The 7 Best DEET-Free Bug Sprays of 2021

Ditch the itch and disease from biting insects with these non-toxic sprays.

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The Rundown
Natural plant oils chase away mosquitoes and ticks for up to six hours.
One spray that repels and kills on contact, while being safe for any room in your home.
Just for Kids and Babies:
Auntie Fannie's Mosquito Spray at Amazon
Just eight plant-based ingredients make this spray safe for children six months and up.
This effective repellent uses a synthetic compound similar to black pepper.
Best Long-Lasting Protection:
Natrapel 12-hour Insect Repellent Pump at REI
Twelve hours of picaridin protection against mosquitoes and ticks.
This bug spray protects against deer ticks for twice as long as other options.
Your pet will thank you for the protection of this vegan, cruelty-free, organic essential oil spray.

Getting out into the great outdoors is one of the best things you can do for your health and wellbeing. But you may not enjoy these benefits as much you’re being attacked by biting insects like mosquitoes, fleas, ticks, gnats and flies. Whether you’re camping, working in the garden, or hosting a barbecue, nothing is more disruptive than the swatting, itchy welts and days of scratching that follow a buggy outing.

Mosquitoes, ticks and fleas also spread a wide range of diseases. Some, like Lyme disease, can stay with you long after the season has ended.  However, even these insects are an important part of terrestrial and aquatic food chains. So—where possible—scientists recommend we avoid killing them and instead try to ignore or repel them, accepting that we might be annoyed or have to scratch occasionally.

Before grabbing bug spray, you might first consider changing your home environment to discourage biting insects, planting insect-repelling plants, and mixing up your own homemade repellent.

When those attempts don’t fix your insect problem, or when you're traveling in an area with a high risk of insect-borne disease, you might need more drastic measures. Unfortunately, one of the most popular approaches to repel or kill biting insects—DEET-based insect repellents—has significant drawbacks.

DEET is an acronym for an organic chemical, N,N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide. At concentrations of 30 percent or higher, DEET is considered toxic to the central nervous system. DEET sprays can damage plastic, rubber, and vinyl (bad news for you hiking and camping gear) and give off an unpleasant order.

The good news is that there are a number of alternatives to DEET bug sprays. We've researched the safest and more effective options on the market. Some of the recommendations below use Picaridin, a synthetic compound was developed by Bayer AG and is a derivative of compounds found in black pepper. Studies show that it performs as well as DEET. However, if you prefer to avoid both picaridin and DEET, check out our list of natural insect repellents.  

When you need a spray that really works, consider one of these top-rated, DEET-free insect repellent sprays.

Best Overall: Murphy's Naturals Lemon Eucalyptus Oil Insect Repellent

Murphy's Lemon Eucalyptus Oil

You’ll find a number of insect repellents on the market with lemon eucalyptus in the name. Derived from the leaves of the eucalyptus citriodora tree, the active ingredient, p-menthane-3,8-diol or PMD is the powerhouse behind our Best Overall pick, Murphy’s Natural Lemon Eucalyptus Oil Insect Repellent Spray. The convenient pump spray goes on easily without being sticky and the fresh lemon scent is pleasant without being overpowering. Safe for children three years old and up, a single application is good for six hours of protection.

A 30 percent solution of the natural eucalyptus oil is the heart of this potent spray. The remaining 70 percent by weight is 45 percent ethanol—the same alcohol found in beer and wine—and 25 percent deionized water. The ethanol is flammable and can cause eye irritation so you’ll notice warnings on the label to keep it out of reach of children and pets.

Lemon eucalyptus spray has served my family well on many adventures along the rivers of the Southwest and throughout the back woods of the Pacific Northwest. You’ll find comparable products on the market with an almost identical ingredient list under other popular brand names like Cutter, Repel, and Natrapel.

But Murphy’s Naturals held the top spot because of the company's sustainable approach. As a certified B Corporation, Murphy’s Naturals has met the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency and legal accountability across all of their products. It's also a member of 1% for the Planet, a collection of businesses that make annually-verified donations to environmental nonprofits.

Best for Home: Eco Defense Home Pest Control Spray

Eco Defense Home Pest Control Spray

When insects have invaded your home, you need something that works, but is also safe to use in your kitchen or bedroom and won’t be unhealthy for children or pets. Eco Defense Home Pest Control Spray is that just-right combination of safe, natural ingredients, a pleasant scent and consistent effectiveness.

This is one of the few home sprays that is USDA Certified Biobased. That means the U.S. Department of Agriculture has certified that the product is derived from plants and other renewable agricultural, marine, and forestry materials. The certification means it is safe to spray anywhere in your home including in your closet, in kitchen cracks and crevices and on couches and rugs.

Active ingredients include geranium and peppermint oils and coconut-derived sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS). SLS is a soap-like compound found in hundreds of personal and cleaning products that scores the best EWG Skin Deep Score of 1-2. Inactive ingredients include yeast, citric acid, distilled water and ethyl lactate. Ethyl lactate is a nontoxic, biodegradable solvent benign enough to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration as a food additive.

This spray kills insects on contact, so it works best when sprayed on problem areas, such as around garbage cans, in the RV and along perimeters. 

It is approved for all types of pests including fleas, mites, fruit flies, ants, roaches, beetles, centipedes, spiders, and silverfish too–so you only need one spray to protect your home and family.

Just for Kids and Babies: Auntie Fannie's Mosquito Spray

Aunt Fannie's DEET-Free Mosquito Spray

Get up to four hours of protection from mosquitoes and other biting insects with Aunt Fannie's Mosquito Repellent Spray. Made from just eight natural ingredients this spray, like all Aunt Fannie products, is sulfate-, triclosan-, and paraben-free. Plus, it's vegan, not tested on animals, and made in the United States with responsible packaging. Considered suitable for children six months and older, it’s great for the diaper bag and outdoor adventures.

Active ingredients include soybean, citronella, cedarwood, peppermint, lemongrass, and geranium oils. The remaining 73 percent is made up of vitamin E and isopropyl myristate. Isopropyl myristate is a common cosmetic compound that does double duty as an emollient that also kills lice, fleas and ticks by dissolving the wax that covers their exoskeletons. Its presence increases the effectiveness of the repellent essential oils against these insects.

Like all insect repellents, it should be kept away from eyes and mouths. But parents report that this spray was effective without irritating their children’s sensitive skin.

Best Picaridin Repellent: Sawyer Products Picaridin Continuous Spray Insect Repellent

Picaridin Continuous Spray Insect Repellent

When the stakes are high, such as travel in exotic locations where the risk of insect-borne illness is higher, you might consider a picaridin-based spray. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends picaridin-based sprays to repel disease-carrying insects. Picaridin has been in use in the United States since 2005 as an alternative to DEET. A synthetic compound designed in the 1980s, picaridin resembles the naturally-occurring compound, piperine, which is found in plants and used to produce black pepper. The EWG found that picaridin is as effective as DEET and also repels chiggers, without the disadvantages associated with DEET.

Along the picaridin-based sprays on the market, Sawyer Premium Insect Repellent, with 20 percent picaridin (also known as Fisherman’s Formula), is our top pick. It is available in both a pump spray and a lotion in a range of sizes. Avoid the “continuous spray” which is an aerosol spray. Depending on which product variation you choose, the inactive ingredients of the proprietary blend are not easy to pin down, but include 27-33 percent ethanol. The remaining ingredients are not considered hazardous to human health.

Made in the United States, the spray and lotion provide up to 12 hours of protection against mosquitoes, ticks, biting flies, gnats, chiggers and fleas. We appreciate its easy-to-use pump design and secure, double-cap system that will prevent leaks during travel and inside packs.

Best Long-Lasting Protection: Natrapel 12-hour Insect Repellent Pump

Natrapel Spray

When you’re camping, hiking or trekking, you may not want to stop to reapply. That’s where Natrapel 12-hour Insect Repellent pump spray could come in handy. Very similar in composition to the effective Sawyer Premium Fisherman’s Formula above, the active ingredient of 20 percent picaridin gives 12 hours of continuous protection against mosquitoes and ticks and eight hours against other biting insects.

Many users like Natrapel because it is less oily and the scent is milder than the essential oil and eucalyptus-based repellents. Unlike DEET-based products, Natrapel also does not harm plastic materials like camera and camping equipment. Be sure to try the pump and avoid the aerosol “continuous spray” that uses propellants, which are harmful to the environment.

Best for Ticks: Coleman SkinSmart Insect Repellent Spray

Coleman SkinSmart Insect Repellent Spray

Coleman SkinSmart DEET-free Insect Repellent uses an active ingredient, IR3535 or 3-[N-Butyl-N-acetyl]-aminopropionic acid ethyl ester, that was developed in the 1970s but not registered in the United States until 1999.

Fewer products employ this chemical because sprays with oil of lemon eucalyptus, picaridin, and even DEET work better in every way, except when fighting ticks. Compared to those repellents, IR3535 provides over twice the protection time against deer ticks.

IR3535 is a man-made compound that is structurally similar to the naturally-occurring amino acid, B-alanine. Although more study is needed, they may work by disrupting the tick’s sense of smell, which they use to find their victims. Although IR3535 is less toxic than DEET and picaridin, it can be more irritating to the eyes. Like DEET, it also can harm plastics. Unfortunately, Coleman discontinued the pump version of SkinSmart so it is only available as an aerosol.

Overall, unless you really need extended protection against disease-carrying deer ticks, consider one of the picaridin-based sprays instead.

Best for Dogs: Nantucket Spider Natural Bug Repellent for Dogs

Nantucket Spider Natural Bug Repellent for Dogs

We can’t forget our canine friends. When you’re headed out into mosquito and tick country, Fido will appreciate the vegan and cruelty-free Nantucket Spider Natural Bug Repellent for Dogs. Similar to the essential oil repellents for humans, this spray uses organic, non-GMO cedarwood, geranium, peppermint, rosemary and thyme essential oils. You’ll find none of the citrus oils here because dogs don’t like the smell. Inactive ingredients include water and glycerin.

Because the spray is soy- and alcohol-free, the spray shouldn’t dry or irritate your dog’s sensitive skin—although the manufacturer recommends you always test on a small patch just in case. This repellent is also safe for horses and people but not recommended for cats, and is also effective at deterring black and horse flies and fleas as well. Apply every 90 minutes and more often in wet conditions.

An added bonus is that Nantucket Spider products are made in the United States and use bottles made from 100 percent post-consumer recycled plastic. The lockable fine mist trigger sprayer offers good coverage during application. You and your dog will be glad that the scent is pleasant without being overpowering.

Final Verdict

Murphy’s Natural Lemon Eucalyptus Oil Insect Repellent Spray (view at Amazon) earns the Best Overall spot because of its combination of effective, fresh-smelling ingredients and dedication to sustainability.

When you’re trekking through areas with known insect-borne illness, the picaridin-based Sawyer Premium (view at Amazon) and Natrapel 12-Hour Insect Repellents (view at Amazon), each with 20 percent picaridin will give you DEET-free peace of mind.

Good to Know

It should be noted that the science-backed consumer watchdog Environmental Working Group (EWG) believes that DEET’s safety profile is better than many assume. That’s because it has been used widely for decades so a lot of data exists and, when weighed against catching an insect-borne illness like Zika virus, some people opt for effectiveness over natural ingredients.

Why Trust Treehugger?

Lorraine Wilde grew up swatting a range of biting insects in rural Michigan. She and her family have also tested a number of products while camping and river rafting in the Pacific Northwest and the Southwestern U.S. Lorraine holds a Master’s degree in environmental science and is a firm believer that—together—our healthy, informed and environmentally-conscious choices can protect our planet.

View Article Sources
  1. "Lyme Disease." Center for Disease Control.

  2. "Prevent Mosquito Bites." Center for Disease Control.

  3. "Repellent Chemicals." Environmental Working Group.

  4. "Safety Data Sheet." Sawyer.

  5. "Insect Repellents." National Pesticide Information Center.