The insect repellent DEET is a potent chemical that smells atrocious, stings your eyes, can melt your sunglass lenses, and is widely considered toxic. But DEET is not nearly as hazardous for humans as you might think. And because ample research suggests it offers the best possible defense against serious insect-borne diseases like West Nile and Lyme, even some of the most stringent health watchdog groups now say that, when you need protection the most, you may want to consider DEET.
"DEET gets a worse rap than it deserves," says Renee Sharp, director of research at the Environmental Working Group. "Overall, it has a very decent safety record, and it has been used billions of times." Sharp explains that, in extremely rare cases, people have experienced nervous system damage, seizures, or slurred speech — but that's only at exposures equivalent to nearly bathing in a tub of the chemical. "It has more upsides than downsides for when you really need something that works," says Sharp.
Sharp recently led a team of EWG scientists in a meticulous investigation into every kind of bug repellent imaginable with the intent of coming up with a list of safe suggestions and must-avoids. "We kept coming back to the fact that DEET seemed okay, and we'd probably wind up recommending it," Sharp says. "We knew that would make people freak out, so we wanted to make absolutely sure." The team spent two years digging deeply into the research, and developed the EWG's Guide to Better Bug Repellents report.
Although the report makes a solid case for DEET, the EWG maintains that it is still a synthetic chemical and therefore requires cautionary use. "Our findings do not mean we are all about DEET," she says. "We have specific recommendations: Only use it when bug threats are high. Don't use it on infants up to six months. For older kids and adults, use no more than 30 percent DEET." That means you should look for bug repellents with the 30 percent concentration, and skip anything that has more, she adds. "Increasing the concentration above 30 percent does not actually make the repellent more effective," Sharp explains. "It's marketing to make you think you're getting something better — really, you're just exposing yourself to more chemicals."
EWG scientists also examined several natural, nonchemical repellents, including citronella, castor, geraniol, cedar, and soybean oils. Most scored very low marks. "It's great that so many people really want to use the natural stuff, but unfortunately, most just don't work that well," Sharp says. "Natural repellants wear off very quickly, and a lot of them are only effective against a small range of insects. Plus, many contain potential allergens."
The only exception is Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus/PMD. This is a trademarked, highly refined tree oil that, unlike other botanical formulations, has undergone EPA-approved safety and efficacy testing. So if you're hell-bent on going natural — and you're not in an insect-ridden area — the EWG gives this repellent the green light.
Overall, whenever you're choosing a repellent, consider where you're going and what you'll be doing. "If you're going to a beach in California, where there may be a few mosquitoes but not much risk of West Nile or Lyme, there might be no need for DEET," says Sharp. "But if you're in New Hampshire, Alaska, or another state where mosquitoes are like flocks of birds, then we think DEET is a reasonable choice. The bottom line is it works."
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