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How to Use Insect Repellents Safely

DEET, also known as N,N-diethyl-m-toluamide, is the active ingredient in many insect repellents and bug sprays. Products containing DEET are very safe when used according to the directions. There have been very few confirmed incidents of toxic reactions to DEET when the product is used properly.

Picaridin, or KBR 3023, and oil of lemon eucalyptus, or p-menthane 3, 8-diol, are other EPA-registered chemicals in insect repellents. Both come in a number of bug sprays and lotions.

You can reduce your risks when using insect repellents with DEET, picaridin, or oil of lemon eucalyptus by reading and following product labels. Also, follow these precautions:

  • Do not apply bug sprays over cuts, wounds, or irritated skin.
  • Use just enough insect repellent to cover exposed skin and clothing.
  • Do not use under clothing.
  • Avoid putting on too much bug spray.
  • After returning indoors, wash treated skin with soap and water.
  • Wash treated clothing before wearing it again.

Using bug sprays may cause skin reactions in rare cases. The following precautions will appear on the labels of all aerosol and pump spray labels.

  • Do not spray in enclosed areas.
  • To apply to face, spray on hands first and then rub on face. Do not spray directly onto face.

Look for a graphic created by the Environmental Protection Agency that indicates how long the product will protect you from tick and mosquito bites.

The following precautions will help you protect your children:

  • When using bug spray on a child, apply it to your own hands and then rub them on your child. Avoid children's eyes and mouth and use it sparingly around their ears.
  • Do not apply repellent to children's hands. (Children tend to put their hands in their mouths.)
  • Oil of lemon eucalyptus should not be used on children less than 3 years old. 
  • The American Academy of Pediatrics and other experts recommend that DEET repellents not be used on infants less than 2 months old. 

Pregnant and breastfeeding women can use EPA-registered repellents. The CDC says that the EPA doesn't have any additional precautions for pregnant or nursing women.

Other methods the CDC recommends to avoid bug bites include wearing long-sleeved tops and pants while outside, discarding outdoor items that contain standing water, and using mosquito netting over infant carriers.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by William Blahd, MD on August 01, 2014

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