In this guide:
Scientists will tell you that this world really belongs to insects, we’re just sharing it with them. And you can test that by sending your kid outside in summer.
Mosquitoes, flies, gnats, chiggers, ticks — there’s no end of biting bugs out there, but fortunately, there is also a huge variety of repellents.
Whether you want to go for the power of DEET, or you’d prefer something more natural, we’ve rounded up the best mosquito repellent for kids.
No Bite Me Cream
This effective little number works both as an insect repellent and a soothing cream for itchy bug bites.View on Amazon
How old should a child be before using insect repellents?
The Centers for Disease Control recommends two months as the minimum age for applying insect repellent. Before that, babies can be protected by draping them in mosquito netting. Some repellents, especially those based on stronger essential oils such as oil of lemon eucalyptus, are not recommended for use on kids under 3. When in doubt, read the directions.
Which repellent is best for me and my kid?
The choice of insect repellent can be a very personal one. As anyone who has spent time in a buggy area knows, some people are naturally attractive to biting insects, and others receive barely any interest from our pesky friends. It’s a matter of your personal scent and body chemistry, and different repellents will interact differently with those factors. Don’t be afraid to experiment until you find what works!
What Types of Insect Repellents Are Available?
The most common insect repellents on the market fall into one of these classes:
1. Chemical Repellents
Whether applied by spray or rubbed on, most chemical repellents use one of three active ingredients.
- DEET. This is the best known and, for a long time, most effective insect repellent, which you can find in many different concentration strengths. You shouldn’t use a concentration higher than 30% on kids, and a lower concentration (10%-20%) is more suitable for short play sessions in the backyard. Note that concentrations above 30% aren’t any stronger — they just last longer.1Fradin, M. S., & Day, J. F. (2002).Comparative efficacy of insect repellents against mosquito bites. New England Journal of Medicine, 347(1), 13-18.
DEET should also not be applied to kids more than once a day. (DEET-containing repellents frequently have that unforgettable bug-spray smell and can feel greasy and sticky on the skin — better formulations can avoid those problems, however. Also note that DEET can melt some plastics, so be careful if your kid has a plastic playset!)
- Essential oils. These appeal to parents who prefer natural ingredients, and can include the well-known citronella oil as well as peppermint, cedarwood, lemongrass, and more. However, essential oils aren’t as strong or anywhere near as long-lasting as DEET. Only one essential oil, lemon eucalyptus, is actually approved by the Centers for Disease Control as an insect repellent. Also, be warned that more floral-scented essential oil compounds may actually end up attracting bees and wasps that are hunting for flowers (Another class of repellent chemicals, including PMD, IR535, and 2-undecanone, are synthetic versions of essential oils and other plant-based materials. While these don’t qualify as organic or natural, they do work similarly to pure essential oils. PMD, a synthetic version of lemon eucalyptus oil, is particularly effective.)
- Picaridin. This is a synthetic chemical repellent derived from pepper plants. Picaridin has the advantage of being odorless and non-greasy, doesn’t have DEET’s negative effect on plastics, and testing has shown that it’s just as effective as DEET in equal amounts.2Van Roey, K., Sokny, M., Denis, L., Van den Broeck, N., Heng, S., Siv, S., … & Durnez, L. (2014).Field evaluation of picaridin repellents reveals differences in repellent sensitivity between Southeast Asian vectors of malaria and arboviruses. PLoS Negl Trop Dis, 8(12),e3326.
Picaridin is relatively new in the United States, although it’s been used for about a decade in Europe and elsewhere with good results. Many major US repellent manufacturers are now bringing out picaridin-based formulations for those who distrust DEET.
2. Wearable insect repellents:
Online, you can find no end of bracelets and wristbands that promise to repel insects, usually from being soaked in DEET or essential oils. These are attractive to parents who don’t want to go through the struggle of slathering their kids with lotions or sprays, as well as those who are concerned about chemical exposure. There’s only one problem: these devices are worthless. They have been repeatedly tested and failed, and several manufacturers of these devices have been fined for false claims. Putting a repellent device on just one wrist is not going to protect your kid’s entire body. Save your money.
One form of wearable that does work is a belt clip-on device that periodically releases puffs of bug-repellent chemical into the air around the wearer. Still, this gadget will never be as effective as repellent applied directly to the skin, and is a lot easier for your kid to lose.
3. Ultrasonic mosquito repellers
These devices supposedly drive insects away with high-frequency sounds that are inaudible to humans but unbearable to bugs. In truth, these are an even bigger scam than wristbands. Any effect they might have is weak and limited, and you probably won’t notice a difference at all. Avoid like — well, like insect-borne diseases.
Is DEET safe for kids?
Many people believe that DEET is a dangerous toxin, possibly due to confusion with the banned pesticide DDT. In reality, DEET has been tested and used since World War II, on both kids and adults. Studies have shown again and again that DEET is generally safe when applied to skin. There have been some rare cases of people having a bad reaction to DEET, but those reactions are usually no worse than irritated skin. As long as DEET is applied following the instructions and is not inhaled or ingested, it is safe. However, if you’re still concerned about DEET, there are plenty of non-DEET bug repellent options to choose from.
How do I apply bug repellent to my kid?
Always read the instructions first!
If your kid is also going to be wearing sunscreen, put the sunscreen on first, wait for 15 minutes, and then put the repellent.
Repellent should be applied to clothing and all exposed skin — bugs can, and will, bite through clothes. Do not, however, apply repellent on areas that will be covered by clothing, since this can lead to skin irritation.
If you’re using a spray repellent, apply it in a well-ventilated area so the fumes don’t build up. You should never try to spray repellent directly onto your kid’s skin. Instead, spray it on your own hands and then spread it on exposed skin yourself to ensure a smooth, even application. Don’t put repellent around the eyes or mouth, or on skin that has cuts or irritations, and only apply a little around the ears. And don’t apply repellent to your kid’s hands — you should know by now how often those hands end up in their mouth!
Try to follow the same pattern every time you apply repellent to your kid. If they know what to expect, they can be more cooperative.
Resist the temptation to over-reapply repellents. Your kid will let you know when it’s time to reapply when the bugs start biting again. The repellents on this list should be good for at least a couple of hours, although that duration can be shortened if your kid goes swimming or gets sweaty.
Once your kid is done playing outside, wash the repellent-treated skin with soap and water, and wash their clothes before re-wearing. And don’t forget to wash your hands too.
Stay safe when using repellants.
- Never apply a repellent to wounds or irritated skin.
- Don’t spray in closed spaces, like a car.
- Make sure your kid does not breathe in a repellent spray.
- And lastly, avoid using repellent near food.
And lastly, avoid using repellent near food.
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This No Bite Cream Jar (check price on Amazon) does double duty: it works as an insect repellent, and it also soothes the itching caused by bug bites if any of them get through the protection. It’s another all-natural essential oil-based product, including cedar, mint, thyme, lemongrass, and other oils, and no DEET or additives, and promises 4-5 hours of protection per application.
One thing that makes this especially good when dealing with kids — instead of a spray, it’s a cream that’s meant to be applied by hand. This can be useful for kids who don’t like the feel or fumes of a spray. That said, the No Bite Me Cream also has an extremely pungent herbal odor, which some kids may object to. If you can deal with the smell, however, it does do a great job of keeping the bugs off.
What They’ll Love: Easy to apply and no itchiness!
Best Repellent with Sunscreen Upgrade Choice
The Avon Skin-So-Soft Bug Guard (check price on Amazon) combines three application substances — a moisturizer, SPF 30 sunscreen, and a synthetic (non-DEET) insect repellent — in a non-greasy lotion. This makes it a great choice in situations where you also want to protect your kid’s skin from sun exposure, since you only have to deal with one application. Skin-So-Soft also smells great and not particularly strong, which can be an advantage if your kid reacts badly to the more powerful smells of DEET and/or plant oil-based repellents.
However, it also doesn’t last as long as some of the other repellents on this list; the manufacturer recommends reapplying it every two hours, more often if your kid gets sweaty and/or goes in the water. This is probably too often to reapply bug repellent, and one reason the CDC doesn’t recommend mixed sunscreen/repellent combos. Still, if you’re planning to limit your bug and sun exposure, Skin-So-Soft can be an easy way to protect your kid against multiple environmental hazards.
What They’ll Love: Classic appealing smell in an easily applied lotion
Best Budget Buy
As noted above, oil of lemon eucalyptus (check price on Amazon) is the only essential oil-based repellent that the CDC recommends. So if you want an effective repellent that doesn’t depend on DEET, this is an excellent choice. The manufacturer promises six hours of protection. However, you have to be careful to apply it properly — don’t just spritz it on and expect it to work. You have to spread it over the entire area you want to protect. And you’d better hope your kid likes lemon scents, because this repellent has a very strong smell!
REPEL also has the advantage of being half the price, or less, of most of the other repellents on this list, so it’s naturally our Best Budget Buy for parents who want to balance effectiveness with economy. If your kid isn’t planning to spend long periods of time outside, you’ll still get your money’s worth.
What They’ll Love: Great (if powerful) smell and non-sticky application.
Watch Out For: Like many essential oil-based repellents, this may not be able to handle heavily buggy areas.
Best Repellent Candle
By themselves, repellent candles (check price on Amazon) don’t offer the best bug protection, especially if your kid tends to roam around (and outside the range of the candle). However, they’re still useful as a supplement to other forms of repellent to keep your kid extra safe, and can work well enough for brief times outdoors.
Of the ones we’ve tried, we chose Murphy’s Naturals as our Best Repellent Candle. It’s made of all-natural soy and beeswax. Its bug-repelling power comes from a 5% concentration of various plant-based oils, such as peppermint, rosemary, and citronella. The candle’s effective area is about 10 x 10, so you may need more than one if you have a larger yard. However, each candle gives you about 30 hours of burning time, so you should more than get your money’s worth.
Murphy’s also makes incense sticks and tea-light candles with the same formulation. While they don’t burn as long as the big candle, they can be useful to screen a larger area with bug-repellent odors.
What They’ll Love: Easy to use, and it smells great.
Watch Out For: It’s a burning object near your kid. Be sure to supervise.
Best Sweat Proof
Okay, the bugs are thick and biting hard and possibly carrying off small housepets, and you have no time to waste faffing around with essential oils. You want the heavy artillery, and this is it. The Sawyer Ultra 30 Insect Repellent (check price on Amazon) includes a 30% concentration of DEET in a time-release formulation that offers up to 11 hours of bug protection.
Even better, the lotion is odorless, so no bug spray stink for your kid to complain about. It’s also non-greasy and works even when applied with sunscreen. Our testing has also found that this is the Best Sweat Proof repellent on the list. If it’s hot or you’re planning to go into the water, using this repellent will minimize the number of times you have to reapply.
It may be overkill if you’re just sending your kid out to the backyard to play for a little while, but if you’re camping or fishing or just going on a nature walk, the Ultra 30 repellent can be a real skin saver for your kid, not to mention you.
What They’ll Love: If this doesn’t keep the bugs away, nothing will.
Watch Out For: This is a strong concentration. While it shouldn’t cause skin irritation, be careful applying it.
Another essential oil-based repellent for those who prefer to avoid DEET. Sky Organics (check price on Amazon) also advertises this spray as vegan and cruelty-free; it includes no alcohol or other additives, just organically derived essential oils including citronella, lemongrass, peppermint, lavender, sandalwood, and others. If the purity of what you put on your kid’s skin is important to you, this is worth a look.
Unlike many other essential oil-based repellents, however, Sky Organics’s spray has some actual lasting power. The manufacturer promises four hours of protection time, which should be enough to keep your kid safe for a nice long outdoor play session.
What They’ll Love: Safe, effective, and sweet-smelling!
Watch Out For: This product doesn’t have as strong a protective “aura” as some other sprays, so be careful not to miss a spot when applying. Spreading it with your fingers works well.
Best for Travel
Another essential oil-based repellent for those who prefer to avoid DEET. Sky Organics Clip-On Mosquito Repellent (check price on Amazon) is meant as an alternative to skin-applied protection. Instead of spraying yourself, this device uses a battery-powered fan to fill the air around you with repellent. It’s small and lightweight enough that you can clip it to your kid’s waistband or belt and forget about it.
The major drawback with this device is that if your kid moves, they’ll be leaving the protected area, and it will take a few minutes for the Clip-On to fog the new area again. Thus, this is best suited for situations where your kid won’t be moving around much, such as eating dinner outside or playing in a sandbox.
The Clip-On uses a chemical called metofluthrin, which repels mosquitoes; note that this will not be much of a help against ticks or other hungry bugs. However, it offers 12 hours of mosquito protection per refill disk. Since it doesn’t use liquid repellent, we also call this our Best for Travel, since you won’t have to worry about getting tripped up by airport security’s 3-ounces-of-liquid rule.
What They’ll Love: No smell, no unpleasant application to the skin, and no having to wash up afterward.
Watch Out For: Easy for kids, especially smaller kids, to lose and/or break.
Best DEET Free
These cute lion stickers (check price on Amazon) are infused with lemon and citronella essential oils to keep the bugs at bay. They are not meant to be applied directly to the skin, but can be attached to kids’ clothing. This makes them an excellent choice for protecting babies who are too young for skin-applied repellents; they can be put on sun hats, shirts, or pants for protection.
That said, like many of the other alternative repellents on this list, these stickers just aren’t as good as skin-based repellents, unless you have enough to competely cover your kid in stickers. And of course, you do have to worry about curious kids peeling them off. (Tip: Put them on the back where they can’t see and/or reach them.)
Still, we consider this the best DEET-Free alternative on this list because they’re a fun and easy way to keep your kid bug-safe. If your kid has chemical sensitivity, these stickers offer a way to keep them bug-safe without putting their health at risk.
What They’ll Love: A fun sticker that also helps protect against bug bites!
Watch Out For: Don’t expect that one sticker is going to be enough to protect the entire kid. Two or three at a time is more reasonable.
Best for babies
The Babyganics Natural (check price on Amazon) is another entry in the all-organic, DEET-free essential oil repellent category, this one uses peppermint, citronella, lemongrass, rosemary, and other oils. As the name suggests, this marketed for babies and smaller kids, and should be especially gentle on sensitive skin. Its oily base makes it spread easily, so a very little can go a long way.
The manufacturer also produces insect repellent wipes, which can make your life easier if your baby won’t sit still for a spray, and also make achieving total coverage simpler. The recommended reapplication rate is every two hours, so it isn’t as enduring as some of the products on this list but is still decent for an essential oil formulation. We’ve selected this as our Best for Babies (over two months, remember!) because of how it balances ease of application and skin safety with repelling power.
What They’ll Love: A simple, effective bug repellent that even the smallest can enjoy.
Watch Out For: This is another strong-scented product. While it isn’t bad (mostly citronella-lemon smell), it can take some getting used to.
And the winner is…
While all of these repellents have their pros and cons, and one of them just might turn out to be the perfect one for your kid, SallyeAnder’s No Bite Cream (check price on Amazon) is our Editor’s Choice. It’s easy to use, feels great on the skin, lasts a long time, and works well to both keep bugs of all types away and soothe itches if a bug manages to sneak through. All that and it’s all-natural too!