If you don't have the best insect repellents, irritating bugs can ruin a beautiful day in the great outdoors. Mosquitoes, midges and other nasties can be the bane of the adventurer’s life. They can also be downright dangerous in hot tropical countries, where mosquitoes and other insects may carry diseases such as malaria, yellow fever and dengue fever.
You’re not safe if you just stick to exploring the colder climes, either. Scotland’s beautiful mountains and highlands, plus Scandinavia and other regions of Northern Europe, suffer from one extremely irritating resident: the midge.
The most effective way to combat mosquitoes and midges is to spray yourself liberally with a good quality insect repellent before you head out the door - we’ve reviewed ten of the best on the market that will keep you bite-free.
- You've bought your insect repellent but you still need to know how to avoid bites and stings on the trail
- Get ready for your next adventure with our camping checklist
- Don't set off without taking a look at these hiking essentials
The most obvious difference between the different repellents on the market is their main active ingredient. DEET is perhaps the best known, and is considered the most effective.
DEET repellents work reliably against mosquitoes and other insects, and a formula using 20% DEET or more is recommended for tropical areas - but be aware that stronger versions, especially those containing 50% DEET or more, can be irritating on sensitive skin, and can even be so strong that they affect any plastic or synthetic fabrics they come into contact with, such as watch straps. (The EU restricts the amount of DEET used in any insect repellent to 50%, because it is a biocide.) Jungle Formula and Life Systems are our top picks containing DEET.
Other active ingredients in repellents include Picaridin (also known as Saltidin), which is found in Smidge That Midge, a spray offering good protection from midges.
If you’d rather choose an organic or all-natural spray, pick a repellent that uses citronella, a naturally occurring oil, but be aware that citronella and other organic formulas will never be as effective as DEET. If you want to go all-natural, we recommend Neal’s Yard Citronella Spray.
Whatever repellent you choose, it’s a good idea to pick a spray bottle to ensure you get full skin coverage, and to choose a bottle under 100ml in size so you can pop it in your carry-on on international travels.
The 10 best insect repellents available today
Delicious-smelling spray that’s especially effective against its arch nemesis, the Highland midge.
RRP: £8.15 | Bottle size: 75ml | Lasting power: 8 hours | Active ingredient: Picaridin
Heading to Scotland or northern Europe? Stash a bottle of Smidge That Midge in your backpack. This repellent is created by the makers of the Scottish Midge Forecast (where you can check the prevalence of midges on a given day), so they definitely know a thing or two about Scotland’s most annoying mini residents. This spray sets out to do one thing – repel midges – and it does so effectively, although you might still need to arm yourself with a midge net when they’re really biting.
Smidge That Midge contains no DEET, instead using Picaridin agents that also work against mosquitoes, horse flies, sand flies, fleas and ticks. The slim bottle is easy to pop in your pocket, and the spray is water resistant enough to stay put if you sweat, and lasts all day with one reapplication.
The standout feature of Smidge that Midge is the lovely smell – it has a mild, very pleasant scent you’d be mistaken for thinking was a summery perfume, which is a far cry from most medicinal-smelling insect repellents. It goes on with a watery cream texture but dries fast, and leaves a slight sheen on skin that isn’t sticky.
You only need to use this effective but pricey spray sparingly to ward off insects – great for hiking.
RRP: $6 (US) / £8.61 (UK) | Bottle size: 37ml/ 1.25 fl oz | Lasting power: 8 hours | Active ingredient: DEET
We first discovered Ben’s insect repellents in America (they claim to be ‘Made in New Hampshire. Torture tested in the White Mountains’), and were impressed from the start with their effective protection on woodland hikes.
The Max spray contains a hefty hit of DEET (50% in Europe, the highest percentage allowed under EU law, but up to 98% in the US), which means that despite its dinky size, you don’t need to spray too liberally to keep mosquitoes and other insects at bay.
When first applied, the spray has a very strong lemon smell that’s a little reminiscent of toilet cleaner, but the good news is that the smell fades fast and ends up being a pleasant whiff of citrus. The spray also goes onto clothes easily without staining them.
Ben’s MAX does feel oily and thick on the skin, so it may not be suitable for those with sensitive skin (if this is you, apply extremely cautiously, small area at a time – better still, just apply to clothes), or if you don’t like to feel a repellent is there - it’s also a tad sticky even when dry. On test we found the MAX spray offered effective all-day protection on mountain hikes.
Thick, long-lasting but strong-smelling DEET spray that can combat tropical insects
RRP: £8.34 (UK) | Bottle size: 100ml | Lasting power: 6 hours | Active ingredient: DEET
A big smack of 50% DEET makes Pyramid’s popular spray a reliable choice for international travels – this is the dosage we recommend if you may be travelling anywhere where dengue Fever, zika Virus and other diseases are present.
On test we found this repellent one of the longest-lasting if you’re sweating or swimming, too – ideal for very hot countries. The only downside to all that tough protection? Pyramid is quite sticky on the skin, and can also stick to clothing in an unpleasant way, so only spray onto exposed skin and let dry.
This spray also has a strong lemony scent – if you don’t like a noticeable aroma from a repellent, this is not the brand for you. That said, a light spray of this rather thick liquid goes a long way to protect skin, making it good value for money.
Caution - this is strong stuff (although they used to make a Trek 100, which was doubly potent!), so avoid using near your eyes, or on children under 12.
A high-protection DEET spray that can be used on clothes
RRP: £8.99 (UK) | Bottle size: 100ml | Lasting power: 8 hours | Active ingredient: DEET
The only spray we reviewed offering 24 hour protection (well, if diligently reapplied three times), Lifesystems Expedition Max may be overkill for a ramble in the Lake District but it’s ideal for jungle conditions or anywhere where you’ll be exposed day and night to illness-carrying insects.
We took this spray to India (and also carried the dinkier 50ml version in our backpack when out exploring) and found it offered worry-free protection even in malarial zones. It can also applied to clothing as well as skin without staining them, for added protection.
The Max spray has a thick, rather viscous consistency but a not unpleasant lemon smell but never feels like it fully dries – this is because it’s designed to form a physical barrier on your skin, but if you find sprays that don’t sink right in annoying this might not be for you. There’s no alcohol in the formula, though, so it won’t dry skin out.
Hardworking DEET-free spray ideal for using on children
RRP: £8 (UK) | Bottle size: 100ml | Lasting power: 8 hours | Active ingredient: Saltidin (Picaridin)
We rate Life Systems tougher DEET-packed sprays, so we were pleased to see that their DEET-free but still effective Sensitive spray on the market, using 20% Saltidin (also known as Picaridin) as an active ingredient instead.
This formula is ideal for anyone who finds DEET irritates or dries out their skin, but still needs hardworking insect protection on their travels or in places where it’s important to avoid mosquito bites. You can also use this spray on children and delicate skin. Feedback from eczema sufferers is that this spray works a treat, without any irritation.
The Sensitive spray has a milder, watery consistency and a mild smell to match, but is slightly oily to touch, even when dry. The tough little aluminium bottle is ideal for using, abusing and chucking in your backpack on hikes and camping adventures, too.
An all-organic citronella-based spray that will still fend off most British bugs - ideal if you have sensitive skin
RRP: £9.50 (UK) | Bottle size: 100ml | Lasting power: 2-3 hours | Active ingredient: Citronella
If you hate the idea of smothering your skin in strong chemicals (or if you suffer from eczema or have sensitive skin), try this light citrus spray, made with organic natural ingredients and not a hint of anything artificial.
Neal’s Yard market their citronella spray as a ‘sun spray’ but it does work as a barrier against insects in milder climates such as the UK. You’ll need to reapply it every couple of hours, but we found that when sprayed on oft-bitten areas such as feet and ankles as evenings draw in, or used on more casual walks in Britain and the Mediterranean, it was effective at keeping bugs at bay.
Unlike most strong insect repellents, the Citronella Spray feels as light and pleasant as water to apply and dries clear, with no stickiness. It also smells good enough to be a body spray, with a pleasing scent of lavender, witch hazel and citrus, which makes its more expensive price tag seem well worth it.
Maximum all-day protection for tropical travels thanks to 50% DEET
RRP: £9.50 (UK) | Bottle size: 90ml | Lasting power: 9-12 hours | Active ingredient: DEET
Heading into the tropics? Pack Jungle Formula. Designed for ‘tropical, heavy wooded and lake areas or when extra protection is needed’, this spray is made up of 50% DEET, making it ideal for areas with a high risk of malaria and other mosquito-borne illnesses such as dengue fever and yellow fever.
Jungle Formula does have a strong chemical smell and feels thick and a little oily on the skin, but it’s well worth it for reliable all-day protection. Jungle Formula is designed to be applied once, so spray liberally on exposed skin for even coverage – it also works upside down, ideal for when you want to protect your feet and ankles on the go.
There are multiple other versions of this repellent available, including a handy roll-on you can stick in your pocket and ‘medium’ and ‘outdoor and camping’ versions with less DEET which are better suited to more casual outdoor adventures.
A rogue moisturiser that turned out to be a great affordable insect repellent – good for midges, and nice on skin
RRP: £3.50 (UK) | Bottle size: 150ml | Lasting power: 6-8 hours | Active ingredient: Citronella
Meet the wild card in the world of insect repellents. Veteran beauty company Avon brought out a moisturising dry oil in 2005, only for hikers to discover that the new Skin So Soft spray was also brilliant at keeping insects at bay.
This light oil is much cheaper than most insect-specific sprays, smells great and moisturises your skin as it repels insects – ideal if you have sensitive skin or find DEET-based products tend to dry out your skin. It’s effective against insects in the UK due to a healthy smack of citronella, and there are even rumours that the Royal Marines pack Skin So Soft when they train in the mountains.
We did find on test that you’ll need to apply it to every inch of exposed skin to avoid bites, and reapply a few times over the day. There’s no DEET, Pircaridin or similar present, so the oil wouldn’t be strong enough to rely on when a repellent is an essential, such as in areas where mosquitoes may carry malaria. If in doubt, Avon say: “[choose] the Skin So Soft dry oil spray with the blue label. The pink one doesn't have citronella in”.
RRP: £11.99 (UK) | Bottle size: 100ml | Lasting power: 6 hours | Active ingredient: Citrepel
We’ve often spied Incognito’s little ninja-style black bottle in other explorers’ backpacks, so we were intrigued to give this DEET-free repellent a try. One of the more expensive sprays on test, Incognito is made with 100% natural ingredients – so no DEET, parabens, GMO and SLSs - and it’s approved by the Vegan Society, making it an easy choice for anyone who is a stickler for making sure products are animal-friendly. Incognito worked well at repelling insects in the UK on test as long as you carefully spray every inch of skin.
The brand claim to be proven to be effective in malarial zones, but the caveat is that the spray should be used in conjunction with a mosquito net – so we would recommend sticking to using this natural repellent in Europe and reaching for a DEET product in malarial areas (or using DEET by day and Incognito by night).
The benefit of no DEET is that Incognito feels light and grease-free on the skin and has a pleasant scent of bergamot and citral.
All-natural spray that feels – and smells – mild on skin, suitable for children
RRP: £6.99 (UK) | Bottle size: 75ml | Lasting power: 6 hours | Active ingredient: Citrepel
Another all-natural spray that is fast gathering fans. Theye’s active ingredient is Citrepel, derived from eucalyptus - it’s strong enough to keep insects at large in the UK (although you’ll need something stronger to combat Scotland’s midges) and Europe, and the mild formula is suitable for kids, too, making it a nice one to pack for summer family holidays.
You’ll need to regularly reapply Theye, especially after sweating or swimming, as it fades faster than a DEET-based spray, but it does have a fresh summery scent that makes it pleasant to use, and there’s no alcohol in the formula, so it won’t dry out skin.
This is another natural repellent that claims to be effective in malarial zones, but we would recommend using a stronger repellent such as LifeSystems or Jungle Formula on tropical trips. A cream version and repellent-infused wet wipes are also available.
Choosing the best insect repellent for you
What to look for when buying an insect repellent
There are few things more irritating than being mobbed by midges or hearing the high-pitched whine of a mosquito around your ears when you’re settling down to a campfire-cooked meal or trying to get to sleep in your tent – that realisation that you’re about to get munched is awful. On the other hand, you don’t really want to be spraying yourself with strong chemicals left, right and centre, without knowing for sure that they’re not going to take your skin off. So, where to start when selecting a decent insect repellent?
DEET or no DEET?
You can divide insect repellents into two broad categories – those with DEET, and those without. DEET (or to give it its more tongue-twisting name, diethyl-meta-toluamide), is an active ingredient that is highly effective against insect bites, working by creating an impermeable barrier on the skin that stops insects getting through.
The downside to this strong repellence is that a high concentration of DEET can cause skin irritation and is considered unsafe for use by children and pregnant women – DEET can even be known to melt plastic if it come into contact with it. Repellents containing a varying dosage of DEET (from as low as 5% to up to 98%) are available, although repellents with more than 50% DEET are banned for sale in the EU.
In the USA, repellents with more than 35% DEET aren’t recommended for use on children. We advise using DEET only on adults, and primarily when avoiding mosquito bites is imperative, such as when travelling in countries where malaria and other insect-borne diseases are present.
The good news is, if you want to go DEET-free, there are plenty of hardworking alternatives on the market. The most effective active ingredient for sale as a viable alternative to DEET is Picaridin (also marketed as Icaridin and Saltidin), which isn’t known to cause any skin irritation. It may not be quite as effective as DEET, but it still works at protecting from bites – and isn’t known to have the side effects of DEET.
If you prefer an all-natural spray, look for one containing citronella or oil of lemon eucalyptus (also known as Citriodiol), naturally-occuring plant ingredients that dissuade biting insects by masking the smell of skin with their own strong citrus scent.
Note that natural repellents are never as effective as stronger ones, and evaporate faster, but are ideal for mild climates or for use on children or people with sensitive skin.
Type of application
Repellents come in all shapes and sizes, so you’re likely to find one that suits you. We usually recommend spray bottles, especially those that still work when sprayed upside down, as they give full, even coverage, allow you to reapply on the go and are usually clear, so they can be applied to clothes as well as skin. If you prefer a cream based repellent, many brands also come in lotion form.
Other options include wet wipes impregnated with repellent and solid sticks of repellent, both of which are great for applying to children who dislike sprays. We don’t recommend using a formula that claims to offer sunscreen and repellent in one, as sunscreen usually needs reapplying far more often than repellent.
As a rule of thumb, you should apply a repellent containing DEET or Picaridin once or twice a day or after you swim or sweat heavily. Reapply natural repellents every two hours.
All the latest inspiration, tips and guides to help you plan your next Advnture!
Thank you for signing up to Advnture. You will receive a verification email shortly.
There was a problem. Please refresh the page and try again.