In warm weather, mosquitoes, ticks, flies, and other insects become annoying pests—and potential carriers of disease. So what’s your best protection? There are things you can do:
There are two kinds of insect repellents: man-made chemicals and plant-based essential oils. The best-known chemical repellent is DEET—the common name for N,N-diethyl-m-toluamide. DEET is the main ingredient in many insect repellents. Repellents with DEET have been shown to be more effective than other products in preventing mosquito bites in particular. Repellents with DEET are available as sprays and lotions.
DEET is very safe when used according to the directions. DEET should not be used on children younger than two months of age. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not suggest using any special precautions for using registered repellants on pregnant or on women who are breastfeeding. Contact your doctor if you have any concerns about using products that contain DEET. See this website from the CDC for more information about the safety of insect repellents: http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dvbid/westnile/qa/insect_repellent.htm.
In rare cases, repellents with DEET may cause skin reactions. However, most of these cases have happened when the product was not used according to the directions, such as applying over broken skin, and using over many days without washing in between.
If you think you have a reaction to a DEET product, wash the treated skin and contact a Poison Control Center near you: 1-800-222-1222.
Check the product label for information about how much DEET the repellent contains. The more DEET a repellent contains, the longer it can protect you from insect bites. For example, a study showed that a product with 23.8% DEET gave about five hours of protection from mosquito bites. A product with 6.65% DEET gave almost two hours of protection.
When using products with DEET:
When using products with DEET on children:
Most plant-based insect repellents use essential oils from one or more of these plants: citronella, cedar, eucalyptus, peppermint, lemongrass, geranium, and soybean. Of the products tested in a study, a soybean oil-based repellent gave protection from mosquito bites for about 1.5 hours. This is similar to a product with a low concentration of DEET (4.75%).
Use a soybean oil-based product instead of DEET if you:
When using soybean oil-based repellent, reapply the product if you are outdoors for longer than 90 minutes, or if you start being bitten by mosquitoes.
Picaridin is a product developed by Bayer. It has been widely used in Europe and Australia. Its effectiveness is comparable to DEET, but it is odorless and does not irritate skin. It is also effective against other insects like fleas or ticks.
What about products that aren’t applied to the skin? Research says that garlic and thiamine (vitamin B1) are not effective.
Choose a repellent that you will use every time and that will give you enough protection for the amount of time you will be outdoors. If you are worried about using DEET, talk to your healthcare provider for advice. And enjoy a bug-free summer.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Environmental Protection Agency Insect Repellent Information
National Pesticide Information Center
Canadian Public Health
The College of Canadian Family Physicians
DynaMed Editors. Mosquito avoidance. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/. Updated July 13, 2010. Accessed May 12, 2011.
Fradin MS, Day JF. Comparative Efficacy Of Insect Repellents Against Mosquito Bites. NEJM. 2002;347:13-18.
Goodyer L, Behrens RH. Short report: the safety and toxicity of insect repellents. Am J Trop Med Hyg. 1998;59:323-324.
Insect Repellents. American Academy of Pediatrics. Available at: http://www.healthychildren.org/English/safety-prevention/at-play/pages/Insect-Repellents.aspx. Updated May 17, 2011. Accessed May 17, 2011.
McGready R, Hamilton KA, Simpson JA, et al. Safety of the insect repellent N,N-diethyl-M-toluamide (DEET) in pregnancy.
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Picardin—a new insect repellent. Med Lett Drugs Ther. 2005;47:46-47.
Questions and answers: insect repellent use and safety. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dvbid/westnile/qa/insect_repellent.htm. Updated February 2010. Accessed August 1, 2011.
Reregistration of the insect repellent DEET. US Environmental Protection Agency website. Available at: http://www.epa.gov/pesticides/factsheets/chemicals/deet.htm. Accessed May 1, 2005.
Robb-Nicholson C. By the way, doctor. DEET makes a mess of my fly fishing gear. I've heard there are some new mosquito repellents that don't contain DEET. Are they any good? Harv Womens Health Watch. 2005;12:8.
Roberts JR, Reigart JR. Does anything beat DEET? Pediatr Ann. 2004;33:443-453.
Scheinfeld NS. Insect repellent: more attractive to people, less attraction for insects? Cutis. 2006;77:281-282.
West Nile virus information: follow safety precautions when using DEET on children. American Academy of Pediatrics website. Available at: http://www.aap.org/family/wnv-jun03.htm. Accessed May 1, 2005.
Summer safety tips: part 1. American Academy of Pediatrics website. Available at: http://www.aap.org/advocacy/releases/summertips.cfm. Accessed May 12, 2011.
What you need to know about mosquito repellent. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dvbid/westnile/mosquitorepellent.htm. Accessed May 1, 2005.
Last reviewed May 2011 by Brian Randall, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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