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Best Insect Repellents for Kids

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 Aedesspecies (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.

Map of Lyme disease reports for 2018
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.

Size of ticks from CDC

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).

Image of tick burrowing

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…

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.

*Please note that oil of lemon eucalyptus (PMD) is NOT the same thing as lemon eucalyptus essential oil. Please don’t use lemon eucalyptus essential oil (or a mixture of lemon essential oil and eucalyptus essential oil) as a bug spray — it won’t work.

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.

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

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).

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

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.

kids insect repellent - cutter oil of eucalyptus

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.

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!


Did you miss?

Next in the Summer Series

Comments

  1. Avatar

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

  2. Avatar

    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!

  3. Avatar

    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.

  4. Avatar

    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.

  5. Avatar

    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

  6. Avatar

    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.

  7. Avatar

    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

  8. Avatar

    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!!!

  9. Avatar

    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!

  10. Avatar

    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!

  11. Avatar

    Hi, I want to subscribe for this weblog to get latest updates, thus where
    can i do it please help out.

  12. Avatar

    You could definitely see your enthusiasm within the work you write.
    The world hopes for even more passionate writers such as you who are not afraid to mention how they believe.
    At all times go after your heart.

  13. Avatar

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

  14. Avatar

    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.

  15. Avatar

    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.

    1. Melissa Kresser

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

    1. Melissa Kresser

      Thanks Jaclyn for the recos! We’ll check them out for next year’s Summer Series articles 🙂

  16. Avatar

    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.

    1. Melissa Kresser

      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.

  17. Avatar

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

  18. Avatar

    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!

    1. Melissa Kresser

      Thanks Alice for sharing! Can you provide any links to articles where you did your research? Thank you!

  19. Avatar

    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.

  20. Avatar

    Great web site you’ve got here.. It’s hard to find good
    quality writing like yours nowadays. I honestly appreciate people like you!
    Take care!!

  21. Avatar

    I live in a tropical environment where Zika is present and we have used and continue to use Lafes Baby Insect Repellent. It’s fabulous! (Since we reside in a Zika zone, we need long-term solutions that are not DEET or Picardin). I have also tried Cutter’s and have found that it burns the skin initially; not a problem for adults, but horrible for a youngster. But for any women who are pregnant or planning to get pregnant and their partners, you MUST use a chemical repellent, cover up, and avoid Zika zones whenever possible.

  22. Avatar

    I see that there is a 100% natural repellent that has been tested and approved by the EPA called Mozzipel.
    It also repels stable flies, horn flies, house flies, ticks, cattle lice, ants, roaches, bed bugs and even fire ants.
    http://www.mozzipel.com.
    Apparently it will be on the market quite soon!

    This is from one of their reports…

    “To name a few other institutions that have studied our C8910: Masaryk University in Czechia use the study of C8910 in one of their courses and it forms part of their curriculum. Michael Samuel, Shüné V. Oliver, Oliver R. Wood, Maureen Coetzee and Basil D. Brooke published a study on the Evaluation of the toxicity and repellence of C8910 against insecticide susceptible and resistant strains of the major malaria vector Anopheles funestus Giles (Diptera: Culicidae). There is also an article in the Journal of Medical Entomology 53(3) · December 2015 that details the Laboratory and Field Studies of C8910, a Fatty-Acid–Based Insect/Arthropod Repellent and Biopesticide as well as the Determination of Insecticidal Effect (LC50 and LC90) of C8910+Silicone against Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus (Diptera: Culicidae). There are also various publications in academic journals that one can use as further reference.”

  23. Avatar

    I am wondering your thoughts on Permethrin, which you mention but do not discuss in detail. I was under the impression that it is a bit safer since it’s on the clothing rather than the skin, but I guess if you really douse the clothing (or get the pre-treated clothing–i.e. Insect Shield) it’s on the inside of the cloth too so it might transfer…

    1. Melissa Kresser

      Hi Heather! Thank you for bringing this to our attention, I went ahead and added some information to our article about Permethrin. It’s definitely a safe option (both for kids and pregnant women)… of course double check with your pedi for infants. If applied correctly, permethrin will bind to the fabric and not transfer to your skin. And even if it does get on your skin, it doesn’t absorb. That said, make sure to read and follow the application instructions fully. Also, any area of skin not covered by the treated clothing will need bug spray/wipe protection.

  24. Avatar

    Just a word of caution as Drew doesn’t mention it :
    lemon EO from citrus is a photo sensitive oil. I.e. Do NOT use in the sun. I would Use lemon eucalyptus or lemongrass instead for an even better safer repellent effect.

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