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Insect Repellent: What Products Should I Use On My Family? By Our Bite-Free July Student Pharmacist, Amy Reed.

As we near the middle of the summer, we find ourselves involved with many outdoor activities. Our gardens need weeding, the grass needs mowing, and there are water balloons to be thrown.  But what can make these activities itchy and uncomfortable? Bug bites. Not only do these irritations lead to discomfort, but the insects can spread diseases like Lyme disease (ticks) and West Nile virus (mosquitoes). This is why it is important to protect yourself and your loved ones from becoming a meal for these pests.

There are several insect repellents on the market today. Some good products contain the main ingredient N,N-diethyl-m-tolumide or N,N-diethyl-3-methyl-benzamide, which are also abbreviated as DEET. Different products (OFF!, Cutter, etc.) have different concentrations of DEET. At higher concentrations, DEET will last longer, not work better. For example, a product with DEET 30% will last about 6 hours, and a product with DEET 10% will last two to three hours.

Please be aware that DEET products up to 30% are safe for children older than two months of age.

Some other good products that work as well as DEET-containing repellents are those that contain the ingredient picaridin (Natrapel, Cutter Advanced, etc.). Similar to DEET, higher concentrations of picaridin last longer but do not necessarily work better than lower concentrations. Safe products contain up to 20% picaridin, but no more.

Repellents containing 20% picaridin can be used for adults and children older than two months of age.

Permethrin is another ingredient available to repel insects. This product should NEVER be applied directly to the skin. It should be sprayed on clothes and gear, but these items should be completely dry before they are worn. Permethrin products provide extra protection in addition to using another repellent that can be applied to the skin (i.e. a DEET product).

Natural products can also be used to repel insects:

Soybean Oil (Bite Blocker, etc): These products have varied effectiveness against ticks and mosquitoes. After application, soybean oil can repel mosquitoes for nearly four hours and repel ticks for two hours.

Citronella Oil (Natrapel Sun, etc): These products tend to work for less than four hours to repel mosquitoes.

Oil of lemon eucalyptus (Citrepel, Cutter Lemon Eucalyptus, etc): These products can last up to six hours to repel both ticks and mosquitoes. However, these products have not been proven safe in children younger than three years of age.

Some safety tips for using insect repellents:

  • When applying repellent to the face, do not directly spray the product on this area. The eyes and mouth should always be avoided. First spray the product into your hands and apply to your face.
  • A thin layer can go a long way. Avoid heavy application of any repellent.
  • Do not spray repellent under clothing or on open cuts/wounds.
  • NEVER apply insect repellent to your pets. There are many products that are made for safe application to pets, but the products that people use can be toxic to them. See your vet for these options.
  • If you need to apply both sunscreen and insect repellent, apply the sunscreen product first, allow it to absorb, and then apply the repellent. It is best to use separate products rather than combination sunscreen/repellent since sunscreen should be applied much more frequently.

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