Locations:
Search IconSearch

Is DEET Bad for You?

Studies show the insect repellent is safe and effective at preventing insect-borne illness

HIker spraying bug spray with DEET on legs

Nobody wants to become a buffet for bloodthirsty mosquitoes or ticks. But is dousing yourself or your kids with a DEET-based bug spray really the best answer? Applying chemicals to skin just seems … well, unhealthy.

Advertisement

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

Let’s check in with dermatologist Amy Kassouf, MD, to find out whether DEET is safe for you and your family.

What is DEET?

Let’s start with the basics: DEET is a chemical mixture used as an insect repellent. The name is an acronym built from its scientific ID — N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide, or diethyltoluamide. (Clearly, DEET is a bit catchier and easier to say.)

U.S. Army researchers developed DEET in 1946 given the battles that soldiers fought against mosquitoes in World War II. The repellent entered the civilian realm in 1957.

Today, DEET is used by more than 200 million people around the world to ward off mosquitoes, fleas, ticks, flies and chiggers. Avoiding bites means avoiding insect-borne illnesses such as:

“We’re seeing an increase of these mosquito- and tick-borne diseases,” says Dr. Kassouf. “The more I see these illnesses, the more I become a proponent of DEET. It’s the most effective ingredient we have to keep bugs at bay.”

Is DEET bad for you?

Studies show that DEET is quite safe when used as directed. In a 2014 review of the repellent, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found no “risks of concern” to people or the overall environment.

In the U.S., DEET is registered for use on your skin, hair, clothes and footwear. (Side note: There’s also a DEET product approved for horses.)

Now that doesn’t mean there haven’t been any reactions to DEET. It’s a chemical, after all — and bodies often react to chemicals. Some people experience rashes or irritated skin after using DEET. It can also irritate your eyes if sprayed too close to your peepers.

More alarming, there have been rare reports of seizures associated with DEET. But according to the National Pesticide Information Center, most of those cases followed people drinking products with DEET or otherwise using them in ways that don’t follow recommended guidelines.

But overall, reactions are few and far between given the hundreds of millions of users.

Is DEET safe for kids?

As noted, researchers say that health concerns connected to DEET have been rare — and that includes when the repellent is used on kiddos. Given that, the EPA has no age restriction for using products with DEET.

Advertisement

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends applying DEET sparingly as needed until children reach age 2. The AAP also urges parents to be “especially cautious” about using DEET on newborns or premature infants.

Guidelines for using insect repellent advise that children shouldn’t handle DEET products or apply them on their own. In addition, it’s recommended that treated skin be washed with soap and water after going back inside.

When applying insect repellent on children, spray your hands and rub it onto their faces so they don’t inhale the vapors. Keep the products off little hands, too, given how kiddie fingers always seem to end up in their mouths.)

Can you use DEET while pregnant?

Studies haven’t shown a connection between DEET use and pregnancy-related issues or increased risk of birth defects. Researchers say that the benefits of using DEET during pregnancy to avoid insect-borne illness “may outweigh any possible risk.”

This is especially true if you’re in an area where the Zika virus is active, says Dr. Kassouf. Studies show that the Zika virus can cause birth defects in developing fetuses.

Still concerned and want to minimize your exposure? Then try covering up with more clothing to limit how much DEET-based insect repellent reaches your skin. (Plus, it gives pesky bugs less area to target.)

How to use DEET safely

It’s important to follow directions when using DEET-based bug spray. Some safety tips to keep in mind:

  • A little goes a long way. Higher concentrations of DEET don’t work better — they just last longer. If you’re taking a short hike or spending an hour by a bonfire, use products with lower DEET concentrations. Products with 10% DEET should repel bugs for about two hours; those with concentrations of 20% to 30% last around five hours.
  • Limit exposure. Cover up with pants and long sleeves to minimize the amount of skin exposed to bug sprays (and bugs). Avoid putting repellent on cuts or irritated skin, too. Apply spray in well-ventilated areas to avoid breathing in a DEET cloud.
  • Once is enough. Unless you’re out all day in a bug-infested forest, you probably don’t need to re-apply DEET. Skip the bug spray/sunscreen combos, too, as you’ll definitely want to touch up your SPF at some point.

Alternatives to DEET

Still uncertain about DEET? Natural bug sprays, like citronella and lemon eucalyptus oil, might be helpful for light mosquito duty.

But if you’re in an area with prevalent tick-borne or mosquito-borne illnesses, you might want to look beyond the all-natural options. DEET remains the “gold standard” for insect repellent, says Dr. Kassouf.

“Used correctly,” she says, “it prevents more health problems than it causes by far.”

Advertisement

Learn more about our editorial process.

Related Articles

Caregivers holding toddler, playing in ocean
June 18, 2024/Infectious Disease
How To Stay Safe From Recreational Waterborne Diseases

You can reduce your risk by not swallowing water, and showering before and after swimming

People biking, scootering and walking in a park
June 11, 2024/Children's Health
Cycle Smart: 8 Bike Safety Tips for Kids

Make sure their bike is the right size, find a helmet that fits properly and teach them the rules of the road

Smiling parent holding smiling baby in a pool
June 7, 2024/Children's Health
When Can Babies Go in the Pool?

Wait until they’re at least 6 months old before your little one takes their first dunk

Glass of beer on table at beach with beach-goers
June 3, 2024/Skin Care & Beauty
Why Experts Say To Avoid Beer Tanning

You’re putting your skin at risk of sunburn and even skin cancer when you pour on the beer

Smiling person under sunny blue sky, holding tube of sunscreen, applying to face
May 24, 2024/Primary Care
The Difference Between Mineral and Chemical Sunscreens

Mineral sunscreens have a heavier texture to create a physical barrier, while chemical sunscreens are lighter and use a chemical reaction to prevent UV damage

Fish and mango soft taco
May 24, 2024/Recipes
Recipe Adventure: 7 Easy Summer Meals That Won’t Make You Sweat

From grilled peaches to grilled chicken pesto pizza, these easy summer recipes are sure to delight all summer long

Lifeguard looking at water with binoculars while two kids fly kites on the beach
May 23, 2024/Primary Care
12 Summer Health Risks To Watch Out For

From bug bites and blisters to sunstroke and swimming safety, here’s how to stay well this season

Jellyfish sting on wrist and thigh
May 20, 2024/Primary Care
Should You Pee on a Jellyfish Sting?

This persistent myth isn’t true and can actually cause more pain than relief

Trending Topics

Female and friend jogging outside
How To Increase Your Metabolism for Weight Loss

Focus on your body’s metabolic set point by eating healthy foods, making exercise a part of your routine and reducing stress

stovetop with stainless steel cookware and glassware
5 Ways Forever Chemicals (PFAS) May Affect Your Health

PFAS chemicals may make life easier — but they aren’t always so easy on the human body

jar of rice water and brush, with rice scattered around table
Could Rice Water Be the Secret To Healthier Hair?

While there’s little risk in trying this hair care treatment, there isn’t much science to back up the claims

Ad