Everyone in the house is fast asleep but me – I am busy scratching my itchy skin covered in mosquito bites. As a child, I took those for granted as an indispensable part of summer holidays. Nowadays, however, there are all sorts of insect repellents that protect you from annoying bugs. Scratching and ugly swollen skin bumps are not the only things they can save you from. They can also save you from contracting dangerous diseases. Therefore, this non-toxic bug spray guide will help you find the best bug repellent for you and your family. Keep reading to learn the difference between the best repellents in disease-carrying bug areas and areas with no known risk of insect-borne diseases.
Why use a non-toxic bug spray
Well, the answer to this question may range between the innocent “to enjoy the outdoors” to the more serious “to protect your health.”
To clarify, mosquitos, ticks, and fleas can spread germs causing such diseases as dengue, Zika, Lyme, and plague. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) point out that between 2004 and 2016, more than 640,000 cases of these diseases were reported in the US. Additionally, during this period, 9 new germs spread by bites from infected mosquitoes and ticks were discovered or introduced in the US (source).
Moreover, the CDC warns Americans about an increase in the number of tickborne diseases. According to the CDC, the geographic areas in which ticks are found are expanding, and a novel tick species has been found in the US. Also, there are discoveries of new disease-causing germs, leading to new reports of tick-borne illnesses (source).
Hence, the CDC encourages everyone to take steps to help protect themselves from mosquito and tick bites. The first step is to use a bug repellent registered by the US Environmental Protection Agency.
The worst insect repellents
To begin with, in this non-toxic bug spray guide, you will learn how to identify the best bug repellent by eliminating unsafe ingredients. Therefore, let us first look into the worst and bad categories of bug sprays. After this, we will talk about the better and best ones.
This group includes insect repellents using ingredients such as DEET in concentrations of nearly 100%. For example, the following products contain 98.11% DEET (the maximum amount allowed by law):
- Coleman Max 100 Percent DEET Insect Repellent
- Sawyer Maxi Deet
- Repel 100 Insect Repellent
- 10 Hour DEET Insect Repellent
What is DEET?
First, DEET is the chemical N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide and is an active ingredient in some common pest repellents. Admittedly, it provides significant protection against mosquito and tick-borne illnesses, including Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (carried by ticks), and West Nile Virus and Zika Virus (spread by mosquitos).
Second, it is important to know that DEET concentration in commercial products varies according to country and can range from 4 to 98.11% in the United States. It should be noted that a higher percentage of DEET does not mean stronger coverage. All DEET repellents give the same coverage, and the percentage corresponds to how long the protection will last. For example, with 25% and 98.11% DEET, the protection will last six and ten hours respectively.
However, in my opinion, we cannot call a DEET containing product the best bug repellent in this non-toxic bug spray guide, and here is why.
Health effects of DEET
On the one hand, numerous studies show there are no unreasonable adverse effects on people or the environment with normal use of DEET products. In other words, if you choose the appropriate percentage for your activity and follow the label instructions, you will be fine. But on the other hand, the US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) Toxicological Profile for DEET presents studies that show connection between DEET and adverse health effects.
Neurological effects of DEET
First, the ATSDR Toxicological Profile for DEET describes a study of 20,764 human exposures to insect repellents with DEET. Those cases were reported to poison control centers between 1993 and 1997. Out of them, 2,179 cases of exposure happened through skin contact. Of these, 118 showed minor neurologic symptoms such as dizziness/vertigo, headache, and drowsiness/lethargy. However, there were severe symptoms among these cases, too. They included tremors (15 cases), single seizures (8), muscle weakness (10), muscle rigidity (5), peripheral neuropathy (5), slurred speech (3), and paralysis (1).
Dermal effects of DEET
Second, the Toxicological Profile for DEET examines a case with a group of soldiers who developed acute dermatitis as a reaction to DEET. They applied an insect repellent containing 50% DEET before sleep to the uncovered skin of the face, neck, upper part of the trunk, and legs, and had a severe reaction 18–24 hours after the application.
It seems that the mentioned health concerns are enough to see that a DEET containing spray cannot be the best bug repellent in this non-toxic bug spray guide. But there is more.
Fatalities due to DEET
Above all, five deaths have been associated with dermal exposure to DEET and three of them occurred in children. Thus, a 5-year-old girl developed severe headaches after having been sprayed nightly for almost 3 months with an insect repellent containing 10% DEET. An autopsy revealed generalized edema of the brain with intense congestion of the brain and meninges.
The second case was a 6-year-old girl who in response to repeated black fly bites used a spray containing 15% DEET on at least 10 occasions on extensive areas of skin. An autopsy showed edematous brain.
The third case was a 17-month-old girl who was admitted to the hospital with a diagnosis of acute encephalopathy. During 3 weeks prior to admission, the child had received repeated applications of a lotion containing DEET.
Lastly, the two deaths of a 26-year-old male and a 34-year-old female follow dermal exposure to >50% DEET (source).
In short, I do not see the need for DEET with very high concentrations in your repellent. Even in high-risk areas when you have to use DEET for protection, choose the lowest percentage possible and just re-apply it when necessary.
The bad bug repellents
In our search for the best bug repellent in this non-toxic bug spray guide, we keep eliminating those that are unsafe and unnecessary. Hence, in my opinion, the criteria for the bad bug repellents are as follows:
- More than 30% DEET
- Bug repellent and sunscreen in one
- Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus
For example, the following products belong in this group:
- Repel Insect Repellent Sportsmen Max Formula (40% DEET)
- Cutter Backwoods High DEET Insect Repellent Aerosol (40% DEET)
- Bull Frog Mosquito Coast Sunscreen with Insect Repellent Continuous Spray, SPF 30 (Sunscreen)
- Avon Skin So Soft Bug Guard Plus IR3535® Expedition™ SPF 30 Pump Spray (Sunscreen)
Having already discussed DEET, let us focus on the remaining three criteria.
Bug repellent with sunscreen
To begin with, both insect repellents with sunscreen – Bull Frog and Avon – contain the same chemical UV filters that I recommend avoiding in a sunscreen. They are:
- Octocrylene 10.0%
- Octinoxate 7.5%
- Oxybenzone 6.0%
- Octisalate 5.0%
In a nutshell, all UV filters are divided into two categories: chemical and mineral. My recommendation is to use mineral ones, specifically zinc oxide, because it is the safest and most effective filter. Alternatively, chemical substances, such as the ones above, may have a harmful effect on the body and the environment. If you are looking for a safe and effective sunscreen with UVA protection, please check out my Best Non-Toxic Face Sunscreen Guide.
There is another reason, however, that prevents me from calling a repellent-and-sunscreen-in-one the best bug repellent in this non-toxic bug spray guide.
On average, you must re-apply sunscreen every two hours, whereas the bug repellent reapplication interval is longer. Thus, if you re-apply your insect repellent every two hours to refresh your sunscreen protection, you automatically overexpose yourself to the active ingredient of the repellent regardless of what it is (by the way, it is IR 3535 in these products, which we will discuss later). Therefore, neither the Environmental Working Group (EWG) nor I recommend you use a sunscreen and repellent in one.
Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus and PMD
To start with, oil of lemon eucalyptus originated as an extract of the eucalyptus tree native to Australia. The tree extract is refined to intensify the concentration of the naturally occurring substance para-menthane-3,8-diol, also known as PMD, from 1 to 65 percent (source). The resulting oil is very different from the unprocessed oil.
The Cutter Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent Aerosol contains 30% of oil of lemon eucalyptus. And the Off Botanicals Insect Repellent IV is comprised of 10% synthetic PMD. These active ingredients do not provide robust protection so if you are in an area with dangerous bugs (see below), you might not want to use them. In addition, the CDC warns against use on children younger than 3 years old. Some chemicals in the extract, such as citronellol, may cause an allergic reaction.
Thus, in my opinion, oil of lemon eucalyptus and PMD have disadvantages and are not appropriate for all situations. And if you are looking for the best bug repellent with botanicals, keep reading.
The better non-toxic bug spray
This guide is different from other guides I have published; it has two groups of “better” and two groups of “best.” To clarify, I divided the products by their properties into those that, in my opinion, will work best in the disease-carrying bug areas and in the areas with no known risk of insect-borne diseases.
To determine the level of risk for the area you live in (or plan on visiting), please follow the links below. There you will see the number of reported cases for each virus in the US in the past, maps indicating the virus distribution, and additional information which will help you draw a conclusion about your area.
For tick-borne disease areas:
For mosquito-borne disease areas:
- West Nile virus – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- Zika virus – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- Dengue virus – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- Other mosquito-borne diseases – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention –
Once you get an understanding about the risk level in your area, it will be easier for you to make a choice from the best bug repellent options in this non-toxic bug spray guide.
The better insect repellents for high-risk areas
The criterion for these products is 7-30% DEET concentration. To protect yourself from Zika, you do not need more than 30% DEET (source).
As I mentioned above, DEET is effective in repelling dangerous insects when used according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Hence, if you have no safer choice, you can decide to use one of the following:
- Cutter All Family Spray Repellent (DEET 7%)
- Cutter Dry Insect Repellent Unscented (DEET 10%)
- Off Deep Woods Sportsmen II (DEET 30%)
- Off Family Care Smooth & Dry (DEET 15%)
- Cutter Backwoods Repellent (DEET 25%)
- 3M Ultrathon Insect Repellent (DEET 25%)
- Cutter Skinsations Insect Repellent Aerosol (DEET 7%)
- Cutter Sport Insect Repellent (DEET 15%)
- Off Deep Woods Insect Repellent VIII Dry (DEET 25%)
Please, remember that in high-risk areas, it is more important to protect yourself from a disease-carrying bug than to dwell on the potential effects of the ingredient on your health. So, for lack of the best bug repellent, use one with a lower DEET concentration.
The better non-toxic bug spray for use in no-risk areas
The criteria for this group include:
- Picaridin in concentrations of 5-10%
- IR3535 in concentrations of 20% or less
For instance, the following products contain these active ingredients:
- OFF!® Family Care Insect Repellent II with Picaridin (5%)
- Avon Skin So Soft Bug Guard Plus Picaridin Aerosol Spray (10%)
- Coleman SkinSmart Insect Repellent (20% IR 3535)
First, a 2018 comparative review of DEET and picaridin mosquito repellency found no significant difference in performance after considering more than 140 field and laboratory studies.
In contrast to DEET, picaridin has very low inhalation toxicity, is not known to irritate skin, and does not have a pungent odor (source). Plus, it evaporates from the skin more slowly than DEET or IR3535 and may repel bugs for longer periods.
A review of reports to the National Poison Data System between 2000 and 2015 found that unintentional ingestion of picaridin-containing insect repellents was associated only with minor toxicity that was managed outside of a health-care facility. In addition, picaridin does not carry the same neurotoxicity concerns as DEET.
EPA registration data indicate that at a concentration of 10%, picaridin is effective for five to 12 hours (source).
Overall, in my opinion, picaridin is a great alternative to DEET with many of the same advantages and without DEET’s disadvantages. That is why products with 10 to 20% picaridin made it into the best bug repellent category of this non-toxic bug spray guide for disease-carrying bug areas.
The full chemical name of IR 3535 is 3-[N-Butyl-N-acetyl]-aminopropionic acid, ethyl ester. Though IR3535 can be very irritating to the eyes, it poses few other safety risks. Formulations with 10% to 30% IR3535 are recommended to repel biting insects and ticks (source).
In addition, a comprehensive review of public efficacy studies completed between 2000 and 2013 found the performance of IR3535 to be similar or slightly less effective than DEET and picaridin against mosquitoes. Against deer ticks, IR3535 provided over twice the mean protection time of DEET, picaridin or Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus (source).
As I mentioned above, this chemical is often an active ingredient of sunscreens and repellents in one. And I recommend avoiding such products. Other than that, IR3535 is a good option that should provide strong enough mosquito and tick repellency.
The best bug repellent
Again, there are two groups in the “best” category – repellents for disease-carrying bug areas and for areas with no known risk of insect-borne diseases.
The best non-toxic bug spray to use in high-risk areas
The criterion for these products is 10-20% picaridin concentration, and the products with such picaridin concentrations are:
- Avon Skin So Soft Bug Guard Plus Picaridin Aerosol Spray (10%)
- Proven Insect Repellent Spray – Odorless (20%)
- Natrapel®12-hour 6 oz. Continuous Spray (20%)
- Sawyer Picaridin Insect Repellent Spray (20%)
- Ranger Ready Repellent (20%)
- Ben’s® Tick Repellent 6 oz. Eco-Spray® (20%)
In comparison to DEET, picaridin is a much safer choice. As we discussed above, it does not possess the pungent smell of DEET. Neither does it cause the same neurotoxicity concerns as DEET.
Additionally, EPA data suggest that at a concentration of 20%, picaridin is effective against mosquitoes and ticks for eight to 14 hours, and at a concentration of 10%, for five to 12 hours (source).
Nevertheless, I am not a hundred percent excited about the products in this group. My pet peeve is that none of them has a full list of ingredients. The only product that gives us a peek into what it consists of other than picaridin is Sawyer Picaridin Insect Repellent Spray with 20% picaridin and 27-33% ethanol.
Therefore, if you happen to come across a picaridin bug repellent with a disclosed full list of ingredients, please let us know in the comments.
The best bug repellent for no-risk areas
The products in this category consist of essential oils. Five of them are non-toxic bug spray repellents and one is a balm.
- Pure Haven
- Mountain Mel’s Quit Buggin’
- Badger Anti-Bug Spray
- California Baby Natural Blend Bug Repellent
- Greenerways Organic Bug Repellent
- Kosmatology Bug Repellent Balm
The safest insect repellents are made with essential oils. However, not all essential oils are safe.
Thus, the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy has published a list of essential oils that are best to use in highly diluted form or avoid using altogether throughout pregnancy, labor, and breastfeeding. You can read more about this here.
Further, please exercise special caution with the use of the following oils on babies and young children:
- Betula Lenta (Birch)
- Gaultheria Procumbens (Wintergreen)
- Eucalyptus Globulus (Eucalyptus)
- Mentha Piperita (Peppermint)
However, these essential oils are also effective bug repellents. Four of the safest bug repellents I have found include one or two of these essential oils.
Let us look at the ingredients of the best bug repellent options made with essential oils.
Pure Haven non-toxic bug spray
Pure Haven Bug Off Spray: Water, Alcohol (Organic Cane), Caprylic/Capric Triglycerides, Mentha Piperita (Organic Peppermint) Oil, Glycerin (Organic), Hamamelis Virginiana (Organic Witch Hazel) Extract, Rosmarinus Officinalis (Rosemary) Leaf Oil, Juniperus Virginiana (Cedarwood) Oil, Cymbopogon Nardus (Citronella) Oil, Eugenia Caryophyllus (Clove) Leaf Oil, Pelargonium Graveolens (Geranium) Oil, Eucalyptus Globulus (Eucalyptus) Oil, Cymbopogon Flexuosus (Lemongrass) Leaf Oil, Citrus Aurantium Bergamia (Bergamot) Fruit Oil, Coriandrum Sativum Oil (Coriander), Ocimum Basilicum Oil (Basil), Bulnesia Sarmientoi Oil (Guaiac Wood), Salvia Sclarea Oil (Clary Sage), Citrus Limon Peel Oil (Lemon), Lavandula Hybrida Oil (Lavandin).
As you can see, it contains Eucalyptus Globulus (Eucalyptus) and Mentha Piperita (Peppermint) oils. I like the fact that some of the oils are organic. Although I have not used this spray, I have used other products by Pure Haven. My favorites are Pure Haven Shampoo and Conditioner. You can read about them in my post The Best Safest Shampoo.
Mountain Mel’s non-toxic bug spray
Mountain Mel’s Quit Buggin’: Soja Hispida (Soybean Oil)*, Essential Oils Of: Pelargonium Graveolens (Geranium), Nepeta Cataria (Catnip), Cymbopogon Flexuosus (Lemongrass), Eucalyptus Globulus (Eucalyptus)*, Ocimum Basilicum (Basil) & Lots Of Love*! *Organic Ingredients.
There is Eucalyptus Globulus (Eucalyptus) oil in this product, but all the oils are organic, which is great. Also, I like the fact that the list of ingredients is not that lengthy. Besides, soybean oil in this best bug repellent option is one of the few oils that do not contain known human allergens identified by the European Commission Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety.
Badger non-toxic bug spray
Badger Anti-Bug Shake & Spray: Organic Soybean Oil, Organic Castor Oil, Organic Citronella Oil, Organic Cedar Oil, Organic Lemongrass Oil, Organic Rosemary Oil, Organic Geranium Oil, Organic Peppermint Oil, Water, Organic Wintergreen Oil.
First, this bug spray is certified organic. Second, the first ingredient is soybean oil that we mentioned in the previous product. But it does contain peppermint and wintergreen oils.
California Baby non-toxic bug spray
California Baby Natural Bug Blend Bug Repellent: Organic Essential Oils of Cymbopogon Nardus (Citronella) 5%, Cymbopogon Schoenanthus (Lemongrass) 0.5%, Cedrus Atlantica (Cedar) 0.5%, Water, Lecithin, Organic Quillaja Saponaria Extract (Soap Bark), Vegetable Glycerin.
The main essential oil here is 5% organic citronella, which probably means that it smells like citronella. Additionally, there is none of the four essential oils listed above that can cause problems for babies or young children.
Greenerways organic non-toxic bug spray
Greenerways Organic Bug Repellent: Citronella Oil*, Lemongrass Oil*, Soybean Oil*, Peppermint Oil*, Cedarwood Oil*, Thyme*. *Organic Ingredient
There are only six ingredients in this product, and all of them are organic. Hence, this non-toxic bug spray is USDA-certified organic. It contains soybean oil that has no human allergens (source). On the other hand, it does have peppermint oil from the list above.
Kosmatology best bug repellent
Kosmatology Bug Repellent Balm: Organic Rosmarinus Officinalis (Rosemary) 1.8%, Organic Thymus Vulgaris (Thyme) 0.4%, Organic Syzygium Aromaticum (Clove) 0.45%, Organic Cinnamomum Verum (Cinnamon) 0.05%, Organic Pelargonium Graveolens (Rose Geranium) Essential Oil 0.2%, Organic Cocos Nucifera (Coconut) Oil, Euphorbia Cerifera (Candelilla) Wax, Organic Butyrospermum Parkii (Shea) Butter, Sambucus Nigra Fruit Extract, Tocopherol (Vitamin E), Organic Citrus Limon (Lemon) Essential Oil, Organic Lavandula Angustifolia (Lavender) Essential Oil.
This is the only balm out of the insect spray options. There are a lot of organic ingredients and no oils of concern. Also, I like the fact that it is a balm because it helps essential oils to stay on your skin longer.
Conclusion about non-toxic bug spray
To sum up, the choice of a bug repellent depends largely on the place and purpose you are going to use it for. Thus, in my opinion, in disease-carrying bug areas, repellents with picaridin are an optimal choice. In the absence of picaridin repellents, a lower concentration of DEET will do. On the other hand, if your area has no known risk of insect-borne disease, the safest choice is repellents made with essential oils. However, knowing that essential oils may cause allergies, please consider your health condition to make the best choice for yourself.
Lastly, check out my shop for non-toxic products for your home and family. Also, feel free to book a consultation for help to identify solutions that work for your health, budget, and appetite for change.
Let's start creating a healthy home today!
When you join the I Read Labels For You community, you'll receive weekly emails with inspiration, exclusive content and coupons to gain clarity and confidence to create a healthy home. Plus, you'll get the FREE guide: "5 Powerful Steps to a Non-Toxic Home You Can Take Today!"
"I find your knowledge so helpful, to the point and like a gold mine. You have saved me so much time and have taught me so much.” Toni