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The Non-Smelly Mosquito Repellents I Use to Prevent Quasimodo-like Reactions

I’ll always prefer mosquito-repelling lotions over messy sprays. Photo: Fox Photos/Getty Images

There are two kinds of people in the summer: those who suffer from bug bites, and those who do not. I belong to the former group. This is not just because mosquitoes like me — although they do — but also because I actually have hospitalization-level allergies to several North American insects. My mosquito reaction is severe enough that, the last time a mosquito bit my cheek, my eyes swelled shut and I turned into an anaphylactic Quasimodo. When my primary care physician saw me, she shouted, “Oh my god!”

Apologies for that gruesome image, but I want you to know: When I say I’m serious about insect repellent, I am really serious about insect repellent. But as a person who has been visiting ERs for bug-related crises since childhood, I have a secret: the most effective way to prevent bugs from biting you isn’t bug spray. It’s bug lotion. This is, in part, functional: lotions are longer-lasting and you can apply them with greater precision. But it’s also aesthetic: bug spray gets everywhere, spills in your purse, isn’t TSA-friendly, and smells horrible. I refuse to spend my life smelling like a citronella candle. (Not to mention being flammable.) Especially since the most important moments in my insect-repelling life are at outdoor social events where I want to look and smell nice. It may take an extra ten seconds to apply bug lotion, and ten more to wash your hands. But it’s much more pleasant and effective.

Here, the two lotions and three anti-mosquito wet-wipes products that I use to survive at garden parties, outdoor weddings, and perilous walks down streets with standing water:

The best bug lotion

3M Ultrathon Insect Repellent Cream
$10 at Amazon

This is the most-used product in my arsenal. I rarely leave home without Ultrathon Insect Repellent Lotion on my ankles, if not my whole body. The active ingredient in Ultrathon is DEET. Invented by the U.S. military, DEET works by blocking olfactory cues mosquitos respond to, rendering your human flesh invisible to vicious bloodsuckers. What a miracle of human innovation!

Some people fear innovation. They shun miracles of chemistry and favor “all natural” products. I support these people — the mosquitoes can stay busy biting them, instead of me. Even the American Pediatric Association endorses DEET, though it should be noted that the DEET concentration in Ultrathon is a bit too high for children. (The only higher concentrations are in lotions designed for hunters.) But that’s also why it works. For my daily purposes, Ultrathon offers the best low-scent efficacy. The lotion goes on thick, but I find this to be an advantage in bug lotion: the less it dribbles, the more precise I can be in application. I can put Ultrathon on my face without getting any in my eyes. It sticks to my ears. It even stays on my feet! There is a mild chemical twang to its scent, but it’s worth it.

My back-up bug lotion

Sawyer Products Premium Insect Repellent with 20% Picaridin
$7 at Amazon

On days I do not use Ultrathon, I use Sawyer’s Picaridin Insect Repellent. After DEET, picaridin is the next most effective chemical the CDC endorses for repelling mosquitoes. I find picaridin products to be less effective than DEET, but gentler on my skin and more consistently odor-free. Sawyer’s Picaridin is almost completely odor-free. It’s also a lighter product than Ultrathon, thinner and less greasy. It doesn’t last as long as Ultrathon — nor is it as potent — but my skin breathes more easily in Sawyer’s Picaridin. And so it remains a staple in my ongoing mosquito jihad.

Why I always keep anti-bug wipes in my purse

I do not leave home without an anti-mosquito wet wipes tucked into my purse or the back pocket of my jeans. For on-the-go mosquito-repelling, nothing beats a wet wipe — it’s quick, easy, and can be deployed in a bathroom stall without anyone noticing. They’re small enough to fit in an evening purse. They don’t spill or make a mess. Recently, I got through an outdoor wedding in a subtropical jungle without a single bug bite — which I credit to the stack of bug wipes loaded in my clutch. I was the most popular girl at the party every time I broke out one of these items.

My go-to bug wipes

Avon Skin So Soft Bug Guard Plus Picaridin Insect Repellent 8 Towelettes
$7 at Avon

Avon’s Skin So Soft Bug Guard products are designed with skin care in mind, which makes them a godsend for mosquito-phobes with sensitive skin. I have yet to find a truly odorless bug wipe — this one has an initial rubbing-alcohol smell, followed by a citronella smell mild enough to be tolerable. It keeps the bugs away, but is gentle enough that I can dab it on my cheeks, ears, and hairline without much fear. (Unfortunately, not all Bug Guard products are created equal. The active ingredient in this towelette is picaridin, the same as in the Sawyer’s lotion. Some Avon Bug Guard products rely on IR3535, a proprietary chemical that does very little for me.)

My back-up bug wipes

Off! Deep Woods Insect Repellent Wipes, 12 Towelettes (Pack of 2)
$26 at Amazon

When Bug Guard’s mild scent starts to drive me crazy, I switch to a DEET-based wipe, like the Off! Deep Woods Insect Repellent Towelette. It does smell a little like bug spray, which isn’t the best smell, but sometimes it’s nice to annoy yourself in a novel way. The active ingredient in this wipe is DEET, so you’ll need to be more careful about keeping it away from your eyes and mouth, and washing your hands after use. Since I tend to use bug wipes in situations where I’m acting fast and don’t have a lot of time to be careful, Off! Deep Woods isn’t my default wipe — but it is the more potent of the two.

The big guns

Repel Sportsmen Mosquito Repellent Wipes, 15 Count, 6-pack
$22 at Amazon

… and Repel’s Insect Mosquito Wipes are even more potent, with 30 percent DEET. Thank you, science.

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The Non-Smelly Mosquito Repellents I Use Every Summer