DEET safety

Is there a safe way to prevent insects from sucking the fun out of summer?

Is there a safe way to prevent insects from sucking the fun out of summer? Products to deter pesky bugs can contain harmful chemicals. However, insects carry diseases such as Lyme disease and the West Nile Virus. So what do you do to protect yourself and your family?

DEET, or diethyltoluamide, is a common active ingredient in insect repellents, but because it is a potent chemical, it can cause side effects if not used properly.

“DEET is a powerful ingredient intended to avert pests such as mosquitos, ticks and chiggers,” said Ashley Webb, board-certified toxicologist and director of the Kentucky Regional Poison Control Center of Norton Children’s Hospital. “Like any chemical-based product, side effects, although rare, can occur. However, these reactions are less likely when proper precautions are taken.”

The Environmental Protection Agency has stated that DEET is the safest and most effective repellent chemical against a wide range of insects. Webb adds that by using preventive measures such as a bug spray containing DEET, we are decreasing our chances of contracting insect-spread illnesses.

“DEET-based products are a safe route for you and your family when used appropriately, always paying close attention to the safety instructions on the package,” Webb said.

Webb advises obeying the following guidelines when using DEET:

  • Do not apply over cuts, wounds or irritated skin
  • Do not apply directly to hands, eyes or mouth
  • Do not use underneath clothing
  • Wash treated skin before sleeping to avoid prolonged exposure
  • Do not use on children younger than 2 months old
  • Do not use if pregnant

For the best protection against insects, look for a product that lists the DEET concentration. This label indicates how long the spray is effective. Products may contain 4 to100 percent DEET. The ideal amount, according to Webb, is 10 to 30 percent DEET concentration, which will be effective for 2 to 5 hours.

Finally, if you also need sun protection, apply sunscreen 20 minutes before insect repellent.

Natural alternatives to DEET-based insect repellent include soy oil and oil of lemon eucalyptus. Comparable to DEET, these oils deflect insects; however, natural alternatives do not last long after application. Like DEET natural oils are not to be ingested or applied to open wounds. Dissimilarly, natural oils should not be applied to children younger than 3 years old and should be reapplied every 30 minutes.

Always take proper precautions when using DEET. If ingestion is suspected or you think you are experiencing a negative reaction, call the Kentucky Regional Poison Control Center’s 24/7 helpline at (800) 222-1222. Calls are free of charge and medical experts are trained to assess the situation and symptoms, as well as recommend appropriate care.


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