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Ashlee Neuman
Deputy Editor

The Best Bug Spray for Babies and Kids

Wondering what’s the best baby-safe bug spray out there? Get all the deets here.

Spending time with your little ones in the Great Outdoors is wonderful—that is, until the mosquitoes come out to play. No parent wants to see their kids covered in itchy bug bites, but if you happen to be in an area where insect-related diseases are an issue, keeping bugs at bay becomes an important health concern. Which is why parents consider bug spray a medicine cabinet must-have. But what’s the best bug spray for babies and kids? Here’s what to know about baby-safe bug spray, plus our top picks for mosquito repellent for babies and kids.

What to Know About DEET Bug Spray

DEET is the common name for N,N-Diethyl-m-toluamide. Developed by the United States Army in 1946, DEET is the most common ingredient in US-sold insect repellents and generally considered the gold standard in effectiveness. DEET bug spray is meant to be applied directly to skin and designed to repel insects (not kill them). By messing with the neurons on their antennae and mouths, DEET forces mosquitoes, flies, gnats and chiggers to back up and buzz off.

But is DEET safe? While rumors about potential DEET dangers have been circulating for years, after much research, the conclusion is that DEET is indeed safe for babies 2 months and older (and everyone else, for that matter), as long as you use it as directed. “I always recommend insect repellents that contain DEET for the best protection against insect bites,” says CharlRe’ Slaughter-Atiemo, MD, FAAP, a Baltimore-based pediatrician and founder of CayTer 2 You Baby, a travel baby gear delivery service. “DEET has been well researched for human use and is safe and effective for anyone over 2 months of age.” Especially when you need to prevent insect-related diseases, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says DEET is the best bug spray for babies. Ticks can spread Lyme disease, and mosquitoes can transmit West Nile and Zika, among other viruses.

DEET bug spray comes in different concentrations, ranging from 4 to 100 percent. The AAP and CDC recommendation for kids (aged 2 months and older) is to use bug repellent with up to 30 percent DEET. The effectiveness is about the same among different concentrations at that range but how long that protection lasts differs based on concentration. For example, 10 percent DEET bug spray offers protection for about two hours while the 30 percent concentration protects for about five hours. (Studies have shown that repellent with more than 30 percent DEET doesn’t actually offer any added protection.) Opt for the lowest concentration that’ll offer the length of protection you need. In rare cases, people using high concentrations or excessive amounts of DEET developed skin rashes, blisters and other irritations. Note that it’s only okay to use DEET bug spray for babies 2 months and older.

Alternatives to DEET Bug Spray

While DEET bug spray may be considered the best insect repellent for effectively blocking bugs, it isn’t your only option. Read on to learn about alternative bug sprays for babies and kids.

Picaridin Bug Spray

Picaridin was created in the 1980s by Bayer and is a synthetic version of a repellent found in pepper plants. Research has found it to be just as effective as DEET and a safe bug spray for babies 2 months and older. According to the EPA, picaridin at 20 percent concentration effectively repels mosquitoes and ticks for up to 14 hours and flies, chiggers and gnats for up to eight hours, and a 10 percent concentration lasts for five to 12 hours. Plus, it’s odorless and non-greasy—two points that make it preferable to many parents. Moreover, picaridin doesn’t have the same neurotoxicity as DEET; it isn’t known to irritate the skin and is considered to be practically non-toxic if inhaled and only slightly toxic if swallowed. In fact, picaridin-based formulas are the best-selling bug repellent for babies and children in Europe and Australia.

So what’s the catch? Picaridin was only approved for sale in the US in 2005, and we don’t know as much about its long-term health effects. “Picaridin is effective, safe and has fewer unpleasant qualities when compared to DEET. However, DEET is considered to be the gold standard in terms of its effectiveness because it has been thoroughly studied and researched on humans,” Slaughter-Atiemo says. “Picaridin is a newer repellant and doesn’t have as many long-term studies with human use.”

Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus

If you’d prefer to use a natural bug spray, look for repellents containing Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus, another ingredient recommended by the CDC as safe and effective for children 3 and up. Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus is an extract made from the leaves of the lemon eucalyptus tree and processed to up the concentration of PMD, a natural substance that’s highly effective at repelling insects. Note that Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus is not the same as lemon eucalyptus oil, which is a pure essential oil that isn’t formulated to ward off bugs, hasn’t been tested for safety and effectiveness and isn’t registered by the EPA as an insect repellent. The advantage of Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus is that it’s a plant-based bug spray that actually works in fending off mosquitoes. However, the protection it offers usually only lasts about two hours, which is far shorter than DEET and Picaridin. “As a result, they’re less effective and have to be reapplied more frequently,” Slaughter-Atiemo says. Another disadvantage is that it contains known allergens that can irritate the skin.

Natural Bug Sprays with Essential Oils

There are lots of other natural bug repellents out there containing oils like citronella, cedar, clove, lemongrass, peppermint and soybean, among others. While botanicals may seem safer (the EPA classifies them as minimum risk), “plant oils have mainly been found to repel mosquitos only,” Slaughter-Atiemo says, and for shorter amounts of time at that. “More research needs to be done to see how well they repel ticks and other biting insects.” For a quick fix when hanging out in the backyard, some parents prefer using a natural bug spray for babies—but they’re not the best bet if you’re in an area with insect-borne diseases. Lastly, natural plant oils aren’t regulated by the FDA, and while allergic reactions are rare, Slaughter-Atiemo says, they can still happen when using natural bug sprays with essential oils.

The Dos and Don’ts of Bug Spray

Figuring out which are the best baby-safe bug sprays is only half the battle—the other half is learning how to properly and safely apply the insect repellent. Here, top tips from the CDC on what you should and shouldn’t do when applying bug spray for kids.

  • DO keep your infant and young child’s skin covered in lightweight clothing as much as possible, and try to cover exposed skin—for example, tucking pants into socks.
  • DON’T use fragranced products such as scented laundry detergent or lotions, which can attract biting insects.
  • DO consider using a mosquito net over your stroller or infant carrier.
  • DON’T use insect repellent on babies under 2 months old.
  • DO choose insect repellents approved for use on children and follow directions on the package.
  • DON’T use sunscreen and insect repellent combination products. “The DEET will lessen the effectiveness of the Sun Protection Factor (SPF) and can overexpose a child to DEET because sunscreen should be reapplied often,” Slaughter-Atiemo says.
  • DO spray bug spray on your hands before rubbing it onto baby; that way, it’s only going on baby’s skin and not in the air where you’ll both breathe it in
  • DON’T apply insect repellent near the eyes and mouth, and, for small children, hands, as they may put their hands in their mouth.
  • DO spray repellents in open areas, then quickly move away. This will help you avoid inhaling the products.
  • DON’T store products within children’s reach or let them apply their own repellent. Apply it for them, then make sure to wash your hands.
  • DO wash off the insect repellent with soap and water once you come back inside, and throw those clothes in the wash.

Best Bug Sprays for Babies and Kids

Whether you’re looking for DEET bug spray, a picaridin option or a natural bug spray pick, we’ve rounded up a list of best bug sprays for babies and families. As with all products—even those that are specifically designed for children—it’s wise to discuss any new products with your pediatrician, who can advise you on the best mosquito repellent for babies and bigger kids.

Best DEET Bug Sprays

Photo: Courtesy Repel

Repel Insect Repellent Scented Family Formula

This 15 percent DEET bug spray, one of Slaughter-Atiemo’s favored mosquito repellent for babies, fights off mosquitoes, ticks, gnats, biting flies, chiggers and fleas (as all repellents made with DEET do). It’s also non-greasy and sweat-resistant, which is great for active kiddos who are constantly on the move.

Buy it: $27, Amazon.com

Photo: Courtesy OFF!

OFF FamilyCare Insect Repellent

Here’s another 15 percent DEET bug spray liked by Slaughter-Atiemo and parents alike. It’s made with a powder-dry formula, meaning it’s not oily or greasy.

Buy it: $$6, Amazon.com

Photo: Courtesy Ben's

Ben’s Tick & Insect Repellent Wilderness Formula

This DEET bug spray contains 30 percent DEET for longer-lasting protection and boasts a water base instead of alcohol.

Buy it: $25, Amazon.com

Photo: Courtesy Cutter

Cutter All Family Insect Repellent

This is a great choice for families looking for a DEET bug spray but prefer to use a lower-concentrated formula for baby, as this contains just 7 percent DEET. It’s advertised as non-greasy or oily.

Buy it: $4, Amazon.com

Best Picaridin Bug Sprays

Photo: Courtesy Sawyer Products

Sawyer Premium Insect Repellent 20% Picaridin

If you like the sound of picaridin, this is one of the best bug sprays for babies (and the whole family). More than 4,000 Amazon reviewers rave about this bug repellent, which is effective for up to 12 hours and won’t harm clothing, backpacks, sunglasses and other accessories.

Buy it: $8, Amazon.com

Photo: Courtesy Avon

Avon Skin-So-Soft Bug Guard Plus Picaridin Spray

Amazon reviewers say this 10 percent picaridin bug spray, enhanced with vitamin E and aloe, smells great, absorbs quickly without leaving a sticky mess, and, best of all, is super-effective.

Buy it: $14, Amazon.com

Photo: Courtesy Natrapel

Natrapel Tick & Insect Repellent with 20% Picaridin

Here’s another 12-hour 20 percent picaridin option that parents love. Even a mom whose daughter is allergic to mosquitoes raved about how well this stuff works. And because it comes with a pump instead of aerosol spray, it won’t get in your little ones’ eyes.

Buy it: $10, Amazon.com

Best Natural Bug Sprays

Photo: Courtesy Repel

Repel Plant-Based Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent

If you’re looking for baby-safe bug spray, remember that Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus isn’t recommended for children under 3. But for older kids, Repel’s plant-based bug spray with 30 percent Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus can be a great option. This top-reviewed repellent keeps mosquitoes away for up to six hours and boasts a non-greasy formula.

Buy it: $5, Amazon.com

Cutter’s Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent

Here’s another excellent plant-based bug spray for kids. WIth 30 percent Oil of Eucalyptus (which is a CDC-recommended ingredient), it also repels mosquitoes for up to six hours and has a nice, refreshing scent.

Buy it: $11, Amazon.com

California Baby Natural Bug Blend Bug Repellent Spray

If you’d prefer an all-natural bug spray with pure essential oils, California Baby offers a bug repellent for babies and kids that’s highly rated (in fact, it’s on Slaughter-Atiemo’s list of recommended bug spray for kids). It uses citronella, lemongrass and cedar essential oils to keep mosquitoes and other biting insects at bay.

Buy it: $10, Amazon.com

Photo: Courtesy Badger

Badger Anti-Bug Shake & Spray

This 100 percent natural and certified organic bug spray for babies and kids uses citronella, rosemary and wintergreen essential oils to repel mosquitoes, and it’s been lab-tested for effectiveness.

Buy it: $9, Amazon.com

Photo: Courtesy Burt's Bees

Burt’s Bees All Natural Herbal Insect Repellent

This option for Burt’s Bees is another pick Slaughter-Atiemo recommends for families wanting a natural bug spray for kids. It relies on rosemary, lemongrass, citronella and other essential oils to keep mosquitoes and other bugs at bay.

Buy it: $8, BurtsBees.com

Updated July 2019

Photo: Getty Images