Having lived in a dry, relatively bug-free area for 8 years now, my family and I don’t have to deal with many biting insects. So we don’t have much need for insect repellents, except when we travel. When we do travel, I avoid DEET (N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide) and other synthetic chemical repellents and opt instead for making or buying repellents with essential oils. For many years, I’ve stayed away from the synthetic stuff just on principal; there are many chemicals and toxins in the environment that we unfortunately cannot avoid, so I try to steer clear of those that I can, DEET included. I also don’t like the smell of DEET-based repellents. That stuff stinks! I guess that’s the point… There are certainly times when keeping the bugs away is important. But, I have heard mixed reviews about DEET, so I wanted to find out for myself whether its bad reputation is deserved. Following is a summary of what I have learned.
West Nile Virus, Lyme Disease, and Other Illnesses Spread by Biting Insects
There are of course a number of concerns related to biting insects. For one thing, it often hurts to get bitten, and the site of the bite can become swollen and itchy. Some people (like my husband) tend to attract bugs more than others. So for those whose skin seems to shout “Over here, over here!” to mosquitos and other bugs, finding an effective repellent really is important.
Aside from biting bugs being annoying, they can also carry and spread disease. Two such diseases are West Nile virus, which is carried by mosquitos, and Lyme disease, which is transmitted by ticks. West Nile virus mainly affects persons over the age of 5o and those with compromised immune systems. Fortunately, most people who are infected with this virus never develop any symptoms. Some people may have headaches, joint pain, fever, vomiting, diarrhea, and a rash. In the most rare cases, the virus can infect the area around the spinal cord, leading to coma, paralysis, and death. However, even in high-risk areas, only about 1 in 500 mosquitos carry it (source). If you have concerns about West Nile virus in your area, you can check this map from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to see if you live in a location that has high West Nile virus activity.
Lyme disease is a bacterial infection carried by ticks. Symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue, and a rash. Because it caused by bacteria, Lyme disease can be treated with antibiotics. Most people, I think, would prefer to avoid Lyme disease rather than have to treat it, though.
Another, new virus, Chikungunya, has shown up in the Caribbean. This virus is also carried by mosquitos and can cause fever, joint pain, and a crippling arthritis (source).
Because such diseases can be transmitted from biting insects, taking precautions to avoid these bugs can be very important.
Is DEET a Good Insect Repelling Option?
DEET was first developed for the U.S. Army and was approved for consumer use in the 1950s. It is known to be one of the most effective bug repellents on the market. So if you live in an area with a lot of biting insects or spend a lot of time outdoors, then this is one advantage of DEET. When it is used as directed, DEET is actually considered safe by many public health organizations, including the EPA, CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the World Health Organization. I was surprised to learn last summer that even the Environmental Working Group recommends using DEET with caution. The EPA reviewed DEET’s safety record in 1998 and again in 2014. The agency concluded that it was safe after both reviews.
Although the general consensus of these health organizations is that DEET is safe when used properly, I’m still wary of it. There are natural alternatives that work for my family and me, so I’d prefer to use them instead. Formulas made with essential oils, for example, are just as effective for us. We use Verefina Bug Defense in particular. Because there are natural insect repellents that work well, I believe it is best to use them before trying products that contain DEET. Urvashi Rangan, executive director of the Consumer Reports Food Safety and Sustainability Center notes that “DEET and other chemical-based repellents should only be used if other safer methods don’t work for you” (source). See below for other ways to avoid insect bites.
DEET is available in the U.S. in concentrations ranging from around 5% all the way up to 100%. Yes, 100%! But higher concentrations don’t necessarily mean increased protection from insects. The concentration relates to how long you will be protected against bugs, not how effective the product is. If you’re going to be outdoors for a couple of hours, a concentration of 7-10% is all that is needed. For all day protection, 20-30% will work. Levels above 30% simply are not necessary and are actually prohibited in Canada.
Many of the adverse reactions that result from the use of DEET occur when it is used in high concentrations, or when it has been applied for several days in a row (source). For example, it can cause allergic skin reactions and eye irritation at concentrations of 50% or above. DEET has also been known to cause seizures, slurred speech, and coma. But these symptoms generally occurred in people who ingested DEET, applied it for three or more days in a row, or used products with 95% DEET or more. Children, seniors, and those with weakened immune systems also appear to be particularly vulnerable to the side effects of DEET and should use extra caution with it.
The Best Ways to Protect Yourself From Bugs
* If possible, stay indoors in the morning and evening, when mosquito are at their peak
* Use nets or fans around outdoor eating areas
* Cover strollers and baby carriers with nets
* Avoid fragrances, which can attract bugs
* Plant mosquito-repelling plants such as geraniums, lemon thyme, marigold, tansy, citrosa plants, sweet basil and/or sassafras near your home
* Remove standing water that can attract bugs (think bird baths, kiddies pools, gutters, flowers pots, and pet dishes)If you’ve exhausted all other options and find that you still need to use DEET, it is best to avoid high concentrations. The EWG recommends that adults use solutions of no more than 30%. If you’re going to be in high-risk areas for only a couple hours, then a much lower concentration- around 10%- is all that you’ll need. It is also probably best not to use DEET for more than a few days in a row. Also be sure to avoid sunscreen/bug repellent combinations. Because sunscreen must be reapplied every couple of hours, you will be overexposing yourself to DEET if you use these products.
While DEET is an effective insect repellent, it certainly is not the safest one. There are a variety of ways to keep the bugs away, and it is my feeling that most or all of these strategies should be tried before turning to DEET.
Consumer Reports. “Chemical-Based Insect Repellents Work, But You May Want to Try Safer Alternatives.” The Washington Post. 23 June 2014. Web. 23 June 2014.
“EWG’s Do’s and Don’ts for Avoiding Bug Bites.” The Environmental Working Group. 17 July 2013. Web. 3 July 2014.
“Repellent Chemicals.” The Environmental Working Group. 17 July 2013. Web. 1 July 2014.
Sharp, Renee. “100% DEET: Good Bug Protection or Bad Idea?” The Environmental Working Group. 23 July 2013. Web. 25 June 2014.
Walls, Kim. “Protect Your Family From West Nile Virus.” Healthy Child, Healthy World. 5 September 2012. Web. 26 June 2014.
“West Nile Virus Activity by State- United States 2014.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 8 July 2014. Web. 30 June 2014.
Zissu, Alexandra. “Skeeter Beater: Non-Toxic Tips to Prevent and Soothe Bug Bites.” Healthy Child, Healthy World. 16 July 2013. Web. 29 June 2014.
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