Nothing ruins a sojourn outdoors quite like an entourage of pesky mosquitoes chowing down on your arms and legs. Sure, bug spray is great and all. But between the various active ingredients and concentrations, it’s hard to know what actually works, let alone find a spray that doesn’t smell like a chemistry class or make you feel like you took a dip in a vat of oil.
That’s why we went hands-on with bug repellents to test how they feel, how they smell and everything else you’d want to know about a bug spray before you use one. All this after consulting with multiple experts to ensure we included repellents that are actually effective at, well, repelling bugs. We tested only bug sprays that have an active ingredient approved by both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): DEET, picaridin, oil of lemon eucalyptus, p-Menthane-3,8-diol (which is in oil of lemon eucalyptus), IR3535 and 2-Undecanone. DEET was the resounding favorite among the experts we interviewed, but they all praised the effectiveness of the other ingredients as well, especially picaridin and oil of lemon eucalyptus.
To be clear, we didn’t test each spray for its efficacy at repelling bugs, since there are so many external variables that go into that. Instead, we used our extensive research and the opinions of experts to choose a pool of sprays that science has proven to be effective.
After multiple weeks of testing, we found three bug sprays that stood above the rest:
The Proven Insect Repellent Spray proved to be a winner during our user testing. The bottle boasts a quick and easy spray (it’s also one of the most portable bottles), and users noted its near complete lack of scent. Even with its wide coverage, Proven was nice and light to the point we barely felt it on our skin. While you might forget you’re wearing it, though, bugs won’t. We found in our research (and the experts agreed) that the active ingredient picaridin — Proven’s active ingredient comprising 20% of its formula — is one of the best at repelling bugs.
Coming just shy of first place was the Coleman SkinSmart DEET-Free Insect Repellent Spray, a 30% IR3535 aerosol bottle that shined all around. It had a consistent, wide spray, and the aerosol can made it super easy to spray ourselves quickly. It dried instantly and didn’t leave any greasy residue on our skin.
The best-scoring DEET option was the Cutter Backwoods Insect Repellent, which is a 25% DEET formulation. We didn’t love any of the DEET repellents we tested, as they often smelled bad or felt greasy on our skin. Cutter’s bug spray scored better than the other DEET picks in our pool, largely due to its relative durability and its consistent scoring in most of our tests. So if you’re looking for the science-backed, consensus best active ingredient…
Read More: Best bug sprays of 2021