Choosing Bug Repellents: Which is the best insect repellent for travel
Biting insects all over the world are searching for their next blood meal. You need to know what the best insect repellent is for travel to help prevent a mosquito, fly or tick bite that could carry a nasty disease.
Insect bites are no fun anywhere you travel. But a bite from a mosquito or tick, depending on where in the world you are, can also lead to transmission of nasty diseases, such as malaria, Lyme, Dengue fever, West Nile, Japanese encephalitis, Zika, yellow fever (for which there is a vaccine, thankfully), and many unwanted ailments. To prevent an insect bite, you will need a good bug repellent. Insect repellents all work (with varying degrees of effectiveness) against mosquitoes. Many also work against ticks. Some work against flies (think black flies, sandflies, midges and gnats), but none work against stinging insects, bees or wasps.
How do insect repellents work? Mosquitoes and ticks are attracted to skin odors and the carbon dioxide a person exhales. These biting insects also use heat, color (wearing lighter colored clothing helps), and other visual cues to target a bite zone and “host” (that’s you) for the next blood feast. Bug repellents work by confusing the senses of a mosquito or tick preventing it from finding a suitable target.
What is the best insect repellent for travel?
The answer depends a lot on balancing how you feel about applying chemicals to your skin and about understanding the risks of contracting a serious disease from an insect bite wherever you may be traveling.
With the above in mind, I’ll stick with highlighting the various chemical and natural ingredient choices you will find and offer a few of my own observations from decades of using and testing bug repellents. From there, you can decide what is best for you.
DEET: Let’s start with DEET. DEET was created by the U.S. Army in the 1940s and it is still considered the gold standard in terms of efficacy in repelling mosquitoes, ticks and various species of flies. If you opt for DEET, I would always look for a controlled-release formulation with a 20- to 30-percent concentration of DEET since that will typically provide insect bite protection up to 12 hours. Controlled release also minimizes DEET’s nasty side effect of melting plastics and synthetics. If you are a photographer, this is NOT a good thing since your camera has plenty of plastic knobs and buttons you really do not want to see dissolving from your touch. For this reason alone, I no longer use DEET formulations.
Picaridin: Picaridin is a relative newcomer to the insect repellent party and is a synthetic version of a chemical found in black pepper plants. It was created in the 1980s by German scientists at Bayer AG and was being used by consumers in Australia by 1998 and in Europe by 2001. Picaridin-based insect repellents became available in the United States in 2005. Picaridin works to repel mosquitoes, ticks and flies – and it is far better than DEET at repelling flies, according to data from tests. Look for formulations with 20 percent picaridin. Spray repellents offer protection from insect bites up to 12 hours (8 hours for flies), and lotion formulations provide protection from insect bites up to 14 hours (still only 8 hours for flies). Picaridin has a light odor and will not damage plastics or synthetics. Insect repellents with picaridin have become my go-to option when I absolutely have to stop the bite from happening.
Lemon eucalyptus oil: Despite its natural-sounding name, this is still a synthesized plant oil and, as such, is considered a chemical that is regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for use on human skin. It works to repel mosquitoes for up to six hours. It is not considered effective against ticks or flies.
IR3535: As its name implies, this is a synthetic compound that is similar to naturally occurring amino acid. It is effective against mosquitoes and ticks for up to two hours. You’ll find this ingredient used in brands like Avon Skin So Soft.
Natural Plant Oils: In this category, you will find all sorts of formulas based on natural oils. Think lemongrass, citronella, peppermint, lavender, cedar, geranium or soybean. If you choose to opt for a natural insect repellent, realize that the effectiveness against mosquitoes and ticks is very limited and reapplication of a natural repellent will need to occur frequently. On average, natural insect repellents will work to repel insects for up to two hours, at most.
Wearable: There are all sorts of options for wristbands, clip-on products and even patches you can apply to your skin. Most rely on natural plant oils as their ingredient. I have tested many and have yet to find any that I would truly trust to provide needed long-term or reliable protection from insect bites.
Insect-Repellent Clothing: The essential ingredient in all insect-repellent clothing is permethrin. It is based on a natural extract from the chrysanthemum plant that will work to ward off mosquitoes and ticks very well – and it will kill any insect that comes into contact with the chemical. Permethrin is not effective against flies. Since this repellent is in or on your clothing, you will only need to apply insect repellent (the chemical or natural kind as a spray or lotion) to your exposed skin – for example, your neck, face or hands.
You can buy permethrin in spray bottles to apply to any article of clothing such as hats, shirts, pants, or socks. But before you go spraying permethrin on some expensive pants or shirts, be very sure it will not damage the clothing or discolor it. One do-it-yourself spray application will remain effective against insects for up to seven wash cycles (machine or hand washing).
You can also purchase insect repellent clothing that is pretreated with permethrin. Pretreated clothing remains effective in providing protection from mosquito and tick bites for up to 70 wash cycles.
The only downside to clothing treated with permethrin is you will need to wash these pieces separately from any untreated clothing.
Bed Nets: While not an insect repellent, bed nets are essential for insect bite protection for any traveler staying in a hotel, lodge, tent or other accommodation that does not have adequate window screens or air conditioning. Bed nets can be treated with permethrin or can be purchased pretreated. If the bed net is not long enough to reach the floor, be sure to tuck the ends under the mattress – a bit of a gyration and contortion act when on the bed.
Head Nets: If the bugs are really thick, you’ll want to consider a head net, which is essentially a fine mesh bag you pull over your hat to keep mosquitos and other insects away from you. Some people may find they feel a bit claustrophobic. Many are elasticized at the neck area or utilize a draw string for closure. You’ll want to wear the net over a brimmed hat to help hold the mesh away from your face and the back of your head. Keep in mind if you are trying to use binoculars or a camera with a head net on, what you see will likely be fairly blurry or you may need to pull it up to see clearly – exposing yourself to those biting fiends.
Applying bug repellent, the right way
First and foremost, always and without exception, precisely follow the label directions of whatever insect repellent you opt to use.
When it comes to needing both sunscreen and insect repellent: You absolutely should be wearing sunscreen anytime you head outdoors, anywhere in the world. Sunscreen always goes on first. Then you apply insect repellent. Never the other way around.
Never apply bug repellent under your clothing.
If you are using a spray, NEVER spray directly into your face. First, spray the insect repellent onto your hands and then apply to your face with your hands.
Do not rub lotion or spray repellent over cuts, wounds or rashes.
You can apply insect repellent to clothing but be sure to wash your clothing well afterward. If you are using a DEET-based product, do not apply to clothing with acetate, rayon, or spandex, and do not allow the product to come into contact with furniture finishes, plastics, watch crystals, leather, or any painted surface.
When choosing bug repellents, stick with recognized brands
It pays to stick with recognized brands and formulations for bug repellents that have been tested and approved for sale in the United States. The following are brands I am very familiar with, have used, and in many instances, continue to use. Sawyer is my go-to for picaridin lotion and spray. Sawyer also offers a permethrin spray and a very good controlled-release DEET repellent. Natrapel also offers a picaridin repellent spray, as well as a wide selection of natural repellent products. Another great option for natural insect repellent is All Terrain. For pretreated permethrin clothing, and for permethrin spray, look to Insect Shield. For DEET products in general, OFF! and Repel are both solid choices as is Cutter.
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