Bug Repellent Guide

Mosquito sitting on the skin

Nothing spoils a nice summer evening outside like a swarm of mosquitoes, some biting flies or a blood-sucking tick. The resulting red, itchy bites are uncomfortable enough to drive anyone crazy. But these bugs aren’t just annoying – they can also be dangerous. In fact, mosquitoes have been responsible for more human deaths than all the wars in history, combined. While most mosquitoes in the U.S. these days do not spread disease, some may spread serious illnesses like West Nile virus and various types of encephalitis. And, of course ticks can also spread diseases such as Lyme disease or babesiosis.

While bug repellents can go a long way towards fending off insects, some of them aren’t very effective or may not be doing your health any favors. Check out this guide of common bug repellents to help fend off annoying and potentially disease-causing bugs.

The CDC recommends the following four ingredients for long-lasting protection against bugs:

DEET – DEET is one of the most effective insect repellents, and acts to ward off a wide variety of bugs. The Environmental Protections Agency (EPA) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) say that DEET is highly effective and safe when used according to the label. However, DEET has been controversial due to the fact that it is a chemical and may cause adverse reactions in some people – usually rashes. Heavy, long-term use may result in more severe reactions such as blisters, insomnia or mood problems. Some organizations and experts say that DEET needs to be studied more thoroughly. However, if you’re going to be in an area or doing an activity that puts you at high risk for tick or mosquito bites, DEET is a good choice. According to the CDC, concentrations of DEET over 50% do not confer added protection, and some experts suggest that you stick to concentrations of 30% or less. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no DEET for infants under two months old and a maximum concentration of 30% for other children. Products that are 30% DEET should provide about five hours of protection.

Picaridin – Picaridin is structurally related to compound found in peppers. It is thought to repel mosquitoes by interfering with their ability to detect their human targets. Picaridin is believed to be less irritating for the skin than DEET, but may also be less effective at repelling bugs. You can find repellents that contain 5-20% picaridin (20% could protect you for up to 8-10 hours).

Oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE) or PMD – Products containing lemon eucalyptus oil (aka OLE) or its synthetic counterpart, para-menthane-2,8-diol (PMD) may work as well as low DEET concentrations and could last up to six hours. Studies have shown it to be safe and effective, though again it may not be as effective as DEET. The CDC recommends against using pure oil of lemon eucalyptus as an insect repellent, as it has not undergone validated testing. However, OLE and PMD should not be used on children under age three.

IR3535 – According to the EPA, this ingredient is effective in repelling mosquitoes, deer ticks, body lice and biting flies and is naturally derived. It has not been shown to have adverse effects, though it may cause eye irritation if it gets into your eyes.

For all of the repellents listed above, you should be careful not to apply it to cuts, wounds or irritated skin, or near the eyes or mouth. Only apply it to exposed skin (not under clothes) and use as little as possible to cover your skin. When you come back inside, wash your treated skin and clothes. Do not spray it in enclosed spaces and never spray it directly on your face. Always help children apply repellent – don’t let them do it themselves.