Say no to bugs: The deets on bug spray
Summer days are finally here. And, if you’ve been out at all, you’ve probably noticed so are the bugs. Biting insects like ticks, mosquitos, and flies don’t just wreck a good time fast. They also transmit deadly diseases. But before you stock up on bug spray, here’s the why on whether to buy DEET or DEET-free.
You could skip bug spray — but should you?
There are two main reasons to wear bug spray:
1. Prevention of insect-borne diseases like Zika virus, West Nile virus, Malaria, Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever.
The U.S. sees thousands of cases of insect-borne disease per year, and the numbers have been rising. In 2018, there were more than 53,000 reported cases of such diseases — roughly 10,000 more than in 2008.
2. Prevention of itching, redness and irritation caused by insect bites.
Most insect bites, even from non-diseased insects, cause mild to moderate skin reactions including itching, redness, swelling, rash, etc. For some, symptoms may fade quickly. For the unlucky (like me), itching and discomfort may last several days.
Even if you’re less concerned about disease, bites alone are reason enough for insect repellent. But if you haven’t got any, and don’t want to buy it, you can minimize exposure by wearing clothes that cover.
But, to be frank, the mosquitos I’ve met can bite right through jeans, so if you’re really set on preventing bites, read on.
Not-so-fun fact: Mosquitos are the deadliest animal on earth, with nearly one million people killed per year globally from mosquito-borne diseases.
What’s the buzz about DEET?
DEET is the gold standard when it comes to insect repellents. It’s the most common, it’s been around the longest, and it works the best. But with so many DEET-free options on the shelf, you might be wondering “what’s so bad about DEET anyway?”
What is DEET to begin with?
DEET is a chemical that repels biting and flying insects. It’s thought to work by messing with their receptors, essentially keeping them from “smelling” you, and therefore, keeping them from biting you.
But, as with most powerful chemicals, DEET’s caused some controversy. There’s no shortage of discussion around whether or not DEET is safe to use — here’s why:
Why consumers are wary of DEET-based bug sprays
Point: DEET can cause side effects like irritation, redness, rash, and swelling, oral irritation, and gastrointestinal irritation
Counterpoint: Aside from mild dermal reactions for people with sensitive skin, most side effects are limited to improper use including contact with eyes, contact with the mouth, ingestion, and breathing in a DEET-based spray.
Point: There have been reports of neurological reactions from DEET exposure.
Counterpoint: The incident rate of seizures linked to DEET exposure is roughly 1 in 100 million users (between the years of 1961 and 1998). Such reports have mainly been the result (again) of ingestion and other improper use.
(Note: For further reading, the above information and more can be found at the National Pesticide Information Center’s website here on their DEET fact sheet.)
Point: DEET has been anecdotally linked to cancer.
Counterpoint: There was one study in 1998 in Sweden linking insect repellent use to testicular cancer. However, per the CDC, results were inconclusive. Per the EPA, DEET is only “slightly toxic” due to the symptoms caused by improper use mentioned above.
Also per the EPA, DEET is “not classifiable as to human carcinogenicity” due to lack of evidence that it causes cancer in animals or people. (There has also been confusion between DEET and DDT, a pesticide which is a known carcinogen.)
Point: DEET melts plastic.
Counterpoint: There’s not really a counterpoint for this. The chemical makeup of DEET makes it a solvent, which means it can melt or dissolve things. This doesn’t make it inherently harmful, but it does require caution when used around plastics and other synthetics like nylon, rayon, and varnishes.
Actually-fun fact: DEET was first registered in the U.S. in 1957 after being developed by the U.S. Army in 1946 for military use in insect-infested areas.
Yes or no to deet-based bug spray? It’s up to you
As with so many things, personal choice is the answer here. If you feel comfortable with using DEET, do so! It’s highly effective and long-lasting based on application. The CDC and EPA recommend moderate and safe use, and have found no significant safety concerns with it.
Recommendation: OFF! Deep Woods Dry Insect Repellent Spray is a great option, providing up to 8 hours of protection at 25% DEET. For shorter outdoor excursions, OFF! Family Care Tropical Fresh has a fun tropical fragrance and just 5% DEET for up to 2 hours of protection.
But if you don’t feel comfortable using DEET, there are several alternatives on the market. You should feel confident in the protection you choose for yourself and your family. In that spirit, here are some of our top recommendations for DEET-free bug sprays.
Top DEET-free insect repellents
While DEET consistently proves the most reliable insect repellent, it’s come up against worthy competition in recent years. According to testing and recommendations from Consumer Reports, products with 20% picaridin or 30% Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus (OLE) are the way to go if you like to stay DEET-free.
Picaridin-based bug sprays
Picaridin is a synthetic chemical that mimics the natural compound piperine present in black pepper plants. It works similarly to DEET. It’s much newer, but just as effective as DEET. You can use it on children as young as two months old, like DEET. But, unlike DEET, it doesn’t smell, it’s not oily, and it won’t melt your watch.
Recommendation: Natrapel Tick & Insect Repellent Spray. Spray versions of 20% picaridin like this Natrapel brand option are effective for up to 12 hours. Natrapel even made 2021’s top bug repellent list by Wirecutter, the review division of the New York Times.
Looking for something truly plant-based? OLE (or PMD, for its chemical name: p-menthane-3,8-diol) is the most effective natural bug spray option. Performance comes close to DEET and picaridin. Cons: Since OLE isn’t as well-studied as DEET and Picaridin, it’s not recommended for use on children under three.
Recommendation: Natrapel Deet Free Lemon Eucalyptus Spray. Containing 30% OLE, Natrapel’s OLE product will provide roughly six hours of protection against mosquitoes, ticks, and flies.
Botanicals or essential oils
Many natural oils like citronella, eucalyptus, catnip, peppermint, and geranium that are frequently used as bug repellent. But how well do they work? Not very.
Even though some botanicals repel insects with varied success, effects are usually very short-lived. If you opt for a botanical-based bug spray, just know a) it likely will not work as well as other options and b) you will need to reapply — frequently. Most of these wear off between 20 and 120 minutes.
Recommendation: All Terrain Herbal Armor. This is one I’ve used many times. And, while it doesn’t work like DEET, it does reduce the number of bites I get on a hike compared to going spray-free.
Made with soybean, citronella, peppermint, lemongrass, cedar, and geranium, it smells pretty nice, but it does cause a light burning/tingling sensation on my sensitive skin. It also has great reviews on Amazon.com.
Bottom-line bug spray rules
Spray into your hands, then apply to your body. This ensures even coverage, and helps keep the spray out of your lungs, mouth, and eyes.
Adults should apply repellant for children, using hands, not spraying directly on the child’s skin.
Bug spray with DEET should not be used on children younger than two months or on pregnant women.
Reapply based on your bug spray’s active ingredient concentration.
That’s it! Go out and shop with confidence now that you know the ins and outs of DEET and DEET-free bug spray. Don’t wait! (The mosquitos won’t.) Shop insect repellent at Sona here.