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Diseases & Topics

Safe Use of Insect Repellents

Products containing DEET (N,N-diethyl-m-toluamide) are the most effective mosquito repellents available. These products are used to repel biting pests such as mosquitoes and ticks, including the ticks that may carry Lyme disease. The concentration of DEET in products may range from less than 10 percent to over 30 percent. The maximum concentration currently recommended for infants over two months of age and children is 30 percent (do not use on babies younger than 2 months old). Products with concentrations around 10 percent are effective for periods of approximately two hours. As the concentration of DEET increases, the duration of protection increases. For example, a DEET concentration of about 24 percent has been shown to provide an average of five hours of protection.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also recommends repellents with picaridin and repellents with oil of lemon eucalyptus or 2 percent soybean oil. Currently these products have a duration of action that is comparable to that of about 10 percent DEET. Chemical repellants containing permethrin should NOT be applied to skin but should only be used to treat clothing; the chemical must dry completely before the clothing can be safely worn.

A person's chances of experiencing adverse health effects from using insect repellents are low if the following precautions are followed.

Precautions While Using Insect Repellents

  • Read and follow all directions and precautions on the product label.
  • Do not apply DEET-containing products on infants under two months of age.
  • Do not use a product containing more than 30 percent DEET for children.
  • Combination products, such as those combining repellent and sunscreen should not be used. Sunscreens often are applied repeatedly because they are washed off. Unlike sunscreen, very little DEET would be washed off with water and will last for several hours. Repeated application of a DEET-containing sunscreen product may increase the potential for toxic effects of DEET.
  • Apply repellents only to exposed skin and/or clothing (as directed on the product label). Do not use under clothing.
  • Never use repellents over cuts, wounds, or irritated skin.
  • Do not apply to eyes and mouth, and apply sparingly around ears. When using sprays do not spray directly onto face — spray on hands first and then apply to face.
  • Do not allow children to handle the products and do not apply to children's hands. When using on children, apply to your own hands and then put it on the child.
  • Do not spray in enclosed areas. Avoid breathing a repellent spray and do not use it near food.
  • Use just enough repellent to cover exposed skin and/or clothing. Heavy application and saturation is generally unnecessary for effectiveness. If biting insects are not repelled by a thin film of repellent, then apply a bit more.
  • After returning indoors, wash treated skin with soap and water or bathe. This is particularly important when repellents are used repeatedly in a day or on consecutive days. Also, wash treated clothing before wearing it again.
  • If you suspect that you or your child is reacting to an insect repellent, discontinue use, wash treated skin, and then call your local poison control center. To reach a Poison Control Center near you, call the national number at 1-800-222-1222. If you go to a doctor, take the repellent with you.
  • Get specific medical information about the active ingredients in repellents and other pesticides by calling the National Pesticide Information Center (NPIC) at 1-800-858-7378 or emailing NPIC operates from 9:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Eastern Time (6:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Pacific Time), 7 days a week. The NPIC Web site is: External link.

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