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6 Best Deet-Free Bug Sprays for the Whole Family

Bug off, 'squitos! (And ticks, flies and other critters)

6 Best Deet-Free Bug Sprays for the Whole Family

The outdoors is packed with family fun, from hiking to kayaking to splashing in muddy puddles. Parents know to put bug spray in their bags right next to sunscreen, but it can be hard to make a decision on what kind of insect repellent to use. Should you go with a spray or lotion? Do you need DEET in your kid’s bug spray or not

We consulted an expert on what DEET-free bug spray is and why it’s a better choice for your kids and then came up with a list of the best DEET-free bug sprays for your family.

What is DEET-free bug spray?

DEET is the abbreviation for N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide, an active ingredient in many insect repellents, according to Dr. Krupa Playforth, a pediatrician and founder of The Pediatrician Mom. DEET-free means that instead of this chemical, a bug spray contains an alternative ingredient to keep bugs away.

"DEET-free products vary widely in their ingredients, both in terms of how effective they are and in terms of how well-studied (and safe) they are considered," she says.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends the frequent application of insect repellents to safeguard against bug bites and diseases including Zika, West Nile and malaria (among others).

Why is DEET-free bug spray a better choice?

"DEET is one of the most effective, well-studied and safe options out there to help prevent bites from pests like mosquitoes and ticks," Dr. Playforth says. But some parents might want alternatives due to lifestyle, health or other factors.

She says that as both a medical professional and mother that if you're going to choose a DEET-free alternative, it's worth picking an ingredient that has been studied and is known to be effective. That's because "pests like mosquitoes and ticks are known to cause serious diseases."

She likes picaridin, an ingredient widely used in other countries as an insect repellent. "It's generally considered effective and safe," she says, although she notes it's not well-studied.

She also says to read the labels, because some of the natural products out there are not necessarily effective and haven't been studied, such as clove oil or citronella, and some can even be harmful, like the oil of lemon eucalyptus, which is not the same thing as lemon eucalyptus essential oils. "It can cause eye injury and should never be used in children under 3 years old," she says.

"Other things to keep in mind, regardless of the bug repellent you choose, include wearing clothing that covers exposed skin, checking regularly for ticks, and applying the product to exposed skin but avoiding hands in young children to minimize the risk of ingestion," she says.

The best DEET-free bug sprays 2023

Best overall

Ranger Ready Picaridin Insect Repellent Spray

Ranger Ready Picaridin Insect Repellent Spray, best DEET-free bug spray Merchant

Pros

  • Active ingredients: picaridin concentration of 20%
  • Quick-drying and non-greasy formula
  • Pregnancy-safe
  • Bottle contains 70 full-body adult applications

Cons

  • Some find the mist erratic

Best budget

Sawyer Products 20% Picaridin Insect Repellent

Sawyer Products 20% Picaridin Insect Repellent, best DEET-free bug spray Merchant

This fragrance-free insect repellent spray can last up to 12 hours against mosquitoes and ticks and has 20% picaridin, which is known to be effective against insects. It comes in a pack of two, making each bottle only $7. Convenient six-ounce bottles can be popped into backpacks, camping bags and more.

Spray it on items like clothing, backpacks and sunglasses. The non-greasy formula dries down quickly. We love this one for the playground, time on your best back yard swing sets and family camping adventures.

Pros

  • Inexpensive compared to other similar sprays
  • 20% picaridin concentration repels insects
  • Lasts for 12 hours
  • Comes out in a fine mist
  • One of the strongest picaridin based repellents
  • Odorless
  • Can spray on objects like clothing and camping gear
  • Price at time of publish is about $7/bottle

Cons

  • Some might not love the feeling

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Best scented

Kinfield Golden Hour DEET-free Repellent

Kinfield Golden Hour DEET-free spraym best DEET-free bug spray Merchant

Using Indonesian citronella, this DEET-free spray from Kinfield smells like a spa. It's citrus and vanilla for a delicious-smelling and effective spray that's safe for all skin types and for the whole family. Kinfield's containers are recyclable, too, so it's a spray you can feel good about.

It's effective for preventing bug bites, features powerful natural ingredients and is a decidedly higher-end take on typical DEET-free insect repellent options. We found it safe for sensitive skin, offering excellent protection against mosquitoes and ticks for hours without worry.

Pros

  • Smells like a spa
  • Made from unique Indonesian citronella
  • Dries quickly
  • Usable on all skin types
  • Recyclable, earth-friendly packaging
  • Better for those with sensitive noses and aversions to bug spray smells

Cons

  • More expensive than other brands, though we think it's worth it

Best non-sticky

Off! Clean Feel Insect Repellent

Off! Clean Feel Insect Repellent, best DEET-free bug sprays Merchant

Off! is a brand you know and love for its line of insect repellents, and its Clean Feel Insect Repellent is excellent for a non-sticky spray experience. The 20% picaridin helps keep bugs and mosquitoes at bay. It's not greasy, is lightweight and dries quickly for up to eight hours of protection.

It's virtually odorless, too, which makes it an ideal choice for kids who might be sensitive to such things. We've tried this one extensively on our own families and loved the quick-drying, non-sticky finish that's almost impossible to detect.

Pros

  • Easy aerosol spray
  • Odorless and non-sticky formula
  • Contains 20% picaridin
  • Dries quickly in about 10 seconds or less
  • Lightweight, easy to carry bottle

Cons

  • Some people don't like aerosol sprays, though this particular bottle offers excellent and even product distribution

Best all natural

California Baby Natural Bug Repellent Spray

California Baby Natural Bug Repellent Spray, best DEET-free bug spray Merchant

California Baby offers an effective DEET-free natural bug spray using lemongrass and cedar essential oils. It's safe for babies six months and older and uses no harsh chemicals. It's made from plant-based ingredients and its from common allergens too, like gluten, dairy, oat and tree nuts. It even does double duty, soothing existing bites quickly.

Pros

  • Safe for babies 6 months and up
  • Natural, plant-based ingredients
  • Free from harsh chemicals
  • Pleasant smell

Cons

  • Might not be as effective as other sprays
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Best organic

Sky Organics Organic Bug Spray

sky organics organic bug repellent, best deet-free bug spray Merchant

We love this organic and DEET-free bug spray option from Sky Organics thanks to it's gentle, unscented formula and alcohol-free ingredients list. It goes to work repelling gnarly bugs including mosquitoes and ticks with a blend of all-natural essential oils including citronella, lemongrass and lavender.

This natural insect repellent is gentle enough to use on kids and adults, is applied through light and refreshing mist and is packaged in recyclable materials. It's also cruelty-free and fits nicely in most purses and backpacks for easy, on-the-go application.

Pros

  • Organic ingredients
  • Natural essential oil based bug spray
  • No synthetic or added fragrances
  • Alcohol-free
  • Cruelty-free
  • Affordable
  • Easy to pack

Cons

  • All-natural and organic formula requires somewhat frequent application (every two to four hours for best protection)

FAQs

Does DEET-free bug spray work?

Yes! Depending on the ingredients list in your DEET-free bug spray of choice, the potential to work marvelously well against mosquito, tick and other bug bites is certainly within reach. DEET alternatives like picaridin are effective at repelling several types of bugs (and bug bites) for several hours at a time.

All-natural formulas that rely on essential oils like citronella can also be effective, though typically for shorter periods of time and tend to wear off quickly if you're sweating or in a wet environment.

Does DEET-free bug spray expire?

Each DEET-free bug repellent formula is different, so you'll need to check the label and manufacturer's guidelines about expiration times. Generally speaking, most commercially-available bug repellents have shelf lives of at least one year—often much more. All-natural and organic formulas tend to degrade faster though, so be sure to read the packaging.

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