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Insect Repellents

Table of Contents


Overview

You can lower your chance of being bitten by an insect or spiderlike animal (arachnid) by using insect repellents. Mosquitoes, biting flies, and ticks can cause annoying bites and sometimes a serious disease. Mosquito bites can spread infections such as West Nile virus (a virus that causes swelling of the brain called encephalitis), Zika virus, and malaria in some parts of the world. Tick bites can cause serious diseases such as Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Bites from biting flies are painful and may cause a skin infection.

Types of insect repellents

You can buy many different kinds of insect repellents. Some work better than others. DEET provides the longest-lasting protection against mosquito bites.

Products that work the best

The insect repellents that work the best are:

DEET (N,N-diethyl-3-meta-toluamide).

This is the most effective insect repellent. A solution of 23.8% DEET provides about 5 hours of protection from mosquitoes. DEET is available in varying strengths up to 100%. Research shows that strengths greater than 50% do not provide substantially higher protection. Unless you are in areas with a large number of mosquitoes, repellents with 10% to 24% DEET should keep most mosquitoes away from your skin. Concerns have been raised about safety, because DEET is quickly absorbed after being applied to the skin. Studies over the past 40 years haven't shown that DEET causes cancer or other illnesses. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and other experts suggest that it is safe to apply DEET in concentrations of 10% to 30% DEET to children older than age 2 months. It's important to read and follow all instructions on the label. DEET should also be used carefully on clothing.

Picaridin.

Picaridin is an insecticide that has been available for use in Europe for many years. It is available in the United States in a 7% concentration spray. It may work as well as DEET in repelling insects. Higher-strength concentrations that are sold in Europe protect against mosquitoes for up to 8 hours. Picaridin is odorless and does not feel sticky or greasy. It is less likely to cause skin irritation than DEET. And it does not damage synthetic fabrics or plastics. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) does not recommend the use of Picaridin on children younger than age 2 months.

Permethrin.
This is a plant-based insecticide that works on contact. You spray it on clothing and other fabrics, such as mosquito netting and tent walls. Permethrin should not be applied directly to the skin. When it is combined with DEET, permethrin provides even better protection against mosquitoes. Permethrin keeps working even after you wash your clothes. You can buy clothes that already contain permethrin (such as BugsAway, Bug Shield, or Buzz Off) to help protect against mosquito bites.
P-menthane-3,8-diol.

This product is commonly known as lemon eucalyptus oil. When oil of lemon eucalyptus was tested against mosquitoes found in the U.S., it provided protection similar to repellents with low concentrations of DEET. It provides up to 2 hours of protection against mosquito bites. Do not apply more than 2 times a day. And do not use this product on children younger than 3 years.

Soybean oil.

Insect repellents that contain 2% soybean oil provide 1 to 4 hours of protection from mosquitoes when applied to the skin. Soybean oil is safe to use on infants and children.

IR3535.

This repellent is a chemical similar to the amino acid alanine. Tests have shown that it can protect against mosquito bites for up to 1 hour.

Products that don't protect against bites for long periods of time

Insect repellents that don't offer protection for long periods of time include:

Citronella.

This is a lemon-scented oil, derived from a plant, that repels mosquitoes. It is not as effective or as long-lasting as DEET. The product can be reapplied frequently to increase its effectiveness. Citronella can be found in lotions or in candles for outdoor use. Citronella applied to the skin provides 15 to 20 minutes of protection from mosquitoes. There is no scientific evidence that citronella candles are effective.

Other plant oils.

Other plant oils, such as lavender and geranium, provide less than 30 minutes of protection against mosquitoes. These products aren't recommended.

Products sold as repellents that don't work well to prevent bites

There are other products advertised as mosquito repellents that don't effectively prevent mosquito bites. These include:

How to use repellents safely

Read and follow all instructions on the label. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends the following precautions for using insect repellents.

If you have a question or concern about the use of insect repellents, or if you are pregnant or nursing, talk with your doctor.


Credits for Insect Repellents

Current as of: July 1, 2021

Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:
E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Leslie Tengelsen PhD, DVM - Zoonotic Disease


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