Choosing the Best Mosquito Repellent

BoatingLAB takes a scientific approach to testing insect repellents.

You are a baby boomer if you remember the first bug-spray commercial. It aired in 1960 and featured a lab technician thrusting his arm in a glass chamber of hundreds of mosquitoes. They were on him like stink on skunks. After a spritz of Off, the tech reached in again and the vermin were held at bay.

DEET, an acronym for a chemical name you’ll never remember, was the active ingredient, and today it is still king in keeping mosquitoes, ticks, chiggers and just about any biting bug away. But it is the new millennium, and chemical-conscious people resist applying things to their skin. So 60 years later, has science developed new techniques to keep bugs away? That was our question, and our test was simple. We took each of these devices into buggy territory and made ourselves bait.

Choosing the Best Mosquito Repellent
Thermacell with HolsterBill Doster

Thermacell with Holster

Thermacell introduced the first butane-powered personal bug repeller about 10 years ago. A butane cartridge ignites a small, protected heating element that in turn heats a wafer with the secret sauce touted to establish a dome of protection about 10 feet around it. As the wafer is heated, it emits gases that repel bugs. As the wafer depletes, it turns from an indigo blue to a whitish-gray color. Once it's fully white, replace the wafer. There is also a sight glass to peek in to make sure the butane element is burning.

Tips: Be sure to turn it off when not in use or risk fully consuming the precious butane cartridges, leaving you unprotected.

Results: This and the Backpacker were our go-to gadgets for keeping bugs at bay. It takes about 15 minutes for the repellent to create a protective dome of nearly bug-free bliss.

Choosing the Best Mosquito Repellent
Thermacell BackpackerBill Doster

Thermacell Backpacker

The success of the Thermacell personal device led the makers to introduce the Backpacker repeller. It uses a similar protected butane-fired element to heat the repellant wafer. It is fueled by a large camp-stove butane tank, giving coverage for days, not hours, which is a primary advantage over the personal device because it provides comparable coverage without changing butane cartridges.

Tips: You will be covering the campsite with this gadget, so take plenty of replacement wafers. One tank should offer protection for several days.

Results: The Backpacker's larger fuel source is a great benefit. We had comparably good results with it, enjoyed the ability to burn it longer and weren't as concerned about shutting it off when we went inside.

Choosing the Best Mosquito Repellent
Sawyer PermethrinBill Doster

Sawyer Permethrin

Don't spray Permethrin on your skin. Spray it on your clothes. One bottle is designed to saturate a pair of pants, a shirt and socks with a bug-repellent compound that's proven over decades to repel insects. Dampen the clothes with the spray and then seal them in a clear bag or other container to warm and dry in the sun, locking in the repellent factor. Permethrin is a synthetic chemical that acts like extracts from chrysanthemums and is so successful, clothing companies like ExOfficio use it on some apparel.

Tips: If you are going into heavy insect country, by all means treat at least one set of clothes with this chemical and keep it on you. This is especially true of tick and chigger country.

Results: It worked. Insects stayed away when wearing just a bandanna treated with the stuff. In forays into tick country, not a single creature found a hold.

Choosing the Best Mosquito Repellent
Bug Bam WristbandsBill Doster

Bug Bam Wristbands

Impregnated with naturally repellent essential oils, the aromatic bands are designed to drive away bugs without saturating the skin with repellents. They smell strong, can be sniffed from up to 10 feet away, and are nontoxic. Each band is adjustable to fit children through adults. The manufacturer recommends using one on each wrist in particularly buggy environs.

Tips: When used in conjunction with other nontoxic wearables, they may provide more protection than we experienced.

Results: They smell good and instill confidence in their active ingredients, but we still found ourselves swatting mosquitoes and gnats while wearing them.

Choosing the Best Mosquito Repellent
DecoShield Rescue DS-WHYBill Doster

DecoShield Rescue DS-WHY

This decorative repeller uses natural essential oils like citronella, lemon grass and others, all derived from plants. Activate it by opening the cap and pouring in the Mylar pouch of oil. The oil seeps down through the permeable inner cylinder and the gases are emitted as the breeze works through it. The manufacturer recommends hanging nearby — which might work well, but we set it between deck chairs on a small table. It is designed to protect a 300-square-foot area with its nontoxic magic.

Tips: Hanging it from a lamp or plant hanger would be more secure, since the device is light and easily toppled by the wind.

Results: This was the only essential-oil device we tested that gave a positive, notable experience. Carefully wash hands and utensils to avoid seasoning food with the nontoxic aromatics.

Choosing the Best Mosquito Repellent
No NATZBill Doster


DEET, or diethyl-meta-toluamide, is the military-grade gold standard for insect repellent. However, many boating enthusiasts are not comfortable using the chemical concoction and opt for a recipe like this one that uses fine essential oils including citronella oil, cedar oil, lemon-grass oil and coconut oil. No Natz also offers a specialized mosquito repellent which we didn't test. It's made in the U.S. by avid outdoorsmen who frequent marshes and woods. It is also pet-friendly.

Tips: We often got the best results by combining repellent options like the Decoshield or Bug Bam aromatics.

Results: In our tests, we got mixed results. It and other essential-oil repellents were the go-to choice of the women in our tests, but our male tester preferred DEET.

Choosing the Best Mosquito Repellent
All Terrain Herbal ArmorBill Doster

All Terrain Herbal Armor

These repellent sticks (10 to a package) are designed to be lit like incense sticks. They are thicker than a pencil and about as long. Fold out the prong on the included thin metal base and push it into the hole at the end of the stick. Light and voila! Lemon grass, citronella, rosemary, thyme and geranium oil, known repellents, are emitted as the stick smolders.

Tips: They might work on beaches and would be best employed by driving a finishing nail into driftwood or stabbing a coat hanger into the sand.

Results: Our sticks wouldn't stay lit and wouldn't stay upright on the tiny base. When we employed one on an improvised base, we didn't experience the bug-free zone that Thermacell gave us.

Tick Wrangler
Tick WranglerBill Doster

Tick Wrangler
Removing a tick, once you have one, is nearly impossible to do — unless you have this device. Put the opening over the tick and pull it down into the narrowed slot. When the tick is snugged up in the crevasse, lift the device to remove the tick and its proboscis, minimizing the injection of itchy enzymes and infection-causing tick parts. I would keep it on your keychain if boating to hiking spots is in your game plan.