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Check out the Pesticide Education and Assessment Program web site at http://pesticide.umd.edu
No. 10: Using Insect Repellents Safely
Elizabeth Ingianni, M.S., Program Assistant
Pesticide Education and Assessment Programs
Chemicals designed to be applied directly to
human skin to control pests are collectively
referred to as insect repellents. Repellents are
One of the most common active ingredients
widely used against mosquitoes, blackflies,
ticks, and other annoying insects and related
, known generically
arthropods. Some pests targeted by insect
repellents are not only bothersome, but may
used for more than fifty years. There have
also spread human disease. In recent years,
concerns about Lyme disease, transmitted by
published reports of adverse reactions to
the deer tick, and West Nile Virus (WNV), a
DEET, especially in young children after
mosquito-borne disease, have resulted in a
repeated applications of repellents. Reactions
corresponding increase in the use of insect
irritability), confusion, nausea, and, in severe
Repellents work by forming a barrier on the
unconsciousness have been reported. While
skin. This interferes with the pest’s ability to
DEET has not been confirmed as the cause of
identify the protected skin as suitable to bite
these incidents, there is concern that a small
segment of the population may be sensitive
to DEET, especially when it is misused or
(botanicals), while others contain synthetic,
or man-made, active ingredients. In efficacy
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
tests, the synthetic active ingredients have
(EPA) has not recommended that consumers
generally provided longer-lasting control of
stop using DEET repellents, since the bene-
pests than the natural active ingredients.
fits of tick and mosquito repellency may far
This publication is part of a series of publications of the University of Maryland Pesticide Education and Assessment Programs. Please visit http://extension.umd.edu/ to find out more about Extension programs in Maryland. The University of Maryland is equal opportunity. The University’s policies, programs, and activities are in conformance with pertinent Federal and State laws and regulations on nondiscrimination regarding race, color, religion, age, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, marital or parental status, or disability. Inquiries regarding compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended; Title IX of the Educational Amendments; Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973; and the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990; or related legal requirements should be directed to the Director of Human Resources Management, Office of the Dean, College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Symons Hall, College Park, MD 20742.
PRODUCTS FOR TREATMENT OF
areas where Lyme disease, West Nile Virus,
or other arthropod-borne diseases are of
concern. As with any pesticide, however,
care should be taken to avoid unnecessary
is a naturally occurring
insecticide derived from chrysanthemums.
is a synthetic, more potent
chemical related to pyrethrum that can be
Picaridin, introduced in the U.S. in 2005, has
applied to clothing, camping gear, bed nets,
been used worldwide since 1998 and is one
etc. to repel insects. It is the only product in
of the best-selling active ingredients in
the U.S. registered for this use. Permethrin
binds to fabric and can last up to two weeks,
laboratory animals, picaridin has been found
to have relatively low toxicity to mammals
transfers to skin. You can treat fabric with
through either oral or dermal (skin) exposure.
permethrin yourself or buy clothing or gear
Picaridin appears to have less of an irritant
effect than DEET, and also has less of a
"reduced-risk" chemical by the EPA. The
Permethrin is only intended for fabric and
product is available as a pump spray, aerosol,
should not be applied directly to skin; skin
can quickly and significantly reduce the
repellent’s effectiveness. Also, in rare cases,
skin irritation has developed. Fabrics should
be treated according to label directions in a
“Natural” insect repellents marketed in the
well-ventilated area and stored separately
U.S. contain oils from a variety of plants
from non-treated clothing and other items.
including eucalyptus, cedar, peppermint,
Clothing should be treated and allowed to dry
at least 2-4 hours before wearing and only
citronella, and others. In one independent
study of insect repellent efficacy, a soybean
protection against mosquitoes. The six other
botanicals tested provided an average of less
Before any pesticide, including repellents,
can be registered and used in the U.S., EPA
recognized as less acutely toxic than DEET
requires certain data to be submitted and
or picaridin, there have been reports of
adverse reactions such as skin irritation
include acute and chronic toxicity profiles,
degradation (chemical breakdown) profiles,
environmental fate and effects, and many
of time the product remains effective against
other test results. Each pesticide product is
directions including the site on which it can
INSECT REPELLENTS AND
be applied, how much and when to apply, etc.
Use of repellents on children is common and
sometimes necessary to achieve good control
The label also lists the target pests the
of nuisance and disease-carrying arthropods.
In general, children are physiologically and
pesticides, the company that manufactures or
developmentally at increased risk for toxic
distributes the product is not required to
effects from any chemical, whether synthetic
submit efficacy data for each target pest.
or natural. Therefore, it is important that
However, for products that claim to control a
repellents and other products applied directly
public health pest, such as mosquitoes and
efficacy data is required before the product
Scientists at the University of Maryland
Program studied how repellents are actually
caregivers. While the study found a high rate
provides protection against pests depends on
practices for application, other practices
ingredient, heat and humidity, exercise,
swimming or other water activities, and other
concentration of DEET (picaridin was not yet
factors. In laboratory and field tests, the
available in the U.S. when the study was
duration of protection against various pests
can range from 20 minutes to several hours,
directly to children’s faces, and limited the
number of times per day the child was treated
without washing or otherwise removing the
provide protection against a particular pest
almost a third of parents reported not reading
or following label directions, some sprayed
product for their needs and helps ensure
products directly onto their children’s faces,
and over half of the children did not wash the
increase the likelihood of transmission of
PRECAUTIONS FOR SAFE USE OF
To ensure any risks are minimized, parents
and caregivers should read and follow all
program to help consumers understand how
directions on insect repellent product labels.
long a particular product is likely to remain
General recommendations are listed below.
effective. Under this program, manufacturers
could add a pictogram to the repellent label
identifying the pests it repels and the length
Read the label before buying the product
and again before using any pesticide
absorption of the pesticide through your skin
Choose a repellent that specifically mentions
explained above, efficacy data is required
Use only the amount needed to cover once
before products can claim to control or repel
Saturation of skin or clothing should be
Therefore, a product whose label does not list
pests such as mosquitoes or ticks is probably
Apply repellents only as frequently as the
not effective against them. However, efficacy
. If the label has no specific
data are not required for annoying pests that
directions on frequency of application, apply
a repellent to skin only once a day, or wash it
off between applications. If you are treating
clothing with permethrin, apply it to fabric
Follow all use directions and precautions
Use only the amount specified on the label,
products are not recommended.
Do not apply insect repellents to sensitive,
application of sunscreen is usually desirable
absorptive areas of the body
. Never apply
to prevent ultraviolet light exposure, whereas
repellents over eyes, the mouth, scratches,
repellents should be applied as infrequently
cuts, or irritated skin. Do not spray repellents
as possible. This makes it unlikely that a
directly on the face. Instead, apply to your
hand and wipe onto the face, avoiding areas
sunscreen, and use each according to its own
Do not apply insect repellents to infants
particular, do not apply DEET to children
After returning indoors, wash treated skin
with soap and water
. This is particularly
Do not allow young children to apply
consecutive days. Going to bed with insect
insect repellent themselves.
repellent still on your skin can transfer
residues to the bed linens, resulting in
Do not apply repellents to the hands of
potential continued exposure to the repellent.
. Tell older children to avoid wiping
their treated hands across their eyes and
Always keep pesticide containers out of
reach of children
. Store them where
If using DEET on children, choose a
product that contains 10% or less DEET.
Use similar precautions when treating
U.S. and Canadian health authorities agree
Check the label to make sure the
that these lower concentration products are
product is recommended for your pet. Follow
all label directions, being sure not to apply
more than the recommended amount. Do not
Apply insect repellents only to exposed
skin and/or clothing as the label directs
If you suspect a reaction to an insect
numbers for these Centers are also listed on
repellent, wash treated skin with soap and
the inside front cover of your telephone book.
water, then call your physician or local
Have the repellent label with you so the
Poison Control Center
. The nation-wide
doctor or other medical professional can
Poison Center toll-free telephone number is
; the operator will direct your
concentration, which is necessary for proper
call to your local Poison Center. Telephone
American Acedemy of Pediatrics. 2012. Insdect Repellents
English/safety-prevention/at-play/pages/Insect-Repellents.aspx (Accessed 12 April 2012).
Bell JW, Veltri JC, Page BC. 2002. Human exposures to N,N-diethyl-m-toluamide insect
repellents reported to the American Association of Poison Control Centers 1993-1997.
Center for Disease Control. 2008. Updated Information regarding Insect Repellents
Division of Vector-Borne Diseases, West Nile Virus.
http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dvbid/westnile/repellentupdates.htm. (Accessed 15 May 2012).
Connecticut Mosquito Management Program. Protection Against Mosquitoes Using Repellents
Frequently Asked Questions. http://www.ct.gov/mosquito/cwp/view.asp?a=3486&q=415130.
(Accessed 15 May 2012).
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http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/hl-vs/iyh-vsv/life-vie/insect-eng.php. (Accessed 12 April 2012).
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Research. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/ mosquito-bites/DS01075/DSECTION=prevention
(Accessed 17 April 2012).
Menon KS and Brown A. 2005. Exposure of children to deet and other topically applied
. Amer J Ind Hlth. 47(1):91-97.
National Pesticide Information Center. 2012. Permethrin Treated Clothing.
http://npic.orst.edu/pest/mosquito/ptc.html. (Accessed 15 May 2012).
Qiu H, Jun HW, McCall JW. 1998. Pharmacokinetics, formulation, and safety of insect repellent N,N-diethyl-3-methylbenzenamide (deet): a review
. J Amer Mosq Ctrl Assoc 14(1):12-27. Reigart JR, Roberts JR. 1999. Recognition and Management of Pesticide Poisonings, 5th ed.
U.S. EPA Office of Prevention, Pesticides, and Toxic Substances. Scheinfeld N. 2004. Picaridin: a new insect repellent
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