Protecting kids from biting insects during warmer months is important, especially with the potential for these bloodsuckers to carry dangerous illnesses such as Lyme disease, West Nile virus, and Zika virus. But identifying which active ingredients in bug sprays are safe for kids can be a confusing process. Some bug sprays use the powerful chemical DEET to repel bugs, while others employ more natural ingredients, such as picaridin or essential oils.
This guide explores the most important factors to consider when shopping for the best bug spray for kids, including demystifying these active ingredients, while reviewing some of the top-rated options on the market to keep pesky insects away from your children.
- BEST OVERALL: Sawyer Products 20% Picaridin Insect Repellent
- BEST BANG FOR THE BUCK: Natrapel Insect Repellent Spray
- BEST NATURAL: REPEL Plant-Based Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent
- BEST WIPES: Cutter Resealable Pouch, Family Mosquito Wipes
- BEST FOR SENSITIVE SKIN: Cutter Skinsations Insect Repellent Pump Spray
What to Consider When Buying the Best Bug Spray for Kids
How effectively a bug spray defends your child(ren) from biting insects while protecting their sensitive skin depends on various factors, including the type and concentration of the active ingredient, how long the spray remains on the skin, and the types of bugs it repels. Keep reading to learn more about these essential attributes to consider when buying the best bug spray for kids.
Ingredients and Scent
Some options in bug spray for kids include essential oils, picaridin, DEET, and IR3525.
- Essential oils, the most natural option, consist of oil extracts from plants such as eucalyptus, citronella, lemongrass, geranium, peppermint, and geranium. These oils have a fragrant smell to humans but a pungent smell to insects.
Since essential oils are plant-based and contain no chemicals, they’re safer than chemical-based ingredients in bug sprays. However, they aren’t as effective at repelling bugs, leaving children vulnerable to attack.
- Picaridin works by forming a vapor barrier around the skin that repels insects. While it may not be as natural as plant-based essential oils, picaridin is less harsh than DEET. Both the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) consider it safe for use on children ages 2 months and older.
- DEET works by interfering with the nerves and receptors on an insect’s antennae that allow them to identify chemicals emitted by people and animals, such as carbon dioxide and lactic acid. DEET is not as natural an ingredient as oils and picaridin, but the American Association of Pediatrics (AAP) lists it as safe to use on children as young as 2 months of age.
- IR3535 is an abbreviation for the repellent’s active ingredient, ethyl butyl-acetyl amino propionate. While it sounds like a dangerous chemical, it’s actually a naturally occurring amino acid that inhibits an insect’s sense of smell, preventing the insect from identifying prey. IR3535 is typically found in combination sunscreen and bug repellent products.
While both DEET and IR3535 are safe for skin and fabrics, they can dissolve certain types of plastics, so don’t let them come in contact with any plastic accessories.
For a bug spray to be effective and long lasting, it must contain a high enough concentration of its active ingredient. Essential oil-based bug sprays must have a 30 percent concentration to be effective, while the AAP recommends bug sprays with no more than a 30 percent concentration of DEET for use in kids’ bug sprays. Greater concentrations of DEET can cause skin irritation. The EPA recommends a 10 to 20 percent active ingredient concentration for bug sprays that use picaridin, while IR3535-based repellents also should contain a 10 to 20 percent concentration.
Mosquitoes and ticks are the most important insects that a bug spray should be able to repel. Not only are their bites painful and itchy, but these insects also can carry dangerous diseases. Mosquitoes have the potential to carry life-threatening viruses, while ticks can carry dangerous Lyme disease. While all bug sprays effectively drive away these two bloodsuckers, products containing DEET as the active ingredient are the best line of defense.
Those who want an all-natural option should look for bug sprays that include essential oils like lemongrass, lavender, and eucalyptus—all of which are effective against ticks and mosquitoes—for best results. While picaridin repels most pests, it’s especially effective at warding off biting flies, performing even better than DEET. Other insects commonly repelled by bug sprays include gnats, chiggers, no-see-ums, and fleas.
A bug spray’s longevity depends on the type, as well as the concentration, of the active ingredient. DEET and picaridin provide the longest-lasting protection, while IR3535 and essential oils require more frequent reapplications. A bug spray with a 30 percent concentration of DEET can last for 12 hours, while one with a 20 percent concentration of picaridin can remain effective for up to 14 hours. IR3535 offers up to 8 hours of protection, and essential oils provide the least longevity at 6 hours.
The bug spray’s form can also affect longevity. A picaridin-based liquid with a 20 percent concentration can last at least 12 hours, while a picaridin-based cream with the same concentration may last at least 14 hours.
Outside factors also can impact a bug spray’s longevity, including sweat and water exposure.
Our Top Picks
These top picks take into account all these considerations to narrow the field of bug sprays for kids to some of the best options on the market in a variety of categories. This list includes all-natural options and those that use DEET, picaridin, and IR3535 as their active ingredient.
Picaridin, another alternative to DEET-based products, is an even safer option, but similar in effectiveness. With a 20 percent concentration, this bug spray from Sawyer Products comes in a cream-based formula that offers more longevity than liquid-based repellents. It offers up to 14 hours of protection against mosquitoes and ticks and 8 hours against flies, gnats, and chiggers.
This fragrance-free spray dries quickly without leaving a greasy film, and it won’t damage plastics. This package includes two 2-ounce spray bottles.
This bug spray from Natrapel is a budget-priced option for the whole family. The product includes two 6-ounce spray bottles. Natrapel contains a 20 percent concentration of picaridin for maximum effectiveness and longevity.
This spray can repel mosquitoes and ticks for up to 12 hours. Its eco-spray design releases a fine mist that provides good coverage without overspray. The spray is safe for children ages 2 months and older, and the DEET-free formula means it won’t harm plastic items.
Of the natural options on the market, bug sprays that use lemongrass and eucalyptus essential oils are among the most effective. This bug repellent from REPEL contains a 30 percent concentration of these ingredients. While many bug sprays have a chemical odor, the lemongrass and eucalyptus essential oils have a pleasing fragrance to humans that’s disagreeable to insects. It’s particularly effective against mosquitoes and ticks.
The bug spray won’t leave a greasy or sticky film after application. Spray it on, then rub it in for maximum coverage and longevity. This REPEL product, which is effective for up to 6 hours, is available in a 4-ounce spray bottle.
Applying a spray-based bug repellent to a wriggling child can pose a challenge; wipes offer an easier way. These 15 mosquito wipes from Cutter, which each measure 5 inches by 7 inches, are easy to wipe on arms and legs and around eyes and mouths without leaving a greasy residue.
With a low 7 percent concentration of DEET, the wipes provide good protection against mosquitoes for up to 8 hours without the harshness of sprays that have a higher concentration of DEET. These wipes are also effective at warding off gnats, biting flies, chiggers, fleas, and ticks. A resealable pouch conveniently stores the wipes while also preventing them from drying out.
Cutter uses a mix of skin-healing vitamins and natural ingredients with the bug-repelling power of DEET to create a bug spray that’s effective yet easy on children’s sensitive skin. Cutter Skinsations features a 7 percent concentration of DEET that, while not as long lasting as products with higher concentrations, still provides a barrier against mosquitoes, ticks, biting flies, and other bloodsuckers.
Its ingredients include skin-soothing aloe and vitamin E, which help moisturize and heal skin while leaving a mild pleasing scent. At 6 ounces, this spray bottle is larger than many other bug repellents. It’s also safe for use on clothes, backpacks, and other gear.
FAQs About Bug Spray for Kids
If you still have questions about the safety of bug sprays for your kids or how best to apply them, find answers to these and other frequently asked questions below.
Q. Are bug sprays for kids toxic?
While chemicals such as DEET often get a bad rap, this common active ingredient in many bug sprays is certified as safe for use on kids by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Environmental Protection Agency. However, DEET can cause rashes and even blisters in concentrations over 30 percent or with overuse, so follow instructions for bug sprays that contain DEET. While those risks may cause concern, DEET offers the best protection against mosquitoes and the dangerous diseases they can carry.
Q. Does a bug spray for kids have an expiration date?
While shelf life varies depending on the active ingredient, bug sprays generally last about 3 years, after which they begin to lose their efficacy.
Q. How do you properly use bug spray?
Since not all bug sprays have the same ingredients, check the directions before applying them. That said, apply bug spray to bare skin only. Applying repellent to the skin and then covering that skin with clothing increases the chance of irritation. Since mosquitoes can bite through thin clothing, it’s also essential to apply the repellent to clothing as well as to the skin. To safely apply bug spray to the face, spray or squeeze it (if it’s a cream) into your palm and apply by hand—or use a wipe-based repellent.