Is DEET safe? New insect repellent study offers surprising insight

Who would’ve thought bug spray could repel people, too?

That’s what’s happening with DEET, that much-maligned ingredient found in insect repellents with tough-sounding names like “Deep Woods” and “Sportsmen.” While some Scouts and Scouters swear by the stuff, others have sworn it off completely.

Who’s right? A recent study from the Environmental Working Group aims to answer that question once and for all.

Turns out DEET (or N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide if you’re looking to impress friends) has a safety profile that’s better than many people assume. “Its effectiveness at preventing bites is approached by only a few other repellent ingredients,” the study suggests.

On the plus side, if used as directed, DEET is considered safe by many public health organizations, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control, the American Academy of Pediatrics and World Health Organization (AAP 2005, CDC 2013D, EPA 1998, Schutze 2013, WHO 2012). DEET is among those chemicals recommended by WHO for protection against disease-carrying mosquitoes and is the only repellent recommended by the CDC to protect against Lyme disease (CDC 2013D, WHO 2012).

Like any chemicals you’d put on or in your body, the key is reading and following the directions. For example, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) doesn’t recommend using sprays with more than 30 percent DEET on anyone. And certain chemicals aren’t safe to use on children.

Whenever you press down on the spray-bottle trigger, you’re making a choice between the harms caused by bug bites and the potential harms from the spray itself. Last year, 286 Americans died from exposure to West Nile Virus, carried by mosquitos. And ticks carrying Lyme disease affected 24,364 people in 2011.

With those sobering numbers in mind, EWG writes: “DEET isn’t a perfect choice nor the only choice. But weighed against the consequences of Lyme disease and West Nile virus, we believe it is a reasonable one.”

The four best ingredients

But there’s more out there than just DEET. The four repellent ingredients that EWG found to be top picks are:

  • Picaridin: Safer than DEET and odorless but a shorter protection time
  • IR3535: Good safety profile but can irritate eyes and melt some plastics
  • DEET: Very effective and widely used but should be limited in use on children
  • Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus and its synthetic derivative PMD: Most effective botanical ingredient but not for children 3 and under and can irritate lungs

For the full guide and pros and cons, go here.

Repellents to avoid

Bug zappers, yard bug treatments, clip-on repellents, candles and pure essential oils were all deemed unsafe or ineffective by EWG.

You tell me

Which kind of bug spray or insect-repelling techniques does your Scout unit use?


Photo: Some rights reserved by Spokenhope | H/T to Scott F. for the post idea

About Bryan Wendell 2882 Articles
Bryan Wendell, an Eagle Scout, is the founder of Bryan on Scouting and a contributing writer.