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Insect Repellents

How to Choose the Best Bug Repellent for You

by Molly Verhoff

A woman spraying bug repellant on her arm.

Summertime has arrived! Lazy days and good weather are always welcome, but unfortunately they come with some uninvited guests–biting insects! Read on to learn what to look for in products to show they are effective, as well as some other anti-insect adjustments you can make.


Insect Repellent is key to avoid those annoying and itchy bug bites; but, more importantly, is key for disease prevention (locally, think tick-borne diseases like Lyme disease and rocky mountain spotted fever; with travel, mosquito-borne diseases like malaria, zika virus, west nile virus, dengue fever).


Repellants are readily available and convenient as they are available in many formulations: aerosol sprays, lotions and creams, sticks, powders, wipes, and in combination with SPF.

DEET

  • Avg duration: 5 hrs;

  • Look for concentrations between 10%-35%, avoid concentrations higher than 50% to minimize risk of side effects

  • Popular brands: OFF!

  • Action against: mosquitoes and ticks

Other Information:

  • After 7 decades, this still remains the most efficacious and commonly used insect repellent.

  • Should be AVOIDED in those under 2 yrs of age. Consider avoidance during the 1st trimester of pregnancy, but known to be safe in 2nd & 3rd trimesters.

  • DEET penetrates the skin faster when applied under SPF and may reduce the sun protection of those products it is paired with, regardless of order of application.

  • Considered safe for use on fabrics, but can degrade fabrics and plastics.

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Picaridin

  • Avg duration: 8-10 hrs. at 29% concentration

  • Popular brands: OFF! Cutter, Avon Skin So Soft, Natrapel

  • Action against: mosquitoes and ticks

  • Often preferred to DEET due to less incidence of skin irritation and no risks to fabric or plastics.

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IR3535

  • Avg duration: 2-3 hours at concentrations between 7.5%-19.7%

  • Popular brands: Avon Skin So Soft Bug Guard Plus, Coleman Skin Smart

  • Action against: mosquitoes and ticks

Other Information:

  • A synthetic compound based on the amino acid alanine that is colorless, almost odorless, and biodegradable.

  • Can damage fabrics and plastics.

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Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus (natural compound and synthetically derived)

  • Avg duration: 6 hrs at concentrations of 10-40%

  • Popular brands: OFF Botanicals

  • Action against: mosquitoes only

Other Information:

  • The efficacy of this compound is comparable to low concentrations of DEET! (lasts 6 hrs for aggressive mosquitoes and up to 12 hrs for less aggressive mosquitoes)

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Oil of Citronella (natural compound)

  • Avg duration: 2 hours at concentrations ranging from 0.5%-20%

  • Popular brands: Buzz Away Insect Repellent

  • Action against: mosquitoes only

Other Information:

  • Limited by poor stability with air exposure and high temperatures

  • Higher incidence of allergic contact dermatitis and skin irritation

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Catnip Oil (natural compound)

  • Avg duration: 7 hours at concentrations of 7-15%

  • Popular brands: Refined Oil of Napata Cataria

  • Action against: mosquitoes and black flies

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2-Undecanone (wild tomato extract)

  • Avg duration: 5 hours at concentrations of 1-2%

  • Popular brands: BIO-UD-8 Spray *Only one EPA registered formulation; newly accepted as an insect repellent so less data exists

  • Action against mosquitoes and ticks

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Other considerations for Insect Control:

Clothing

  • When possible, wear light-colored clothing with long sleeves and long pants.

  • Clothing can be chemically treated with Permethrin (Chrysanthemum flower extract) to provide additional protection

    • Effective against mosquitoes, ticks (better than DEET), and flies. It acts as both an insect repellent and an insecticide

    • Lasts 6 weeks, or needs to be reapplied after 6 washings

    • Popular brand: Sawyer Premium


Environmental Alteration

  • Avoid known habitats when possible. For example, it helps to stay on the paved or mowed paths when possible walking outdoors. You will encounter more insects if you head into taller grasses and wooded areas.

  • When you have control over your environment (like your backyard or patio), remove any breeding ground for mosquitoes by eliminating puddles and standing water. You may also hang netting around outdoor seating areas. Plug-ins or candles are convenient and pleasant ways to disperse insect repellent over larger distances.


Source:

Nguyen QD, Vu MN, Hebert AA. Insect Repellents: An updated review for the clinician. Q J Am Acad Dermatology. 2018; 88: 123-130.

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