Insect pepellents: what’s safe and how to use them

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is tasked with regulating insect repellents, and assessing their efficacy and human safety. According to both the EPA and the Center for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), those products registered with the EPA are considered safe—even for pregnant and breastfeeding women, and babies as young as 2 months of age—when they are applied as directed.

The CDC recommends that consumers choose bug repellents containing chemicals that block mosquitoes’ ability to smell us, such as DEET, Picaridin, and IR3535. The agency also recommends natural ingredients oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE) or para-menthane-diol (PMD) which work just as well, but don’t last as long as DEET.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) also recommends using products that contain DEET to help protect children from various types of mosquitoes, ticks, and other biting insects.

Tips for choosing & applying insect repellent

In addition to following the instructions that accompany each insect repellent, consider the following guidelines:

  • Skip insect repellent “wristbands.” According to the AAP, wristband repellents are ineffective.
  • Avoid “combination” sunscreen-insect repellent products. Sunscreen has to be reapplied more often than bug repellent, which can last almost all day.
  • Allow at least 20 minutes between application of sunscreen and application of insect repellent. This minimizes the amount of insect repellent absorbed through the skin.
  • Use only enough repellent to cover exposed skin or clothing. Using more than is necessary increases chemical exposure without provide additional protection.
  • Don’t apply insect repellent to irritated or broken skin.
  • Don’t spray insect repellent directly to your child’s face. Spray it in your hands, then rub it, sparingly, on your child’s face to avoid contact with the eyes and mouth.
  • Apply repellents in an open area. Don’t use aerosol (spray) products near an open flame, and don’t spray insect repellent near food or drinks.
  • Don’t allow young children to put on their own repellent. They may apply too much or miss an area that needs coverage. Also, don’t put the repellent on their hands, which are more likely to end up in their mouths.
  • With DEET, think “10 to 30 percent.” Studies show products containing under 7 percent DEET offer little protection; and those containing 30 percent or more show no greater effectiveness. Higher concentrations have been linked to side effects, including rashes, disorientation, and even seizures. 
  • Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding can use EPA-registered insect repellents. EPA-registered repellents with active ingredients DEET, picaridin, IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE) or PMD are considered safe for use during pregnancy and while breastfeeding, when used as directed. Note, "pure" oil of lemon eucalyptus (essential oil not formulated as a repellent) is not recommended; it has not undergone testing for safety and efficacy and is not registered with EPA as an insect repellent.
  • Do not use OLE or PMD on children under the age 3. These products are more likely to irritate the eyes and are not recommended for use in young children.
  • Do not use insect repellents on babies younger than 2 months. The best protection for newborns is simply avoiding the bugs. Many manufacturers now offer netting for use with infant car seats or strollers.
  • Wash off repellents with soap and water when your children come indoors.

More ways to stay safe from bug-related illnesses

Insect repellent is only one strategy for preventing bug-related illnesses. Other tactics include:

  • Find out when the bugs are active. For example, some mosquitoes tend to bite more during the day, while others are active at dawn or dusk or after dark. Avoid outdoor activities, if you can, during the time of day that poses the highest risk.
  • Avoid areas where bugs are active. Keep clear of stagnant (standing) water and, if possible, eliminate sources of standing water.
  • Skip the scents. The AAP recommends that parents avoid using scented soaps and shampoos on children, as these may attract insects. Consider foregoing bright colors, for the same reason.
  • Cover the skin. Wear lightweight long-sleeved shirts, pants, and socks when outdoors, especially if in a wooded area where bugs are highly concentrated.
  • Consider bug-netting for very young infants. Many manufacturers offer netting for infant car seats and strollers.
  • Turn on a fan. This chemical-free approach literally blows the bugs away.
  • Check for ticks. Keep an eye out for ticks on your child’s clothing or skin. Prompt removal can help prevent illness. The CDC suggests that “showering within two hours of being in a tick-infested area” can reduce the risk of some tick-borne illnesses.

For a list of the safest and most effective insect repellents for kids, review the Environmental Working Group's (EWG) guide here or review the CDC guide to insect repellents here.

Last updated October 25, 2017

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