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There are many different kinds of insect repellents and bug sprays on the market: sprays and lotions, chemical and natural, huge percentages of DEET and lower percentages, etc.

What type of mosquito repellent is most effective (for travelers to tropical destinations)? What types should be avoided or are just a marketing ploy?

I'm not asking for specific product recommendations, but general advice about types of insect repellent (e.g. 100% DEET vs. 30% vs. citronella oil, etc.).

Edit: Starting a bounty to try to get a few more details. Thanks for the answers so far! But it would be great to see some real details (with references) about the effectiveness of different kinds of repellents, different concentrations of DEET, sprays vs. lotions, etc.

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I am wondering if different types of mosquitoes react in a different way, e.g. I found DEET not very effective in Eastern Europe. –  Grzenio Sep 29 '11 at 6:59
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I also found DEET to be ineffective in Kakadu National Park Australia where the large and abundant mosquitoes are not daunted by temperatures of 50 degrees Celsius and direct sunlight. They seem to like a good sip of DEET as an aperitif with their meal of mammal blood. –  hippietrail Oct 1 '11 at 12:10

5 Answers 5

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The US Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends DEET, Picaridin, and lemon eucalyptus oil (active ingredient being p-menthane 3,8-diol). There was also apparently a claim that catnip is 10x more effective than DEET at repelling mosquitoes, but I've never encountered any catnip-based repellents. Outdoor retailer REI has a pretty thorough comparison of the pros and cons of common insect repellents, but they don't really cite research.

DEET seems to be agreed upon as the most effective insect repellent, but there are a lot of arguments about its safety.

The ATSDR (a sub-agency of the CDC) has a page on their site about the effect of DEET in humans. They cite several other studies and summarize reports of (many upsetting) side effects of DEET use, including this one:

A study was done involving 143 National Park Service employees at Everglades National Park to determine the effects of DEET on varying use groups. Exposure groups were classified as low (non-users), medium (0.01-0.52 g/day) and high (0.71-69.38g/day) use of DEET. It was found that 36 of the workers (25%) reported health effects that they attributed to DEET. These effects included rashes, skin or mucous membrane irritation, transient numb or burning lips, dizziness, disorientation, and difficulty concentrating. Headache and nausea were also reported. A statistically significant difference was not found between reported effects from high-exposure and medium-exposure workers, although the incidences were significantly higher than in the non-users (McConnell et al. 1987).

This article from Field & Stream I think summarizes the matter best: there is no real consensus about the issue of DEET, and no singular authoritative voice on the subject. On a personal note, I avoid DEET almost entirely because I'd rather deal with insect bites (and take anti-malarials when traveling) than risk exposure to something potentially toxic to my central nervous system.

Finally, I've never come across any literature that says what medium of repellent is most effective (spray v. lotion). I think the concentration of the active ingredient is more likely to affect the product more than its viscosity.

P.S. My uncle has a hiking friend who swears that taking cayenne pepper capsules is the best insect repellent. I'm not really sure if there's anything to back that up.

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Maybe you like my answer. I thought DEET was worldwide prohibited. It's a powerful poison, hit plants, animals, humans, and stays on the life cycle for so many years. –  H_7 Oct 1 '11 at 12:04

100% DEET is certainly very effective, but it's hard on your skin. Try it but be prepared to back down to 25% or even 7%.

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Deet works best, according to write-ups I've seen. –  xpda Sep 13 '11 at 2:40
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Also be careful of synthetic clothing (DEET can melt it). It also ruins painted fingernails - my girlfriend learnt that the hard way! Absolutely worth it if you can't afford to be bitten. –  jozzas Sep 13 '11 at 6:32
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@jozzas , I'm curious: where was your girlfriend that both malaria and manicures were matters of concern? –  Malvolio Sep 13 '11 at 10:30
    
@Malvolio The closest thing you can get to a resort in the Solomon Islands, a place called Sanbis. Highly recommended! –  jozzas Sep 13 '11 at 22:10

Some coworker went to a jungle tour in Thailand for 4 days or so. He said not washing and wearing the same clothes for the whole time he was on the tour worked much better for him than all the mosquito repellents the other tourists used :)

True story!

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Mosquitoes in different places seem to have different "taste". Sometimes I'll get attacked and not nobody else. In Bulgaria my friends were getting bitten but the mosquitoes would fly around me and not land and not partake of my blood. So maybe that's what happened with your coworker too and it was just a coincidence how icky he let himself become (-: –  hippietrail Sep 12 '11 at 21:42
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The plural of anecdote is not data; certainly the singular isn't. Either your cow-orker wasn't to the local mosquitoes' taste or he wasn't allergic to the anti-coagulants in the moskies' saliva (which is what raises the characteristic itchy welt, without which you'll never notice the bite.) –  Malvolio Sep 13 '11 at 0:53
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Wearing the same clothes the whole time is also a good way to repel other travellers, in addition to mosquitoes, I believe. –  Ankur Banerjee Sep 13 '11 at 9:12
    
Maybe it works for tropical mosquitoes, but for these nasty bloodthirsty bastards from Easter Europe it only works as an attractor. –  Grzenio Sep 29 '11 at 6:57

DEET is pretty much the mosquito repellant of choice. The more of it there is, concentration wise, the less pleasant, so scale your concentration based on the risk of mosquito-borne disease.

"Backyard party with friends" - probably a pretty low concentration. "Hell no, I will not be getting malaria while in Uganda" - I used 95% DEET. Stuff was vile, but it worked.

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I live in a tropical country with a lot of mosquitoes in some beaches I regularly visit. The best mosquito repellent I know is all natural.

It's vitamin B12. You start to ingest B12 capsules 2 weeks before travelling. Your skin will produce a natural protection with an odour mosquitoes really dislike. It's better than any spray, chemical or citronella candles... cheap and clean! Oh, sure, you can't feel the smell, only the mosquitoes!

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@iHaveacomputer - Probably a true example of a person with high levels of B12 on blood. –  H_7 Sep 28 '11 at 21:14
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Is there research to back this claim? –  MarkE Jan 31 at 19:39

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