How to choose the bug repellent that’s right for you

08/05/2013 11:22 AM

08/08/2014 10:18 AM

When you’re shopping for an insect repellent, it can be hard to know which ones do the job and do it safely. So researchers at Environmental Working Group spent 18 months reviewing the data on chemicals in most every bug repellent for sale in the United States.

While they found that nothing is completely safe, four repellents were found to be effective and relatively low in toxicity, provided you take precautions, particularly with children. Use products in lotion, pump or towelette form:

• Picaridin
• IR3535
• Deet
Oil of lemon eucalyptus or its synthetic derivative PMD.

Though deet has been much maligned, and in rare cases, intense doses have been linked to nervous system impairment, an extensive review found few reports of serious health hazards when the chemical was used sparingly, as the maker’s instructions specify, the group said. Avoid anything stronger than 30 percent deet.

Insect repellents shouldn’t be used on children younger than 2 months, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The environmental group was able to recommend only one botanical bug repellent — oil of lemon eucalyptus/PMD. The EPA does not require most other botanicals to undergo registration and testing, so it’s hard to evaluate them. Bill Jordan of the EPA says that oil of lemon eucalyptus carries some possibility of skin irritation in children 3 years old and younger.

You can get a customized recommendation for a mosquito repellent based on factors such as how long you'll be outside from the EPA’s online search tool at For more general purposes, we’ve assembled a list of four good options for four types of people:

The great-outdoors enthusiast

Off Deep Woods Sportsmen II: Deet, developed by the Army in 1946 and used by about one-third of Americans, is effective. Consumer Reports ranked this product No. 1 in a recent testing session. But it is an aerosol spray; choose another formulation for a pump spray.

The weekend gardener

Natrapel 8-Hour with picaridin: A 2004 study in the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology says that picaridin is comparable to deet in effectiveness, and is less irritating to the skin. In recent Consumer Reports testing, Natrapel 8-hour with picaridin was the highest-ranking non-deet option tested, providing seven hours or more of protection. It comes in pump and wipes as well as spray. If you’re going to be out weeding for only an hour or two, you can go with a less-concentrated formula.

The concerned parent

Coleman Skin Smart pump spray: IR3535 is functionally identical to a naturally occurring amino acid, according to the EPA, which found data indicating that it is “practically nontoxic to mammals, including infants and children.” You can find formulations with various amounts of IR3535 depending on your needs.

The eco-warrior

Repel Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent Lotion: This is a plant-derived option that can provide as much as six hours of protection from mosquitoes. The Repel product did better than a 15 percent deet formula in a small 2011 study published in the Journal of Medical Entomology.

Repellents should be a last choice, the environmental group advises. Give bugs a smaller target by covering up with light-colored clothing, long-sleeved shirts and bandannas. When walking in tall grass or brush, tuck pants into socks.

Use nets or fans over outdoor eating areas and place nets over strollers and baby carriers.

Drain standing water around the house that collects in flower pots or other items.

Avoid bug zappers, which the group says may kill beneficial insects.

The group also advises against using outdoor fogger insecticides because they are more toxic than skin repellents.

To read the group’s report, visit

Contributing: Chicago Tribune

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