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DEET: Friend or foe?

June 16, 2011

It’s summer time and the insects are out. Many of us are unsure as to how safe insect repellents are and how reliable they can be.  Finding an insect repellent that prevents bug bites and doesn’t contain risky chemicals seems to be the biggest problem.  Most brands use DEET, a synthetic chemical that is effective at warding off bugs.  DEET was originally developed for the U.S. Army to protect the soldiers from insect borne diseases such as Malaria.  In 1957 DEET was approved to be used by the general public.

Today DEET still remains the most prominent selling repellent for the military and those very outdoorsy people who need long-lasting protection.  90% of the products still on the market contain DEET.  DEET has many drawbacks, the main one being that it is an organic solvent and can dissolve plastics, and watch bands.  It is also an environmental pollutant so it stays in soil and water for quiet some time.  Worst of all, it isn’t effective against all insects.

The LA Times recently came out with an article on how to choose an insect repellentThey gave a list of six things to look out for.  First look for an EPA registration number because this means it has been tested for both safety and effectiveness.  Secondly, for an alternative to a DEET repellent look for products using oil of lemon eucalyptus with such brands as Avon and Cutter.  Third, if you one really wants to use a herbal repellent find the one that is best for you because their effectiveness varies widely.  Fourth, when using non-DEET products apply generous amounts because it is not as effective as DEET products.  Fifth, pay attention to the labels because some products will have instructions for what to do after the use (such as washing with soap and water).  Lastly, some repellents are sold combined with sunscreen, if using it as a sunscreen than one needs to reapply often, maybe more often than one would do with insect repellent.

There is a large movement towards “natural” insect repellents, which is great for the environment, but we also need to be aware of their reliability.  Many of the more natural repellents have not been tested and do not have to prove that they work.  The reason that they have not been tested is because the EPA has deemed the ingredients safe and low risk.  One of the only ingredients that is tested and is in many organic repellents is the oil of lemon eucalyptus, also commonly known as Citriodiol.  This is not as natural as lavender oil or peppermint oil, but it is more natural than DEET and lasts about six hours.  Another new product being developed is a pine oil derivative, but it is in the middle of being EPA approved.  The EPA even came out with a website to find the perfect repellent for you!

Insect repellents should be used as needed.  Wear long sleeve shirts and long pants to try to prevent bugs from biting, along with an insect repellent.  After reading this information it seems that the best way is to use an organic repellent with oil of lemon eucalyptus because it is more effective than natural remedies and less harmful than DEET.

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