Is Insect Repellent Safe?

Summer is right around the corner, and that means more time outdoors! This can also mean more itchy, red bug bites! If you have wondered if insect repellent is safe for you and your family, you’re not alone! In fact, in a national survey of 2,052 adults, about 25 percent of Americans said they avoid using insect repellents with DEET. (Interlandi & Consumer Reports, 2019) If you are not familiar with DEET, we’ve got you covered! In this blog post, we are breaking down the facts about insect repellents and what you need to look for when choosing an option for your family.

Let’s start with DEET, since it is the main chemical ingredient in most insect repellents. Deet (known to chemists as N,N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide) is a yellowish liquid that, when applied to skin or clothing, repels a number of biting insects, including mosquitoes, ticks, and fleas. USDA chemists created the chemical in the 1940s for use by the U.S. military. It has been commercially available since 1957 and has since become commonplace. (Interlandi & Consumer Reports, 2019)

When you think of a chemical being applied to your skin… that is also a chemical unfriendly to bugs – you might become a little skeptical about whether or not it could be harmful to you too! However, the important thing to understand is that most insect repellents containing DEET are true repellents. They protect not by killing mosquitoes or other insects, but by preventing them from landing on skin or clothing in the first place. So, to summarize, you’re not spraying bug killer on your skin, you are using a bug repellent to keep them away from you.

We wanted to know more about the history of DEET and if there have been cases of DEET causing harm. Here’s a summary of what we found…

  1. Most of the reported cases of DEET poisoning or incidents involved a misuse of the product. (Interlandi & Consumer Reports, 2019)
  2. Incidents involving DEET are very low & are typically mild. (Interlandi & Consumer Reports, 2019)
  3. There is no reliable evidence that DEET causes cancer. (Interlandi & Consumer Reports, 2019)

Based on the overall consensus seeming that DEET is more than likely not going to cause harm if used properly, it doesn’t mean there is not a cause for caution. Any chemical poses some risk, especially when misused. Also, as a general rule of thumb, it has been said that people with health conditions, breathing issues, pregnant women, young children, and the elderly should always take extra caution and concern when utilizing any chemical product. With that being said, we wanted to share a few alternatives to DEET if you prefer to stay away from chemically derived products.

  • Start by looking out for ingredients like OLE (oil of lemon eucalyptus), lemongrass, citronella, grapefruit, peppermint, and clove oil. (Baardsen &, 2019)
  • Next, don’t limit yourself to sprays! There are plenty of other options, like candles, stickers, bracelets, and incense sticks. (Baardsen &, 2019)
  • Want some specific suggested products? Head on over to to check out their list of 13 Natual Bug Repellents you can buy today!

For our final thoughts, if you don’t mind using a DEET based product, make sure you are educated on the proper use. Here are a few tips on safely using DEET products.

1. Use the right concentration. You don’t need 100 percent DEET. Research shows that the concentration of active ingredient has an impact on how long the compound lasts, not on how well it works. Our testing indicates that products containing 25 to 30 percent DEET typically provide at least several hours of protection. Any more than that and you’re increasing your exposure without improving the repellency. (Interlandi & Consumer Reports, 2019)

2. Apply the repellent properly. Don’t spray it near your eyes or mouth. Instead, spray it on your hands, then rub it on your face. Don’t let young children apply repellent themselves. Also, repellents should be applied only to exposed skin, not to skin that will be covered by clothing. You can spray your clothing as well, especially if you’re going on a hike or plan to be out in mosquito- or tick-infested areas for a long stretch. The best way to do that is to spray the clothing on a hanger and let it dry before putting the clothes on. And just to be safe, you should wash the repellent off your skin when you come back indoors for the day or at the very least before bedtime. (Interlandi & Consumer Reports, 2019)

3. Know when not to use it. You want to skip it for children younger than 2 months old. The CDC advises protecting babies that young by draping mosquito netting with elastic edges around their strollers or carriers. (Interlandi & Consumer Reports, 2019)


Baardsen, D., & (2019, March 12). Insects Will Be Too Cool for You After You Use Any of These Natural Bug Repellents. Retrieved May 24, 2019, from

Interlandi, J., & Consumer Reports. (2019, April 24). How Safe Is Deet? Retrieved May 24, 2019, from

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