As a Scout attending summer camp one year, I remember taking garlic tablets to repel mosquitoes.
Bad news: We still got bitten. Good news: We didn’t see a single vampire the whole week.
These days, defending yourself and your Scouts from mosquitoes is even more of an arm- and leg- and head-scratcher than it was in the ’90s.
And in the age of Zika, West Nile and chikungunya, its importance has become even more pronounced.
Just in time for mosquito season, let’s go over the latest recommendations for protecting yourself from those flying menaces.
What the BSA says
The BSA Fieldbook, on page 236, recommends using products with DEET as the active ingredient.
But it reminds Scouts that “DEET can have a destructive effect on synthetic clothing and equipment such as sleeping bags and tents.”
In other words, be careful where you aim the spray bottle.
What the outdoors experts say
The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization of scientists who study the effects that chemicals have on human health, has a handy guide to bug repellents.
Here are some of my key takeaways.
What kinds of repellent are best?
For the strongest protection against mosquitoes, especially the Aedes mosquito that carries Zika, EWG says to use one of these three repellents:
- Picaridin (20 percent concentration)
- IR3535 (20 percent concentration)
- DEET (20 percent to 30 percent concentration)
Choose a concentration based on the amount of time you or your child will spend outdoors.
Still OK but less effective against the Aedes mosquito:
- Oil of lemon eucalyptus (30 percent to 40 percent)
Of course, you’ll want to follow manufacturer’s guidelines on how much and how often to use. Some of these chemicals should not be used on infants and young children.
For example, Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus/PMD should not be used on children younger than 3 years old.
OK, then what kind is the best of the best?
DEET. Here’s what EWG says:
Many people are understandably concerned about the possible drawbacks of common insect repellents such as DEET. In researching our 2013 report, we spent 18 months digging into the question: What are the safest and most effective ways to prevent bug bites and the diseases they may transmit?
We concluded that there is no sure, completely safe way to prevent bug bites. All bug repellents have pros and cons.
But some repellents are effective and relatively low in toxicity — provided you take precautions when using them, particularly on children.
Among the three repellent chemicals that are EWG’s top picks is DEET, which is widely used but much maligned. DEET’s safety profile is better than many people assume. Its effectiveness at preventing bites is approached by only a few other repellent ingredients.
DEET isn’t a perfect choice nor the only choice. But weighed against the consequences of Zika disease and West Nile virus, we believe it is a reasonable one.
Which concentration of DEET is safe for Scout-age children?
The current American Academy of Pediatrics and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendation for children older than 2 months of age is to use 10 percent to 30 percent DEET.
DEET should not be used on children younger than 2 months of age.
The percentage doesn’t affect the amount effectiveness but rather its duration.
- Ten percent DEET is effective for about two hours.
- Thirty percent DEET protects for about five hours.
You want the lowest concentration that will provide the required length of coverage.
What kinds of repellent shouldn’t I use?
- Essential oils
- Vitamin B1 patches
- Candles, which emit fumes that could trigger respiratory problems
- Outdoor “fogger” insecticides, which have chemicals even harsher than the sprays
How else can I protect myself?
- Clothing is your first line of defense — even more critical than bug spray. Cover up with pants and long sleeves when possible, especially when you need protection from sun and mosquitoes.
- The new Boy Scout Handbook recommends clothing treated with permethrin to help keep biters away.
- Reapply bug spray after swimming and sweating.
- Two-in-one (sunscreen and repellent) products don’t work as well as separate ones. The CDC recommends applying sunscreen first and then mosquito repellent.
What else should I know?
- Don’t let children under 10 apply insect repellent themselves.
- Avoid the child’s eyes and mouth and use repellent sparingly around ears.
- Do not apply repellent to the child’s hands because children may put their hands in their mouths.
- Make sure children wash the repellent away once they head back inside.
Where can I learn more?
I’ve looked at dozens of sites and found this EWG Guide to Bug Repellents in the Age of Zika to be the best.