Mosquitoes are not only annoying pests, but they can carry some nasty viruses. Many insect repellents, however, contain a long list of harmful ingredients that can be damaging to you and the environment. What kind of bug spray is effective, yet safe? How can you best protect yourself from mosquitoes and ticks this summer? What is the best non-toxic bug spray?
Keep reading for your safety guide on bug spray!
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Why Is Bug Protection Important?
There’s a long list of mosquito and tick-borne illnesses that are essential to be aware of, especially during the summer! From Lyme, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Zika, Malaria, West Nile & more – these diseases are extremely serious and found all over the globe. Precautions should be taken at all times, especially during the warmer months between April to August, to prevent exposure.
What Are The Common Compounds Found In Bug Repellents?
- EPA lists it within the “Toxicity Category III” meaning it’s “slightly toxic” 
- Has been implicated in seizures and neurological symptoms among children, as well as skin irritation, rashes, nausea, headaches, dizziness, difficulty concentrating… [2, 3]
- Limit use, especially on children
- Absorbs quickly through the skin – 48% within 6 hours 
- Breaks down slowly in the environment & contaminates groundwater
- No need to use a concentration over 15-30% (avoid repellents with more than 30% DEET). The higher the percentage, the longer it lasts – it has no impact on efficacy.
- Use it once and provides all-day protection
- The most popular bug-protection option
- The best protection against mosquito bites, but not always the safest option
- Note: many DEET products market themselves as “deep woods.”
- Likely carcinogenic and neurotoxic [5, 6]
- Also linked to nausea, headache, muscle weakness, shortness of breath, seizures…
- Highly toxic to the environment, especially fish and bees
- Permethrin-treated clothing is useful in very infested or high-risk areas, but wash them separately from other clothing
- Toxic – so use very carefully and wisely, only when very necessary
- Never to be used directly on your skin
- 20% concentration provides all-day protection (8-14 hours), while 15% is effective for 5-12 hours
- Opt for the sprays with picaridin, which are more effective than lotions or wipes
- Very little health effects, according to this 2016 study 
- Safer risk profile than DEET and just as effective
- This is my preferred chemical for effective bug spray
4. Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus (OLE)
- Active compound = p-menthane-3,8-diol (PMD)
- Endorsed by the CDC
- Different than unrefined lemon eucalyptus essential oil – don’t get them confused!
- Not for children younger than 3 – research is limited (avoid with young children)
- The most effective botanical ingredient
- Not recommended to protect against West Nile virus or sand flies
5. IR3535 and 2-Undecanone
- Less effective
- Should not be used where Malaria is a concern 
- May cause mild skin irritation
- Provides about 4-8 hours of protection time
- Found in yard foggers
- Resembles DDT
- Linked to neurotoxicity, blood glucose changes, muscle trembling, behavior changes, coordination issues…
- Accumulates in fatty tissue
- Harmful to the environment, especially fish and bees
- Avoid this at all costs!
7. Other Botanicals
- Like lemongrass oil, citronella oil, thyme oil, clove oil, soybean oil…
- Must be properly diluted with carrier oils, like coconut oil
- Be careful with incense sticks – many of them can be toxic to inhale.
- It will need to be applied more frequently
- These are not registered with the EPA, so efficacy is not guaranteed
The CDC has approved DEET, Picaridin, IR3535, OLE, PMD, and 2-undecanone as repellent options. They have a search tool: here. Most bug repellents are actually classified as pesticides.
Additional Outdoor Safety Tips
- The most important: use only as directed according to the spray bottle
- Wear long-sleeved, baggy clothing & tuck your pants into your socks. Tight clothing can oftentimes be bit through (definitely no yoga pants).
- Wear lighter-colored clothing, since mosquitos are attracted to the color black 
- Apply the bug spray to your clothing when possible – it doesn’t need to be directly on your skin to work. Don’t apply it under clothing.
- Opt for a patch test before spraying it all over
- Shower off as soon as you no longer need it
- Mosquitos are the worst at dusk and dawn – cover up or stay inside during these times
- Use netting or screens whenever possible, especially over a stroller, while camping or on the porch
- Keep your yard well-trimmed and clear of any standing water, where mosquitos like to breed
- Wash all sprayed clothing thoroughly before worn again
- Use fans, even outdoors, which can reduce mosquito landings by 45-65% if sitting nearby 
- Always thoroughly check for ticks after spending the day outside. No repellent is 100% effective.
- Put natural insect repellent plants & herbs in your backyard, such as mint, citronella grass, lavender, rosemary etc… 
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What To Avoid In Bug Spray
- Avoid sunscreen & bug-spray combos. Apply sunscreen first, then apply bug spray.
- You can read more about safe sunscreen here: Holistic Sun Safety Tips & Non-Toxic Sunscreen
- Don’t use bug spray on babies under 6 months old
- Don’t apply bug spray directly to your face – instead, spray it on your hands and rub it on your face, avoiding your eyes.
- Avoid all damaged skin and wash your palms
- Don’t breathe it in! Don’t spray it in enclosed areas.
- Avoid using bug repellant candles, where you can inhale the toxic fumes
- Avoid using aerosol sprays in pressurized containers. Instead, opt for pump sprays.
Use additional caution for young children and babies.
What Should You Opt For in A Safe And Effective Bug Spray?
This all depends on your preference and exposure to certain bugs (especially where you are in the world), but personally, I prefer insect repellant sprays with picaridin. Make sure to avoid all repellents with parabens, phthalates & synthetic fragrances.
Good Bug Protection Options
- Natrapel Picaridin Repellent (my favorite!)
- Off! Familycare Clean Feel (with picaridin). The other ingredients are water & ethanol.
- Many of the other Off! brand bug sprays contain fragrance or other additives – be careful which SKU you’re buying. Most of the inactive ingredients do not need to be listed on the label, but sometimes you can find the full list of ingredients online. If the company is not fully transparent with what’s in their product, ditch em’.
- If you’re opting for a repellent that uses essential oils (like natural ingredients with peppermint oil and rosemary oil), I’ve used Buzz Away in the past. I would not recommend using this in high-risk areas, as it is not always effective. Badger can also be a good option.
- If you’re in a high-risk area and want to use DEET (mostly on your clothing), Ben’s 30% is a good option.
- Another option: Wearable netting, especially if you’re camping or gardening, to create a barrier against biting insects.
- Opt for cotton or linen long-sleeved clothing in the summer, which is more breathable
It’s best to spray bug spray on clothing, not directly on your skin.
When comparing the risks of West Nile Virus, Lyme Disease & other diseases, any bug spray (especially when sprayed only on clothing) can be a better option than going without it. The risks of these naturally occurring bug-borne illnesses can be greater than the risks of the bug spray, but it’s best to opt for the repellent that will not only be effective but won’t cause long-term damage. Even the Environmental Working Group recommends using bug spray, like DEET and picaridin, to prevent bites.
The risks of bug-borne diseases are oftentimes larger than the risks from bug spray.
Frequently Asked Questions
Click on the below FAQs to learn more about the best non-toxic bug spray!
What is commonly used in bug spray?
There are many ingredients commonly found in bug sprays, such as DEET, permethrin, picaridin, and other botanicals. Some of these active ingredients are safer than others.
How to naturally protect yourself from bug bites?
There are many ways to protect yourself from bug bites. Wear long-sleeved, baggy clothing & tuck your pants into your socks. Tight clothing can oftentimes be bit through (definitely no yoga pants). Wear lighter-colored clothing, since mosquitos are attracted to the color black. Apply the bug spray to your clothing when possible – it doesn’t need to be directly on your skin to work.
What is a natural bug spray?
A natural bug spray uses safer active ingredients like picardarin or essential oils. There are other bug protection options, such as wearing long sleeves, netting, and environment management.
Should you spray sunscreen on your skin?
Apply the bug spray to your clothing when possible – it doesn’t need to be directly on your skin to work. Applying it directly to your skin can potentially lead to contact dermatitis.
Bug spray should be a last-resort option… first, cover up & reduce your exposure, but when it’s necessary, don’t hesitate to use it. As always, discuss tick-borne diseases and bug spray with your doctor (especially if you’re looking for options that are safe for kids). Here’s to a fun, safe, and bug-bite-free summer!
What kind of bug spray do you use?
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Information on the Best Non-Toxic Bug Spray from: Consumer Reports, CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), EPA, Made Safe, Lovely Lucky Life, Plunkett’s, Flare, Duke, Picaridin, VDCI, Hunker, S.C. Johnson, Environmental Protection Agency, Centers For Disease Control, EPA Registration
Copyright In On Around LLC 2021 © The statements made on this website have not been evaluated by the FDA (U.S. Food & Drug Administration). They are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. The information provided by this website should not be used as individual medical advice and you should always consult your doctor for individual recommendations and treatment.