How to Stay Bug Free without Dangerous DEET

A new study adds nerve damage to possible side effects of DEET insect repellents, but there are safer alternatives.


mosquito control without DEETInvented in the 1950s, DEET (N,N-diethyl-m-toluamide) is considered one of the most effective mosquito repellents on the market, and billions of people have used it over the past 45 years. However, occasional reports of death (from ingestion), asthma attacks, and seizures related to DEET application have consumer-advocacy groups questioning its safety. Now a study published in the British journal BMC Biology suggests that it could interfere with your nervous system.

THE DETAILS: The researchers used animals and computer modeling to study the effects of DEET on the central nervous system. They found that DEET inhibits activity of the enzyme cholinesterase, which is vital to proper functioning of the nervous system.

WHAT IT MEANS: Aside from possibly damaging your nerves, using DEET can also cause severe skin irritation, blistering, and burning in some individuals. It may be particularly dangerous when used in combination with other pesticides. In one animal study, DEET was found to cause behavioral problems when combined with the insect repellent permethrin, which is added to some brands of outdoor clothing to keep bugs away. Plus, being a potent synthetic chemical, DEET builds up in rivers and streams. A U.S. Geological Survey sampling of stream water quality detected DEET in 73 percent of sampled waterways, some of which may feed into drinking-water supplies. Most international health organizations, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), recommend using DEET when traveling to areas where mosquito-borne diseases like malaria pose a serious threat. However, the CDC has also tested a variety of other plant-based repellents on varieties of mosquitoes found in the U.S. and found them to be just as effective as DEET—and not surrounded by a fog of uncertainty regarding health effects.

Here are a few tried-and-tested plant-based bug repellents that work just as well as DEET against mosquitoes:

• Picaridin
Derived from the compound that gives black pepper its kick, picaridin has been found to be just as effective as DEET in similar concentrations.

• Geraniol
Used in products like Bug Bandz and other essential-oil sprays, geraniol is considered by the CDC to be just as effective as products containing 10 percent DEET. You may need to apply these a bit more frequently, as lower concentrations tend to wear out in 2 hours.

• Oil of lemon eucalyptus
Oil of the lemon eucalyptus plant has also been found to be equivalent to low concentrations of DEET, although the CDC is more vague about the exact concentration you should look for to get maximum effectiveness.

• Long sleeves and long pants
Clothing is the ultimate chemical-free pest control. When spending time in skeeter territory, opt for thicker fabrics, since some blood-thirsty bugs can bite through thin ones.

• Low-concentration DEET
If you must go for the potent stuff, avoid products with anything more than a 50 percent concentration of DEET. Research has found that greater amounts don’t provide any better or longer protection.

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