Few canned products inflame as much passion and confusion as insect repellents. On the pro-chemical side are those who claim that plant-based sprays and other alternatives simply don't work at all, and so leave users exposed to pathogen-hosting insects carrying anything from West Nile to the bacteria that causes Lyme disease. But proponents of chemical-free repellents cite the possible toxicity of Deet to the human brain, and claim their all-natural alternatives work plenty well. (We'll add that we've had a pair of sunglasses get lightly melted by errant Deet spray, which left us questioning whether we ought to be applying it to our skin on a regular basis.)
The truth, as often is the case, falls somewhere in the middle. So according to Dr. Mustapha Debboun, editor of 'Prevention of Bug Bites, Stings and Disease,' both types of products have their place. "The way to think about it is that chemicals are better for longer hours in the deep woods," Debboun says, "while all-natural ingredients are fine for the backyard, beach, and other places where you won't be out for extended periods." So think Deet or picaridin for that jungle trek to Southeast Asia you've been planning, but something all-natural for day hikes and picnics closer to home.
Still, in a surprising twist (and what will be a humbling disappointment for chemical warfare proponents), it turns out that pound-for-pound, all natural options are actually the better performer. "Natural insect repellents generally repel a larger and wider range of crawling and flying insects [than chemicals] because of the diverse grouping of ingredients they contain," says Bob Root, author of 'Chemical Free Skin Health.' Dr. Debboun concurs: "Lemon eucalyptus is just as good an ingredient as chemicals like Deet and picaridin."
Like sunscreen, the key to going all-natural is frequent application – so, at a minimum of every two hours (compared with up to 12 for Deet mixtures). And you'll have to apply it even more often if you're sweating heavily, which serves the dual whammy of diluting the active ingredients while increasing your attractiveness to insects (thanks to chemicals like lactic acid found in your sweat).
Following are our picks for all-natural insect repellents, all of which are safe for use on kids, are non-irritating to skin, last as long as possible, and range from lighter-scented concoctions that are more appropriate for social events to stronger mixtures that you'd want for intense and extended outdoor exposure.
Jao Patio Oil
Think of Jao Patio Oil as more like a handy hybrid: an effective skin moisturizer that also happens to do a bang-up job off keeping the bugs at bay. It has a heavy dose of lemon eucalyptus and soybean oils for repelling, but also includes jojoba and hemp oils, chamomile, and calendula for nourishing skin that's taken a beating from sun exposure. We found it goes on somewhat greasy but eventually absorbs. [$30 for 3oz; jaoltd.com]
Best for: Everyday backyard use, post-sun recovery.