Is DEET Actually Bad for You? Here's What to Know.

Whether youre in the backwoods or in your back yard, one of the challenges of being in the great outdoors is that biting insects are there, too. Ticks and mosquitos arent just a nuisancethey can be vectors for diseases including Lyme, Zika, West Nile, chikungunya and many more (and dont forget malaria, a huge threat to world health).

What is DEET and How Safe Is it?

So youre going to want to keep these and other pests including biting flies, fleas, and other small flying insects away, and DEET, an ingredient in many insect repellents, is a well-known way to do that. But in its 60-plus-year history, its picked up a bad reputation. Here, we look at exactly what is DEET and how safe it is.

Chemists know it as N,N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide, and its a compound that was developed by the U.S. Army in 1946 and then registered for use for the general public in 1957.

Its a very effective insect repellent, and true to its name as a repellent, it doesnt kill insects, it just keeps them from landing on you. Theres a theory that it prevents bugs from smelling you, so theyre uninterested in coming closer.

In 1998, the EPA did a big review of safety concerns about DEET. It looked at reports that a small percentage of people who had used DEET had experienced seizures (one per 100 million exposures, but they couldnt be sure whether the exposures were caused by DEET or were coincidental). There have also been reports of products containing high concentrations of DEET causing skin rashes.

In 2014, it conducted another review and concluded that insect repellents containing DEET do not present a health concern when products are used as stated on the label. That includes label recommendations for how to use these products on the face (spray on hands and use your hands to apply it to your face); advice not to spray it on open cuts and numerous other instructions.

Products containing DEET range from 4 to 100% DEET. A higher percentage of the active ingredient doesnt mean its better at fending off pests. It means it lasts longer.

So you can use a product with a low percentage of DEET as long as you reapply it as often as the label states. If youre just sitting in your back yard having coffee, you wouldnt need the kind of concentration youd apply if youre headed out for a longish walk or hike and not taking the repellent with you.

DEET certainly isnt the only effective insect repellent out there. Other effective repellents include:

  • Picaridin: This repellent is modeled after a compound in the black pepper plant, and protects against ticks and mosquitoes.
  • IR 3535: The Environmental Working Group suggests that this provides good protection against ticks. While it does protect against mosquitos, the EWG suggests it may offer a bit less protection from these than other repellents do.
  • Oil of lemon eucalyptus: This can repel mosquitoes if formulated into a repellent productthe essential oil on its own wont do the job, according to the CDC.

To get the right repellent for you, check out the EPAs interactive insect repellent tool . You can choose which insects you want to target (ticks, mosquitoes or both), the type of repellent youre interested in, and even a brand name, and it will show you a list of products to choose from, along with how long they last before you need to reapply.

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