Mosquitoes, ticks, fleas and other biting insects are active this time of year. Most cause discomfort; some carry dangerous diseases. Protect yourself with an effective bug repellent.
There are four chemicals on the market that make up most of the available bug repellents.
Always read the labels to know what the active ingredients are, and follow the directions for use, especially if you’re using it on children.
DEET is considered the gold standard. To repel mosquitoes and ticks, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends using a product with at least 20% DEET. Higher concentrations provide longer protection. If you only need coverage for a few hours in the morning or evening, there are many products with around a 25-40% concentration.
DEET has been on the market since 1957. The EPA (the agency that regulates insecticides) considers DEET to be of “low acute toxicity” and believes that “the normal use of DEET does not present a health concern to the general U.S. population.”
The EPA also classifies DEET as a Group D carcinogen; that is, it does not cause cancer.
There have been some very rare reports of neurological problems related to DEET, associated with long-term use and misuse of the product (such as swallowing it). But the most common side effect is skin irritation, especially if it gets in the eyes. Apply carefully. Oh, and it smells bad and stains clothing.
The EPA estimates adverse reactions at around 1 in 100 million persons. In my opinion, that’s pretty safe.
DEET products are readily available and inexpensive.
A few years ago I was on vacation in Belize and Guatemala. I used my DEET while friends insisted on using sprays with “natural” ingredients like rosemary and citronella. Within two days they were begging me for my DEET, and I had significantly fewer bites than they did.
This chemical is another effective bug repellent, although the CDC recommends it only for mosquitoes, not ticks. It’s been used in the US since 2005 and is also considered by the EPA to be of “relatively low acute toxicity.”
A concentration of 20% lasts for up to 8 hours and is as effective as a 30% concentration of DEET. It also doesn’t smell, irritate your eyes and skin, or dissolve plastics.
It costs about the same as DEET and is available in many products.
IR3535 and oil of lemon eucalyptus
Both of these bug repellents have really long chemical names, but they are plant-based oils and therefore not regulated by the EPA or the FDA.
Labels for these bug repellents often use the phrase “botanicals,” “organic” or “all natural.”
Oil of lemon eucalyptus can be very irritating to the skin and eyes, and it isn’t recommended for children younger than 3.
If you only want casual protection against an occasional mosquito, these will offer some protection. Aggressive or disease-carrying insects? I wouldn’t risk it. Neither has been found to be as effective as DEET or picaridin.
And the trendy wrists bands or stickers infused with the oil of lemon eucalyptus? The chemical simply can’t surround your body and provide adequate protection. Again, I just wouldn’t risk it.
It’s available as a spray and should only be used on clothing.
Using a combination of DEET, Picaridin, or IR3535 in combination with permethrin-treated clothing has been shown to be more effective than either by itself.
Look for sprays with a 0.5% concentration of permethrin. Follow the directions carefully! Permethrin is toxic to fish, bees, and other beneficial insects.
Keep in mind
- Higher concentrations of active ingredients provide longer protection. Look for at least 30% DEET and 20% picaridin.
- Higher concentrations of DEET provide longer protection than picaridin against aggressive insects (ever been to Alaska in the summer?).
- Children should use lower concentrations (less than 30% DEET).
- Infants under the age of 2 months should not use insect repellents.
- Combined sunscreen/bug repellents should not be used. Bug repellent should be applied once a day; sunscreen needs to be applied several times a day.
- If using a sunscreen as well, apply it first.
- Permethrin can be harmful to cats.
- Citronella doesn’t work. Period.
Related post: Use home pesticides with caution