Are There Any Non-DEET Insect Repellants That Work?

For half a century, DEET (N,N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide) has been the most commonly used ingredient in insect repellants. While DEET does work to keep the tiny critters off, it can also have some ugly side effects, including rashes, disorientation, and seizures. People looking for equally effective but safer insect repellants haven’t had much to choose from, but new tests show that some non-DEET products can offer the same level of protection.

Our colleagues at Consumer Reports recently risked their own flesh (seriously, watch the video above to see how they let ticks, mosquitoes and other nasties attack their exposed skin) to test a variety of insect repellants. For the first time in the magazine’s repellant ratings, the two highest-rated products used something other than DEET for their active ingredients.

The highest-scoring repellant was Sawyers Fisherman’s Formula, which uses a 20% concentration of picaridin. This chemical resembles the compound piperine, which occurs naturally in a group of plants used to produce black pepper. It may cause some irritation of the skin, eyes, and lungs, so — just like all repellants — proper application is important.

Repel Lemon Eucalyptus, with a 30% concentration of oil of lemon eucalyptus, was the runner-up in the CR ratings. It can cause temporary eye injury and the FDA says it should not be used on children under the age of 3.

Both of these products outperformed repellants that contained up to 25% DEET, and were able to keep mosquitoes and deer ticks away for at least seven hours.

“They are not side-effect-free, but those problems are less severe than DEET,” explains Ellen Kunes of Consumer Reports.

As we mentioned above, DEET works and one of the lower-concentration DEET-based repellants managed to receive a “Very Good” rating from Consumer Reports. The Repel Scented Family repellant, a 15% DEET repellant, outperformed Off! Deepwoods VIII, a 25% DEET product that also received a high rating.

Repellants like Coleman SkinSmart and BullFrog Mosquito Coast that use a different non-DEET main ingredient, IR3535, didn’t make it into CR’s list of top-rated repellants.

Likewise tests on repellants using natural plant oils like citronella, lemongrass, and rosemary didn’t live up to their marketing claims of providing long-lasting relief from insect attacks. Of the natural oil products tested by CR, none lasted more than one hour against mosquitoes, and some failed almost immediately.

Regardless of which repellant you use, there are keys to safe and effective application of the products:

• Apply repellents only to exposed skin or clothing (as directed on the product label). Never put it on under clothing. Use just enough to cover and only for as long as needed; heavy doses don’t work better.

• Don’t apply repellents over cuts, wounds, or irritated skin.

• When applying to your face, spray first on your hands, then rub in, avoiding your eyes and mouth, and using sparingly around ears.

• Don’t let young children apply. Instead, put it on your own hands, then rub it on. Limit use on children’s hands, because they often put their hands in their eyes and mouths.

• Don’t use near food, and wash hands after application and before eating or drinking.

• At the end of the day, wash treated skin with soap and water, and wash treated clothing in a separate wash before wearing again.

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