Living in a (mostly) warm climate means that for the better part of the year, insects are also active. Mosquitos, ticks, and chiggers. These insects can transmit diseases like West Nile Virus, Lyme disease, Zika, Malaria, Dengue and Yellow Fever, Chikungunya, and Rocky Mountain fever, to name a few. Bug repellents are the best form of protection against such diseases, as is preventing them from breeding; with all the recent rain here locally, I’ve seen an abundance of mosquitoes.
Choosing an effective bug repellent is no easy feat. Reports show that the amount of bug spray available on retailers like Amazon.com have jumped exponentially over the past few years. The danger is that not all repellents have been registered and checked by the EPA or FDA. The EPA offers this tool to not only help you pick which repellent works best for your needs (considering what area of the world you’ll be in, length of time you need protections, etc), but you can also check if a certain item is deemed safe.
DEET was created by USDA chemists in the 1940’s for use by the U.S. military. It has been commercially available since 1957 and has since become commonplace. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the EPA both say that DEET is safe when used properly, even for pregnant women. Consumer Reports and the EPA agree, athough they recommend sticking to products that contain 15 percent to 30 percent DEET. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that products for children contain no more than 30 percent DEET, as higher levels can cause skin irritation. Despite extensive studies that show the protective benefit of DEET and that the chemical is safe when used correctly, fear lingers. Before writing off DEET as a repellent, here are a few things to consider:
1. The overall incidence of DEET poisoning is very low: In 1998 the Environmental Protection Agency conducted a definitive assessment of the chemical. The agency turned up 46 seizures and four deaths that were potentially linked to DEET exposure. It estimated that since 1960, the incidence of seizures with a potential link to DEET exposure was one per 100 million uses- those are also the odds of being hit by lightening in a given year!
2. Most of those reported cases involved a misuse of DEET products: Ingestion or “dermal application not consistent with label instructions” was the most common source of potential DEET toxicity, according to the EPA report. The agency concluded that when consumers followed product-label instructions and took reasonable precautions, the health risks of DEET essentially vanished.
3. The vast majority of cases of DEET toxicity are mild: In another seminal analysis, researchers looked at more than 9,000 calls made to poison control centers between 1985 and 1989. They found that nearly 90 percent of the injuries were treated at home, and that of those people referred to health centers, 80 percent were discharged after an examination. A second analysis of more than 20,000 calls made between 1993 and 1997 found similar results.
4. There is no reliable evidence that DEET causes cancer: Neither the Department of Health and Human Services nor the EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs has classified DEET as a carcinogen. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, animal studies have not found an increase in tumors in research subjects who were given oral DEET tablets or who had liquid DEET applied to their skin.
An alternative is using Picaridin, which is a synthetic version of a repellent found in pepper plants. Picaridin is effective against a wider range of bugs, and often has less of an odor than DEET.
Picaridin vs. DEET
Because they’re the most effective repellents, people often ask which is better. Here’s a quick comparison:
- DEET: It’s considered the gold standard in terms of its effectiveness. It’s been used and studied more than any other repellent in human history, though it must be handled carefully because it can damage plastics (think sunglasses, trekking pole grips, etc.)
- Picaridin: Though it’s been around for fewer decades, its efficacy is considered comparable to DEET for mosquitoes and ticks, and it works better on flies. Picaridin also has minimal odor and no damaging effect on plastics and other synthetics.
The other alternative is using OLE (oil of lemon eucalyptus), a natural compound that, at a 30% potency, did well in tests repelling against mosquitoes and ticks for around 7 hours. Caution is recommended for use on children under 3.
What doesn’t work:
Extensive testing done by several groups (FDA, Consumer Reports, The Centers For Disease Control) show that the following items are ineffective against repelling insects.
Wrist Bands– I can attest to this. My daughter and I wore them when she refused to wear cream repellents when we went on a cruise one year. We both came back to the boat with dozens of bites our first day, ruining our trip and pictures.
Candles- While a great way to set the ambiance of an outdoor party, candles are ineffective at repelling insects. A better option is having outdoor fans running, but even then, the immediate effect is only felt if you are sitting pretty close to the wind flow.
Fan Propelled Spray- Clip on repellents may seem like a great idea because they allow you to avoid rubbing chemicals directly onto your skin. But, the CDC says that wearable foggers “have not been adequately evaluated for their efficacy in preventing vector-borne diseases.” Some also contain the chemical metofluthrin, which is classified by the EPA as a neurotoxin and a potential carcinogen.
Sonic Repellents– The Federal Trade Commission has been warning consumers about ultrasonic pest control devices for decades, as manufacturers do not have the scientific evidence required to back up their claims of effectiveness.
You can read Consumer Report’s methods for testing here.
What About Natural Alternatives:
Natural plant oils are not regulated by the FDA for safety or effectiveness. It is not advised that sprays with natural oils be used on skin, as the quality of the ingredients, or any additives, aren’t regulated. Some people do choose to mix their own sprays using essential oils, but check with your provider, as skin irritation could occur.
Synthesized plant oils, like OLE (oil of lemon eucalyptus) and IR3535, are regulated by the FDA, but don’t protect quite as long and are only effective against mosquitoes and some tick species. Plant-based repellents appeal to those who prefer more natural formulations, but their performance significantly lags in levels of protection, length of protection and how many bugs they repel.
In addition to wearing repellent in areas that are known to have disease carrying insects, preventing insects from breeding is also essential in preventing disease. To prevent mosquitoes, avoid having any containers of standing water in your yard- think buckets, plant saucers, pools, clogged gutters, poorly draining grass or dirt. Even a bottle cap filled with water can have larvae. Clear any heavily shrubbed areas- mosquitoes love cool, dark environments. If you prefer to leave the plants (after all, we do want to enjoy beautiful living spaces!) consider using a plant-safe outdoor spray that repels insects from gathering around foliage. The video below shares some great ideas for avoiding mosquitoes from breeding.
Maintain any grass in your yard short to help keep ticks away. If you’re in an area where ticks are prevalent, always do a tick check of animals and children after they’ve come in from playing outside. Also wear lightweight full-sleeved shirts, long pants, and hats when spending extensive time in areas where insects are guaranteed to be around.
Bug bites aren’t fun. They not only cause diseases, but also itch and produce unsightly rashes. We all want to enjoy the outdoors with a minimum of issues and stress. Coming home the same way we left is always the goal.
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