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EWG's Guide to Bug Repellents

EWG's Guide to Bug Repellents

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

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Which is worse, bug bites or bug repellent?

Choosing the right bug repellent can make a hike, picnic or outdoor event a pleasure instead of a painful, itchy experience that may have serious consequences.

No repellent is right every time. Click to find your best bet.


Executive Summary

West Nile virus, carried by mosquitoes, infected more than 5,674 Americans last year and 286 of them died, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC 2013C).  

The incidence of Lyme disease, spread by ticks, has more than doubled over the last 15 years, with 24,364 confirmed cases recorded in 2011 (CDC 2013A, CDC 2013B).

Both these illnesses, and other pest-borne diseases, can have serious and occasionally life-altering consequences.   Many experts expect to see more cases in the future as the warming climate expands the habitat of species that spread pathogens.

Yet many people are understandably concerned about the possible drawbacks of common repellents such as DEET.  At EWG, we certainly were. So we spent 18 months digging into the question: what are the safest and most effective ways to prevent bug bites and the diseases they may transmit?  

The conclusions of our fact-finding investigation surprised and in some ways disappointed us.

The bad news:  there's no sure, completely safe way to prevent bug bites.  All bug repellents have pros and cons. 

The good news:  some repellents are effective and relatively low in toxicity -- provided you take precautions when using them, particularly on children.

The surprising news:  among the four repellent chemicals EWG found to be top picks is DEET, which is widely used but much maligned.  DEET's safety profile is better than many people assume. Its effectiveness at preventing bites is approached by only a few other repellent ingredients.

DEET isn't a perfect choice nor the only choice.  But weighed against the consequences of Lyme disease and West Nile virus, we believe it is a reasonable one.

The four repellent ingredients that EWG found to be top picks are:

Picaridin [Learn more]
IR3535 [Learn more]
DEET [Learn more]
Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus and its synthetic derivative PMD [Learn more]

These repellents offer a high level of protection from a variety of biting insects and ticks, have good safety profiles, and are registered with the Environmental Protection Agency, meaning that they must provide data on both efficacy and toxicity.

Continue reading: What to look for in a bug repellent.