The Best Bug Sprays of 2023

Bugs aren’t just a nuisance—their bites can lead to serious illness. These easy-to-use sprays are designed to let people enjoy the great outdoors in comfort and safety.

By Bob Beacham | Published Feb 17, 2023 11:27 AM

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The Best Bug Sprays


Bug sprays are a convenient way to keep biting insects at bay. A quick application can last for hours, and make it a lot more pleasant to be outdoors, as well as safer. For instance, chigger bites can result in severe rashes, blisters, and bleeding. Mosquitoes and ticks carry diseases that can cause long-term illness or even death.

There are lots of effective bug repellents available, but there is understandable concern about some of the ingredients. After we took a careful look at the facts, we assembled this comprehensive article to provide in-depth answers to many questions about these products. We have also provided a list of the best bug sprays for just about any situation.

  1. BEST OVERALL: Sawyer Products 20% Picaridin Insect Repellent
  2. BEST BANG FOR THE BUCK: Repel Plant-Based Insect Repellent
  3. BEST NATURAL: Murphy’s Naturals Insect Repellent
  4. BEST FOR KIDS: Off! Family Care Picaridin Aerosol
  5. BEST FOR SENSITIVE SKIN: Avon Skin So Soft Bug Guard Plus
  6. BEST WITH SUNSCREEN: Bullfrog Mosquito Coast Bug Spray
  7. BEST TICK REPELLENT: Ben’s Tick Repellent Spray
  8. BEST FOR FABRICS: Sawyer Products Permethrin Clothing Insect Repellent
The Best Bug Spray


Before You Buy a Bug Spray

There is a fear that some bug sprays are dangerous to people, especially those containing DEET (scientific name N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide), which was originally developed by the U.S. military for protection during jungle warfare.

Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) state that DEET is safe for skin application, including for pregnant women and children over 2 months old. However, DEET is toxic to pets and can melt plastic and synthetics, so no products on this list include it.

Other common synthetic repellents in bug sprays are picaridin and IR3535 (ethyl butylacetylaminopropionate). Both are also considered safe by regulatory authorities, though users should always follow manufacturers’ instructions when applying.

Some people prefer a natural approach to insect sprays, and lemon eucalyptus-based products are popular. Others prefer to make their own bug spray, and information on that follows a little later in this article, too.

Environmentalists will be equally concerned about the danger to insects themselves. Even mosquitoes aren’t all bad, since they are pollinators much like bees. Only one of the products in this list is actually a bug-killer spray; the others are simply repellents that keep people and bugs from harming each other.

How We Chose the Best Bug Sprays

With literally thousands of bug sprays available, we first started by narrowing down the type. This guide focuses on products used by people when outdoors, rather than indoor bug spray, bug sprays for plants, or other insecticides.

That still left a huge choice. We then looked at ingredients, application, how long they were expected to remain effective, and even the convenience of the container size. While most bug sprays are not expensive, price is always a factor, and these picks maximize value wherever possible.

Defining categories also allowed us to hone in on specific needs, such as the best bug spray for kids or for sensitive skin. Refining the choices led to suggested top bug sprays for as many different people and situations as possible.

Our Top Picks

Each of the products below is a well-proven bug spray, but ingredients and effectiveness vary. Each fits in a category so shoppers can quickly and easily identify the best bug sprays for their needs.

Best Overall

The Best Bug Sprays Option: Sawyer Products 20% Picaridin Insect Repellent

Choosing a single best bug spray overall was always going to be challenging, but there is a lot to like about the Sawyer Products 20 Percent Picaridin Insect Repellent. Long-term effectiveness is as good as anything on the market for both mosquitoes and ticks, and it successfully deters a wide range of flies and chiggers. It is safe to use on clothing and won’t damage plastics or synthetic finishes like DEET can.

The convenient 4-ounce bottles are easy to carry in a pocket or purse and have a nonaerosol pump action. Different sizes are available, as is a lotion. The spray is not greasy and is described as fragrance-free. It does have some initial smell, but this soon dissipates.

Product Specs

  • Size: 2 bottles, each 4 ounces
  • Active ingredient: 20 percent picaridin
  • Effectiveness: 12 hours for mosquitoes and ticks


  • Class-leading effectiveness to repel common biting insects
  • Will not damage clothing or outdoor gear
  • Fragrance-free within a few moments of applying


  • Initial smell might be temporarily unpleasant
  • Pump-action nozzles can clog occasionally

Get the Sawyer Products bug spray at Amazon.

Best Bang For The Buck

The Best Bug Sprays Option: Repel Plant-Based Insect Repellent

Few bug sprays are more popular than Repel Plant-Based Insect Repellent. The active ingredient is oil of lemon eucalyptus. It is natural and rapidly biodegradable, so it has no impact on soil or waterways. It provides protection against mosquitoes for up to 6 hours. While no time is stated for ticks, users have found it works against them as well. The times are lower than for synthetic bug sprays but similar to other eco-friendly products.

The pump-action bottle is a convenient size and comes with a budget-friendly price tag. While the company might call the smell “refreshing,” a small percentage of users find it stronger than they like. Some people may also have a skin reaction to oil of lemon eucalyptus.

Product Specs

  • Size: 4 ounces
  • Active ingredient: 30 percent oil of lemon eucalyptus
  • Effectiveness: 6 hours for mosquitoes


  • Natural, environmentally friendly plant-based product
  • The oil leaves no greasy or sticky residue
  • Good value for money compared with similar products


  • Distinctive smell might offend some users
  • No time cited for effectiveness against ticks

Get the Repel bug spray at Amazon or Target.

Best Natural

The Best Bug Sprays Option: Murphy’s Naturals Insect Repellent

Murphy’s Naturals Insect Repellent has perhaps the simplest organic bug spray formula around. It contains 30 percent oil of lemon eucalyptus and 70 percent distilled water mixed with corn ethanol, the latter giving the skin a cooling sensation when applied. It is effective against mosquitoes for up to 6 hours, against deer ticks for 4 hours, and against brown dog and lone star ticks (common in the southern U.S.) for up to 8 hours.

As with all oil of lemon eucalyptus bug sprays, not everyone likes the smell, and a few people may have an adverse skin reaction. Along with this 4-ounce pump spray, both 2- and 6-ounce bottles are available.

Product Specs

  • Size: 4 ounces
  • Active ingredient: 30 percent oil of lemon eucalyptus
  • Effectiveness: 6 hours for mosquitoes; 4 to 8 hours for ticks


  • Simple, eco-friendly formulation of all-natural ingredients
  • Feels pleasantly cool when applied to skin
  • Oil will not damage clothing or equipment


  • Among the more expensive bug sprays
  • Distinctive smell might offend some users

Get the Murphy’s Naturals bug spray at Amazon.

Best For Kids

The Best Bug Sprays Option: Off! Family Care Picaridin Aerosol

With a picaridin content of just 10 percent, Off! Family Care bug spray has a lower active ingredient percentage than most rivals, and thus minimizes kids’ exposure to synthetic chemicals. It nevertheless provides protection against mosquito bites for up to 8 hours. It is also safe on fabrics and plastics.

The 5-ounce aerosol uses technology that the company says gives an even coating and is easy to apply. The formula is neither greasy nor oily, and while there is a slight scent, few find it unpleasant. Off! Family Care doesn’t claim to protect against ticks, although picaridin usually deters them. While the aerosol doesn’t contain ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons, the contents still are flammable and should not be sprayed near naked flames.

Product Specs

  • Size: 5 ounces
  • Active ingredient: 10 percent picaridin
  • Effectiveness: 8 hours for mosquitoes


  • Easy-to-use aerosol with an even spray pattern
  • Nonoily and leaves no unpleasant residue
  • Safe to use on both fabrics and plastics


  • No details on repelling ticks or other insects
  • Flammable contents that are unsafe near flames

Get the Off! bug spray at Amazon.

Best For Sensitive Skin

The Best Bug Sprays Option: Avon Skin So Soft Bug Guard Plus

With a name like Skin So Soft, it’s no surprise that Avon’s Bug Guard Plus ranks among top bug spray picks for those with sensitive skin. It is hypoallergenic, dermatologist tested, and contains SPF 30 sunscreen for long summer days outdoors. The active ingredient is IR3535, which provides up to 8 hours of protection against mosquitoes and 6 hours against ticks. It is also effective against sand flies, biting midges, no-see-ums, and black flies (buffalo gnats), though only for 3 hours against the latter.

The 8-ounce pump-action bottle is a great size for longer outdoor trips, making it unnecessary to carry multiple small bottles. That said, it is quite expensive. Avon advises against its use on clothing, and it may damage some elastics.

Product Specs

  • Size: 8 ounces
  • Active ingredient: 19.6 percent IR3535
  • Effectiveness: 8 hours for mosquitoes; 6 hours for ticks


  • Hypoallergenic and dermatologist tested for sensitive skin
  • Contains SPF 30 sunscreen to combat ultraviolet rays
  • The 8-ounce bottle is the ideal size for camping or RVs


  • Not recommended for use on clothing or elastics
  • Expensive

Get the Avon bug spray at Amazon.

Best With Sunscreen

The Best Bug Sprays Option: Bullfrog Mosquito Coast Bug Spray

Applying separate bug spray and sunscreen can be tiresome and lead to odd mixtures of scents or chemicals that might be undesirable, or even affect how well each works. Products that combine the two are an obvious answer, and Bullfrog Mosquito Coast does just that. The SPF 50 sunscreen prevents 98 percent of the UVB rays that cause burning. It also has both aloe and vitamin E to add moisturizing features.

The active ingredient IR3535 gives up to 8 hours of protection against mosquitoes and is also known to deter ticks, flies, and gnats. The company provides few details on length of protection from specific pests, other than the 8-hour maximum time. Although water-resistant, prolonged swimming or bathing can require reapplying. The contents of the 5.5-ounce aerosol can are flammable.

Product Specs

  • Size: 5.5 ounces
  • Active ingredient: 20 percent IR3535
  • Effectiveness: 8 hours for mosquitoes


  • SPF 50 sunscreen offers high levels of ultraviolet protection
  • Also contains aloe and vitamin E for moisturizing
  • Water-resistance extends its effectiveness, particularly if perspiring


  • Flammable contents unsafe near open fires
  • Could require reapplication every 2 hours with frequent swimming

Get the Bullfrog bug spray at Amazon.

Best Tick Repellent

The Best Bug Sprays Option: Ben’s Tick Repellent Spray

Bloodsucking ticks are one of the most unpleasant bugs, with a bite that can carry Lyme disease or Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Though both usually respond well to antibiotics, if left untreated, they are potentially fatal. Ben’s Tick Repellent Spray focuses specifically on this bug (which is related to spiders rather than insects), providing long-lasting protection of up to 12 hours. The active ingredient, picaridin, is also known to work against mosquitoes and flies, though no time period is given.

The 6-ounce can uses an eco-friendly pump action rather than aerosol, though the contents still are flammable. The nongreasy formula is unscented and will not damage clothing or equipment.

Product Specs

  • Size: 3 bottles, 6 ounces each
  • Active ingredient: 20 percent picaridin
  • Effectiveness: 12 hours for ticks


  • Exceptional levels of protection against dangerous tick bites
  • Can touch clothing and gear without damage
  • Good value in the 3-pack for long trips


  • No details on effective duration against mosquitoes, other insects
  • Flammable contents unsafe near naked flame

Get the Ben’s bug spray at Amazon.

Best For Fabrics

The Best Bug Sprays Option: Sawyer Products Permethrin Clothing Insect Repellent

Sawyer Products Permethrin Clothing Insect Repellent is not intended to be applied to the skin, but instead to clothing, packs, tents, and other fabrics. This provides increased protection against mosquitoes, ticks, and a wide range of other insects while hiking or camping. The spray can cling to fibers for up to 6 weeks (or six washes). The 12-ounce pump-action bottle is enough for two outfits and additional gear; the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends a dosage of 4.5 ounces per outfit.

Though there is a scent during application, it does not continue to smell once dry. It is important to apply Sawyer Products Permethrin Clothing Insect Repellent to clothes before putting them on. For full protection, the company recommends applying a separate bug spray or lotion to the skin as well. Permethrin (not to be confused with picaridin) is a contact insecticide, so it might kill beneficial insects as well as pests.

Product Specs

  • Size: 12 ounces
  • Active ingredient: 0.5 percent permethrin
  • Effectiveness: Up to 6 weeks


  • Spray provides several weeks of protection against 55 bugs
  • Nonstaining formula specifically designed for fabrics and gear
  • Fragrance-free once dry


  • For full coverage, combine with skin spray
  • Permethrin can also kill bees and butterflies

Get the Sawyer Products bug spray at Amazon.

Or, DIY Your Own Bug Spray

Acetic acid (vinegar) is cheap and makes a good bug spray for home use, but it’s not a smell that most people want on their skin or clothes. Essential oils like citronella, clove, and geranium can be dabbed on the skin, though some people find the concentrated product irritating.

To avoid discomfort, and to create a spray, dilute essential oil with coconut, jojoba, or almond oil. It can be fun to experiment with a variety of different essential oils, mixed together, both for aroma and effectiveness. For more detail on DIY bug spray, see this article on how to make your own insect repellent.

For those wondering which is the DIY best bed bug spray, pure alcohol applied directly to bugs is a quick and easy answer.

Jump to Our Top Picks

Our Verdict 

There are other common bug spray options available, including Off! Deep Woods Insect Repellent and Ultrathon Insect Repellent Lotion. However, they do not meet our sustainability guidelines and are not recommended in our top picks since they both contain DEET, which has been shown to be toxic for use around pets. Either the Sawyer Products 20% Picaridin Insect Repellent or the Repel Plant-Based Insect Repellent is a good choice for safely and effectively repelling bugs.

What to Consider When Choosing a Bug Spray 

The need to apply bug sprays to the skin requires making some very personal choices. For example, despite knowing of their proven safety, some people prefer not to use synthetics. How long the product will remain effective is also important, as is how it smells and feels when applied. Each of these questions is covered in detail in the following section.

Ingredients and Safety

The three most common synthetic chemicals found in bug sprays are DEET, picaridin, and IR3535. As we mentioned at the start of this article, each is considered safe by the CDC and EPA. They are also considered biodegradable. However, DEET is toxic to cats and dogs, birds, fish, and aquatic life. It can also damage some plastics and materials like spandex.

All-natural bug spray is now widely available, with formulas often based on oil of lemon eucalyptus. Users typically can apply it to both skin and fabrics. Many contain distilled water and a small amount of ethanol derived from corn or other plants. These products often have a warning label advising they be kept out of reach of children. While most are not directly toxic, they can be irritating if sprayed in eyes or airways.

Both synthetic and natural bug sprays may also be flammable. It is important to read instructions for use carefully.

EPA Approval

While the EPA does not endorse any particular product, the agency has a register of skin-applied repellent ingredients, and a list of more than 600 products whose manufacturers have supplied technical information regarding the safety and effectiveness of their bug sprays against mosquitoes and ticks.

Although none of these products are actually tested by the EPA, the following ingredients are considered safe when used as directed:

  • Catnip oil (Nepeta cataria, or catmint)
  • Oil of citronella
  • DEET
  • IR3535
  • Oil of lemon eucalyptus
  • Picaridin
  • 2-Undecanone (methyl nonyl ketone)


The concentration of active ingredients in even the strongest bug sprays considered does not exceed 30 percent. While stronger formulas can be found, experts from the University of Florida found concentrations above this level didn’t necessarily improve how long a bug spray remains effective.

Often the concentrations are less than 30 percent. The bulk of the ingredients may or may not be listed but can include carrier oils, distilled water, and alcohol.

While minimizing the level of active ingredients will be a key issue for some people, it’s also a good idea to check the manufacturer’s rating for time of effectiveness. An outdoor bug spray that is rated as effective for 4 hours will frequently have a lower percentage of active ingredient than one rated for 8 hours, but this isn’t always the case. Many times, effectiveness is shorter for ticks than for mosquitoes.

Scent and Feel

Scent and feel are very personal considerations. While many people like the smell of lemon eucalyptus, for example, there are those who do not. The same is true of citronella, lavender, cloves, and other natural ingredients. It is common for synthetic bug sprays to be unscented, but it’s not always the case.

Distilled water is used as a carrier in some organic bug sprays, but others might use ethanol (or other alcohols) or oils. Ethanol generally provides a cooling sensation as it evaporates rapidly. Oils can feel luxurious and are generally kind to the skin. However, some can leave a residue that not everyone finds pleasant.


During our research, we found a number of questions relating to the use of bug sprays that crop up quite often. They are answered below.

Q. How does bug spray work?

Many bugs are attracted to the carbon dioxide we give off when we breathe out or perspire. Bug sprays applied to the skin work in two ways. First, they mask the carbon dioxide, making it more difficult for the bug to detect you. Second, they often include fragrances that bugs find unpleasant, even if we do not.

Q. Can you buy bug spray for dogs and other pets?

You can. Fortunately, pet-safe bug spray is widely available. Those designed for humans should not be used on pets. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, DEET is toxic to pets, as are some essential oils. If in doubt, speak to your veterinarian.

Q. What can you spray in the house for bugs?

Home-defense bug spray products can be bought for a variety of purposes. Bed bug sprays are widely available, as are insecticides. Natural products are generally safest, though it’s important to read application instructions. A 50/50 mix of vinegar and water can be effective as a repellent. Soapy water often works when sprayed directly onto bugs.

Q. What scent keeps most bugs away?

Opinions do vary, but the scent used in the majority of natural bug sprays is lemon eucalyptus. Citronella, catnip, geranium, lavender, and clove are popular alternatives.

Why Trust Bob Vila 

Bob Vila has been America’s Handyman since 1979. As the host of beloved and groundbreaking TV series including “This Old House” and “Bob Vila’s Home Again,” he popularized and became synonymous with “do-it-yourself” home improvement.

Researcher and product specialist Bob Beacham has been writing consumer advice articles for national publications for more than a decade. He covers a wide variety of home, garden, and outdoor-related subjects and is known for providing information that is thorough yet easy to understand.