Insect repellents to prevent bites and stings

Several products are available to protect against insect bites and stings. Some are synthetic, and others are plant-based. They vary in how well they work.

DEET (N,N-diethyl-3-meta-toluamide) is the most effective insect repellent.1

  • A solution of 23.8% DEET provides about 5 hours of protection from mosquitoes. DEET is available in varying strengths up to 100%. Research shows that strengths greater than 50% do not provide substantially higher protection. Unless you are in areas with large number of mosquitoes, repellents with 10% to 24% DEET should keep most mosquitoes away from your skin.
  • Concerns have been raised about safety because DEET is applied to the skin. Studies over the past 40 years have not shown that DEET causes cancer or other illnesses.
  • Expert disagree about the safest concentration of DEET to use on children. No serious illness has been linked to the use of DEET in children when used according to the product recommendations. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and other experts suggest that it is safe to apply DEET in concentrations of 10% to 30% DEET to children older than age 2 months.
  • If you are pregnant or breast-feeding and have concerns about the use of DEET, talk with your doctor. There is no evidence that the use of DEET by pregnant or lactating women poses a health hazard to developing babies or children who are breast-feeding.
  • Do not use DEET products that are combined with sunscreen. Sunscreen needs to be applied more often than DEET.
  • DEET reduces how well sunscreen works by one-third. If you need to use sunscreen and DEET at the same time, put on sunscreen first and wait 20 minutes before applying DEET.
  • DEET should also be used carefully on clothing. DEET may damage some synthetic fabrics as well as plastic watch crystals and eyeglass frames.

Picaridin is an insecticide that has been available for use in Europe for many years. It is available in the United States in a 7% concentration spray. It may work as well as DEET in repelling insects. Higher-strength concentrations that are sold in Europe protect against mosquitoes for up to 8 hours. Picaridin is odorless and does not feel sticky or greasy. It is less likely to cause skin irritation than DEET. And it does not damage synthetic fabrics or plastics. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) does not recommend the use of Picaridin on children younger than age 2 months.

Permethrin is a plant-based insecticide that works on contact. You spray it on clothing and other fabrics, such as mosquito netting and tent walls. Permethrin should not be applied directly to the skin. When combined with DEET, permethrin provides even better protection against mosquitoes. Permethrin keeps working, even after you wash your clothes.

Repel Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent and Fite Bite Plant-Based Insect Repellent are botanical repellents. These products provided complete protection for at least 1 hour.

Bite Blocker is a natural product that combines soybean, geranium, and coconut oils. It has been used for several years in Europe. An application of 2% soybean oil provides about 1½ hours of protection from mosquitoes.

Citronella is a lemon-scented oil, derived from a plant, that repels mosquitoes. It is not as effective or as long-lasting as DEET. The product can be reapplied frequently to increase its effectiveness. Citronella can be found in lotions or in candles for outdoor use. Citronella applied to the skin provides 15 to 20 minutes of protection from mosquitoes. There is no scientific evidence that citronella candles are effective.

Avon's Skin-So-Soft is a lotion that became popular several years ago when some people said it repelled mosquitoes. The fragrance and certain chemicals in the lotion do repel some insects. Skin-So-Soft offers 3 to 10 minutes of protection from mosquitoes. The company also now sells a Skin-So-Soft product that contains a U.S. government-recognized repellent. This repellent offers about 20 minutes of protection.

Citations

  1. Fradin MS, Day JF (2002). Comparative efficacy of insect repellents against mosquito bites. New England Journal of Medicine, 347(1): 13–18.

Last Updated: April 14, 2009

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