You can lower your chance of being bitten by an insect or
spiderlike animal (arachnid) by using insect repellents. Mosquitoes, biting
flies, and ticks can cause annoying bites and sometimes a serious disease.
Mosquito bites can spread infections such as
West Nile virus, a virus that causes swelling of the
brain (encephalitis), and
malaria in some parts of the world. Tick bites can cause serious diseases such as
Lyme disease and
Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Bites from biting flies
are painful and may cause a
You can buy many
different kinds of insect repellents. Some work better than others. DEET
provides the longest-lasting protection against mosquito bites.2
If you have a question or concern
about the use of insect repellents, or if you are pregnant or nursing, talk with your doctor.
Products that work the best
(N,N-diethyl-3-meta-toluamide) is the most effective insect repellent.
- A solution of 23.8%
DEET provides about 5 hours of protection from mosquitoes.2 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 a 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 haven't shown that DEET causes cancer or other illnesses.
- 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. When applying DEET to a child older than 2 months of age:
- Use it only when there is a high risk of insect bites.
- Use a repellent with the lowest strength of DEET available (usually 10% to 30%).
- As with all insect repellents, use DEET sparingly, and never apply to the hands or near the eyes.
- Read and follow all instructions on the label.
- If you are pregnant or
breastfeeding 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 breastfeeding.
- 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.1 If you need to use sunscreen and DEET at
the same time, put on sunscreen first and wait 20 minutes before applying DEET.
Do not use DEET on skin that will be covered by clothing.
- DEET should also be used carefully on clothing. DEET may damage
some synthetic fabrics as well as plastic watch crystals and eyeglass
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 it is combined with DEET, permethrin provides even better
protection against mosquitoes. Permethrin keeps working even after you wash
your clothes. You can buy clothes that already contain permethrin (such as BugsAway, Bug Shield, or Buzz Off) to help protect against mosquito bites.
P-menthane-3,8-diol is commonly known as lemon eucalyptus oil. When oil of lemon eucalyptus was tested against mosquitoes found in the U.S., it provided protection similar to repellents with low concentrations of DEET. It provides up to 2 hours of protection against mosquito bites. Do not apply more than 2 times a day. And do not use this product on children younger than 3 years.
Soybean oil. Insect repellents that contain 2% soybean oil provide 1 to 4 hours of protection from mosquitoes when applied to the skin. Soybean oil is safe to use on infants and children.
IR3535. This repellent is a chemical similar to the amino acid alanine. Tests have shown that it can protect against mosquito bites for up to 1 hour.2
Products that don't protect against bites for long periods of time
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.
Other plant oils, such as lavender and geranium, provide less than 30 minutes of protection against mosquitoes. These products aren't recommended.
Products sold as repellents that don't work well to prevent bites
There are other products advertised as
mosquito repellents that don't effectively prevent mosquito bites. These
- Electronic (sometimes called ultrasonic)
- Electrocuting devices, which are often called "bug
- Mosquito traps.
- Geranium house
- Citronella candles.
- Taking thiamine (vitamin
- Skin moisturizers that don't contain approved
- Wrist, ankle, and neck bands that contain
repellents, such as DEET or citronella.
How to use insect repellent safely
Read and follow all instructions on the label. The U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA) recommends the following precautions for using insect
- Apply repellents only to exposed skin or clothing
as directed on the product label. Do not use under clothing.
apply a repellent to cuts, wounds, or irritated skin.
- Do not apply
to the eyes and mouth, and apply sparingly around the ears. When using sprays, do
not spray directly into your face. Spray on your hand first, and then apply to
- Do not allow your child to handle the product, and don't apply
the repellent to your child's hands. When using a repellent on your child,
apply it to your hands and then put it on the child.
- Do not spray in
enclosed areas, such as inside a car. Avoid breathing a repellent spray, and do
not use it near food.
- Use just enough repellent to cover exposed
skin or clothing. Heavy application and saturation generally isn't necessary for
effectiveness. If biting insects don't respond to a thin film, apply a bit
- After returning indoors, wash treated skin with soap and
water and then bathe. This is particularly important when repellents are used
repeatedly in a day or several days in a row. Also, wash treated clothing
before you wear it again.
- If you think you or your child may be having a reaction to an insect repellent, stop using the repellent, wash treated
skin, and call your doctor or local poison control center. If you see your doctor, take the repellent with you.
Insect Bites and Stings and Spider Bites
West Nile Virus
Committee to Advise on Tropical Medicine and Travel (2005). Statement on personal protective measures to prevent arthropod bites. Canada Communicable Disease Report, 31: 1–20. Available online at http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/publicat/ccdr-rmtc/05vol31/asc-dcc-4/.
Fradin MS, Day JF (2002). Comparative efficacy of insect repellents against mosquito bites. New England Journal of Medicine, 347(1): 13–18.