Is DEET Bad for You (and Your Kids)?
Nobody wants to become a buffet for bloodthirsty mosquitos or ticks. But dousing yourself (and your kids) in insect repellent seems like a bad idea. Are DEET-based bug sprays safe for you and your kids?
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.
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.)
Another checkmark in DEET’s favor: It breaks down quickly in the environment, so it’s not considered harmful to wildlife.
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.
As with any chemical, it’s important to follow directions when using DEET-based bug spray. Some safety tips to keep in mind:
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.”