Which insect repellent is best for you and your family?

Blazing heat and high humidity across the United States are making it easier for mosquitoes to breed and survive, so a good repellent is a must for most summertime traveling. But there are so many types of repellents on the market these days that it’s tough to know what works best, and what might be harmful. Here are answers to a few common questions about repellents. (Prices may vary, so check with your local retailer.)

Is DEET safe to use?

Some of the most effective insect repellents contain the man-made chemical N,N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide – more commonly known as DEET. Though DEET has gotten a questionable reputation over the years (hey, it’s been known to melt plastic), the EPA reviewed the safety of DEET in 1998 and determined that it does not pose a health risk if used as directed on products.

But, the American Academy of Pediatrics does warn that you shouldn’t apply DEET products to infants less than 2 months old, and children above that age shouldn’t use a repellent that has more than 30-percent DEET.

For adult use, there are repellents that contain as much as 100-percent DEET, but a product with a lower concentration, like Ben’s 30-percent DEET Spray Pump (1.25 oz., $3.75) is effective. Just keep in mind that products with lower concentrations of DEET must be applied more often than those with higher doses.

The other thing to consider is that DEET repellents typically have a strong chemical odor. As a result, many people seek alternatives that contain natural ingredients.

Are there good alternatives to DEET?

The chemical Picaridin, found in products like Natrapel 8-hour repellent (3.5 oz, $6), is a good alternative to DEET. While it doesn’t remain effective as long as DEET, the EPA considers Picaridin safe for people of all ages, it’s odorless and won’t harm synthetic clothing.

Another effective man-made chemical repellent is 3-[N-Butyl-N-acetyl], also known as IR3535, which is used in products such as Coleman’s SkinSmart repellent. Products with IR3535 have been used in Europe for 20 years, and they’ve been sold in the United States since 1999. The general consensus is that IR3535 works, but it’s not quite as effective as DEET, and works for shorter periods of time.

What about natural repellents? Do they work?

There are several natural repellents, including citronella, oil of lemon eucalyptus and soybean oil. These work to a certain degree, but the general consensus is they’re not as effective as products made with DEET. Also, keep in mind that some natural repellents can still irritate skin, and oil of lemon eucalyptus should not be used on children under 3 years old.

Still, oil of lemon eucalyptus is often considered the most effective of the natural repellents, and some studies say that it’s as effective as products with 10 percent to 15 percent DEET. (Check out Repel’s Lemon Eucalyptus Pump Repellent, $8.25.) Like most natural repellents, though, you have to apply it more often than you would a DEET-based product. Also, lemon eucalyptus shares one characteristic with DEET — it has a strong odor.

The weakest of the natural repellents is probably citronella – you’ve probably been to a summer backyard barbecue and noticed the musky odor of citronella wafting from a candle. Found in products, such as Buzz Away insect repellent, citronella’s downside is that it not only has a strong odor, but it’s also sometimes effective for less than 30 minutes.

What about insect-repellent clothes?

You can spray clothing with a repellent containing the synthetic chemical Permethrin. Sawyer makes a non-aerosol Permethrin Pump Spray (24 oz., $16), which can last up to six weekly washings. Once it’s applied to clothes, it dries and has no odor. Also, apparel-maker ExOfficio offers a line of clothing with an Insect Shield treatment, which helps repel mosquitoes, is odorless and lasts 70 washings. Check out the women’s Bugsaway Halo Long-Sleeve Shirt for $90.


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