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EWG’s Guide to Better Bug Repellents

New Guide Helps Families Lower Risk of Lyme, West Nile
(202) 667-6982
For Immediate Release: 
Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Washington, D.C. – As Americans confront Lyme disease, West Nile virus and other serious bug-borne diseases, Environmental Working Group’s new guide helps consumers find more effective, less toxic bug repellents.

“While consumers are aware that bug bites may affect their health, many people are also concerned about the possible drawbacks of common repellents such as DEET,” said David Andrews, Ph.D., senior scientist at EWG. “It is hard to find objective scientific evaluations of the many different repellents on the market. EWG’s guide aims to fill that gap.”

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of cases of Lyme disease has more than doubled over the last 15 years, with more than 24,000 confirmed reports in 2011. West Nile virus, first recorded in the U.S. in 1999, infected more than 5,600 people last year. Since 1999, the CDC has counted 37,088 cases of West Nile virus and 1,549 related deaths.

Researchers at EWG reviewed the available safety and efficacy data of repellent chemicals in virtually every bug repellent for sale in the U.S. and highlighted four ingredients as top picks:

-- Picaridin

-- IR3535


-- Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus or its synthetic derivative PMD

No single product is best for everyone in every situation, but EWG’s researchers concluded that these four chemicals can provide long-lasting protection from ticks, mosquitos and other bugs. When used properly, each poses relatively few health concerns.

Though DEET has been much maligned, and in rare cases, intense doses have been linked to nervous system impairment, an extensive review of the scientific literature found few reports of serious health hazards when the chemical was used sparingly, as the maker's instructions specify.

EWG staffers who reviewed available scientific literature on botanical bug repellents could recommend only one – Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus/PMD, a processed form of the oil of the lemon eucalyptus tree native to Australia. This product has undergone efficacy and safety testing and has been registered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, as have the other repellent chemicals EWG lists as top picks.

The EPA does not require most other botanicals to undergo registration and testing for effectiveness or safety. Consequently, EWG staffers found, there are few data to confirm or contradict the advertising claims of most botanically based products. Consumers should also be aware that many botanical bug repellents contain allergens in highly concentrated forms. 

EWG advises consumers that when it comes to bug-borne diseases, prevention is key. Repellents should not be the first choice for protection from bug bites, but selecting the appropriate repellent can be important for people in high-risk places. Picking the best repellent for each situation can be complicated: More intense concentrations of repellent chemicals don’t necessarily do the job when it counts. Repellents don’t need to contain 100 percent DEET to deter pests. Consumers should avoid anything stronger than 30 percent DEET.

EWG’s on-line guide provides some of the most detailed consumer advice on bug repellents currently available. It offers 20 different scenarios for adults, children and pregnant women and EWG’s recommendations on which ingredients consumers should choose in each of these situations.

EWG’s research team compiled a concise two-page consumer guide with an extensive list of Do’s and Don’ts for avoiding bug bites.