make me avoid the woods in the summer! (or eat a Poppyseed muffin again, for that matter)…

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 nakey. Make sure to check their hair, under the arms, in and around the ears, behind the knees, and other “hidden” places.

Check it all because — many times — ticks can be removed (and killed) before they’ve actually bitten (below).

Good news: the tick typically needs to be on you (sucking your blood and attached to you) for 36 to 48 hours before it can transmit the Lyme pathogen.

An estimated 300,000 people in the US contracted Lyme Disease last year (2018), including my sister, who lives in Connecticut. The earlier you catch it and treat it, the better. Left untreated, Lyme Disease can wreak havoc on your long-term health and quality of life, causing symptoms like joint pain, fatigue and even heart problems. 

Protecting Your Kids from Ticks, Mosquitos and other Insect Bites

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.kids insect repellent - netting
  • Use insect repellent on exposed skin (below).
  • If in extreme conditions (backwoods camping and whatnot), 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). The Environmental Working Group (EWG) also agrees.

  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.

kids insect repellent - 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.”

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.)

kids insect repellent - 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.

I don’t think any parents gets excited about spraying this stuff on their children… but then again, I’ll take a little bit of chemical over terrible mosquito bites any day. Other people may feel differently. 

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.

Permethrin

An alternate option to using an insect repellent is to wear clothing treated with permethrin. You can purchase pre-treated clothing or you can apply it yourself to the clothing you already own.

If applied according to the directions, permethrin binds tightly to the fabric, causing little transfer to your skin… it’s also poorly absorbed by your skin. Currently, there is no data to suggest that children have increased sensitivity to permethrin. And it’s also considered safe for use with pregnant women.

The Hardcore/High Efficacy Stuff

~ In order of increasing strength

1. Cutter All Family Wipes (15 ct) — 7.15% DEET ~ $8

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.

kids insect repellent - cutter family wipes

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!

kids insect repellent - Avon SSS

3. Natrapel® Wipes (12 ct) — 20% Picaridin ~ $7

kids insect repellent - 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 two 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.

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…

kids insect repellent - Badger Anti-Bug Balm

Cutter Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent Pump Spray ~ $6

If your kids are over three, check out the enormously popular Lemon Eucalyptus spray by Cutter. 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.

If your kids are under three, remember it’s not recommended, but ONLY because it hasn’t been studied with this age group. Derrrrp).

kids insect repellent - cutter oil of eucalyptus

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

ThermaCell Patio Shield  ~ $22

Plan on being stationary, and/or feeling like dealing with this problem using modern tech? This little guy provides a 15ft area of protection and 12 hours of protection. All you have to do is place it around the area where you’ll be congregating (note: you HAVE TO start it up 15-20 mins before you need it).

It’s great for camping trips (think picnic table area) or small gatherings. There are enough “life changing” reviews on this thing for us to recommend it. Scent-free and cordless…

Happy outdoors’ing!


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