June 25, 2023

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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.”

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