Is DEET Bad for You (and Your Kids)?

A look at bug spray safety
HIker spraying bug spray with DEET on legs

Nobody wants to become a buffet for bloodthirsty mosquitoes or ticks. But as a parent, you make a point to steer your children away from hazardous substances. Dousing them with insect repellent can feel…counterproductive.

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What’s an outdoors-loving parent to do? We talked to dermatologist Amy Kassouf, MD, to find out whether DEET-based bug sprays are safe for your family.

Keeping bugs at bay

DEET is the active ingredient in most common insect repellents. It’s an old-timer, used for more than half a century to ward off mosquitoes and ticks. After all that time, it’s still the best for keeping bugs at bay. “It’s the most effective ingredient we have,” Dr. Kassouf says.

And it’s quite safe. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has approved DEET for use in people of all ages, including children. Some people experience rashes or irritated skin after using DEET, and it can irritate eyes if you spray it too close.

More alarming, there have been rare reports of seizures associated with DEET. But according to the National Pesticide Information Center, most of those cases involved drinking products with DEET — or otherwise using them in ways not described on the label directions. (Note to self: Do not chug the bug spray.)

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Another checkmark in DEET’s favor: It breaks down quickly in the environment, so it’s not considered harmful to wildlife.

Insects spread disease

Bug bites aren’t just annoying. Mosquitoes spread dangerous diseases such as Zika virus and malaria — and West Nile virus in the continental United States. Ticks spread serious illnesses such as Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

We’re seeing an increase of these mosquito- and tick-borne diseases. The more I see these illnesses, the more I become a proponent of DEET.

Using insect repellent safely

As with any chemical, it’s important to follow directions when using DEET-based bug spray. Some safety tips to keep in mind:

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  • 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 the bonfire, reach for lower concentrations. Products with 10% DEET should repel bugs for about 2 hours, while those with concentrations of 20% to 30% last around 5.
  • Limit exposure. Cover up with pants and long sleeves to minimize the amount of skin exposed to bugs (and bug sprays). Try not to spray on cuts or irritated skin, and apply in well-ventilated areas to avoid breathing a DEET-cloud. When applying to kids, spray your hands and rub it onto their faces so they don’t inhale the vapors. (And keep it off of little hands, which always end up in little mouths.)
  • Once is enough. Unless you’re out all day in a bug-infested forest, you probably don’t need to apply DEET more than once a day. So skip the bug spray/sunscreen combos, since you’ll definitely want to touch up your SPF.
  • For babies and expecting moms, think twice. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends against using DEET products in infants under 2 months old. And while there aren’t reports of issues in pregnant women, DEET hasn’t been specifically studied in that group, Dr. Kassouf says. She recommends pregnant women minimize their use of insect repellent by covering up with clothing and avoiding it when it’s not necessary. (Exception: Reach for the DEET if you’re traveling in an area with Zika virus, which can cause birth defects in developing fetuses.)

Natural bug spray alternatives

Still uncertain about DEET? Natural bug sprays, such as citronella and lemon eucalyptus oil, might be helpful for light mosquito duty. But if you’re in an area where tick-borne or mosquito-borne illnesses are prevalent, you might want to look beyond the all-natural options.

“DEET is still the gold standard,” Dr. Kassouf says. “Used correctly, it prevents more health problems than it causes by far.”

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