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Check out the Pesticide Education and Assessment Program web site at 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 N,N-diethyl-m-toluamide, 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 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 Pyrethrum is a naturally occurring insecticide derived from chrysanthemums. Permethrin 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 EFFICACY
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. CHILDREN
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 label directs. 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, Combination repellent/sunscreen
products are not recommended. Frequent
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. In
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. children. 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 pets. 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 1-800-222-1222; the operator will direct your
concentration, which is necessary for proper call to your local Poison Center. Telephone

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