How To Buy the Best Insect Repellent

Going outdoors, you expose yourself to a host of insects, such as mosquitoes, ticks, and biting flies. While they may seem to be minor nuisances, these pests are vectors of deadly and potentially fatal diseases such as the West Nile virus, malaria, Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain fever. Bites can also swell and become infected, persisting for days. Getting an insect repellent is essential to avoid exposing yourself to these risks. Here are things to consider when buying insect repellent for your outdoor travels.

1. Check the active ingredient. There is a wide variety of insect repellents available, and it is often difficult to determine their effectiveness. A simple trick is to identify the active ingredient by checking the label. Currently, both chemical and natural active ingredients are being used in the manufacture of insect repellents. The following are some active ingredients proven to be effective and safe by research: chemicals such as DEET, Picaridin, Permethrin, and the natural oils of Citronella, lemon eucalyptus, and soybean. You may choose a repellent that is based on either a chemical or natural active ingredient.

2. Chemical repellents. They have a long record of safety, their greater effectiveness and longer duration. However, some people are uncomfortable with chemicals, and DEET has been shown to stain fabrics.

  • DEET (N, N-diethyl-m-toluamide) is a chemical that has been used since 1957, and has repeatedly been shown to be safe for human use. Studies have shown that it is nontoxic to humans: it is not absorbed by the body, but is excreted via urine within 24 hours. Research has demonstrated no adverse effects in children and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. It has been shown to give the most protection for the longest period of time (up to more than 12 hours).
  • Picaridin (KBR 3023) is an alternative to DEET, and has the advantage of being safe to use with fabrics and plastics. The smell is also more agreeable than that of DEET, according to majority opinion. However, the duration of its effectiveness is less than DEET, especially at higher concentrations.

3. Natural Repellents. They enjoy the advantages of being organic and safe to use with fabrics, but have varying degrees of effectiveness and require more frequent reapplication.

  • Citronella was the first widely used natural active ingredient, and studies have shown its effectiveness, albeit in shorter durations than those of chemical repellents. The oil of lemon eucalyptus (p-menthane 3, 8-diol) has also been proven effective in repelling insects, but is contraindicated for use in children less than 3 years. In a recent study, a repellent based on soybean oil was shown to have protective duration comparable to DEET-based repellents.

4. Controlled release. These formulas are available, and are recommended for long trips outdoors. They can potentially provide protection for up to 14 hours, without needing reapplication. An alternative is to use high concentration chemical repellents.

For shorter outdoor exposure, chemical repellents in milder concentrations are recommended. Natural repellents are also effective, but will require reapplication as necessary. These will provide adequate protection from disease-carrying pests.

Remember to carefully read the label for instructions, as well as possible contraindications. Make sure that the product has been approved by the EPA and the FDA before use. Follow directions carefully and use only as directed.


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