Bug Repellents for Kids: What Should I Be Thinking About?
Last summer I finally figured out what to look for in a sunscreen. This summer, I’m taking on something that seems to also cause a lot of confusion for parents: Bug Repellents.
Over the past few years, the efficacy of the insect spray or devices we use to protect our children from bug bites has become a serious concern. Not only has the number of disease-carrying insects increased, with legitimate worries about the West Nile Virus and Lyme Disease, but so have fears about exposing our kids to the possibly harmful and toxic chemicals contained in the bug protectants. And, with so many options available (a quick search on Drugstore.com for “insect repellent” yielded 100 results), one might be tempted to just cover the kids in mosquito netting until winter.
But since we can’t do that, I instead looked for answers to common questions like these: “Are the most effective bug sprays really the most harmful?” “Is DEET to be avoided at all costs?” “Are natural botanicals the smart choice?” And the answers I found may surprise you.
First, What is Insect Repellent?
Per HealthyChildren.org: “Insect repellents come in many forms, including aerosols, sprays, liquids, creams, and sticks. Some are made from chemicals and some have natural ingredients. Insect repellents prevent bites from biting insects but not stinging insects. Biting insects include mosquitoes, ticks, fleas, chiggers, and biting flies. Stinging insects include bees, hornets, and wasps.”
Basically, it’s what we call bug spray. Common brand names include OFF!, Cutter and Repel. Natural companies like Burt’s Bees, Badger and California Baby also make their own non-toxic or natural versions.
Who Should Use Bug Repellants?
Anyone who will be outdoors and who will possibly come into contact with insects. (And people who OMG, HATE getting bug bites, like me.) However, please note that insect repellents aren’t usually recommended for infants under six months of age. (A few places say two months of age, but use your judgment and ask your pediatrician or family doctor.)
Of course, some people would rather risk getting bit by an insect than put harmful chemicals on themselves or their children, and I respect their decision. However, with West Nile and Lyme both becoming more widespread, they may want to regularly and carefully weigh the pros and cons of doing so.
What’s the First Consideration When Choosing an Insect Repellent?
Most sources advise that you determine what type of insects are most prevalent in your location before deciding what bug repellent to use. Ticks? Mosquitoes? Both? How long will you be out? And will you just be in the backyard or in a wooded setting where you’ll need stronger protection? Those are all things to consider. For example, we’ve had a few cases of West Nile Virus in Texas, so I’m a little wary about the bites we get here. But when we’re visiting my parents in Northern Nevada, the mosquitoes aren’t dangerous, just annoying. And while I don’t ever worry about ticks in Austin, I certainly did when we were hiking in a national park in Colorado this summer.
I found the EPA’s website helpful in this regard as it has an interactive guide that helps you determine which repellent to use based on insect type, duration of exposure and preferred ingredient: http://cfpub.epa.gov/oppref/insect/
There’s also the CDC’s map of West Nile Virus danger by state that’s worth a look: http://www.cdc.gov/westnile/statsMaps/preliminaryMapsData/activitystatedate.html
Alright, Now Let’s Talk About DEET and The Other Chemicals
Most non-natural bug repellents have one of three active ingredients: DEET, picaridin or IR3535.
The most hotly-debated ingredient is, of course, DEET (N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide). DEET was developed by the U.S. Army in 1946 and is designed for direct application to human skin to repel insects, rather than kill them. And while there have been various studies over the years linking it to neurological damage, the EPA completed a safety review in 1998 and determined that as long as consumers follow label directions and take proper precautions, there is no health concern. It’s approved for use on children with no age restriction.
If that’s not enough proof for you, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization both recently ruled it as safe in the short term. And the very tough Environmental Working Group had this to say on website post dated July 2013: “After reviewing the evidence, EWG has concluded that DEET is generally safer than many people assume and remains a viable option for people in areas infested with disease-carrying pests. As rates of Lyme disease and other bug-borne illnesses rise, people need bug repellents that work well when it counts.”
It should also be stressed that DEET is the only active ingredient that the CDC recommends to protect against ticks.
Fine, But I’m Still Not Using DEET, So What Are My Natural Choices?
Most botanical bug repellents seem to rely on some combination of citronella, lemongrass and cedar essential oils. Which means they smell a lot better than rubbing OFF! all over yourself, but do they work? In a word, “Maybe?” Because the EPA doesn’t require registration or testing of these products, there is no concrete proof that they’re at all effective.
Even the EWG says that “Products based on botanical extracts may be worth trying if bug-borne diseases are not known to be a problem where you are going.” Which seems a little risky, in my opinion. They go on to say that the only botanically-derived repellent the CDC recommends is Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus/PMD, which has been registered with the EPA and undergone efficacy testing.
Obviously there’s a lot to consider when choosing the best bug repellent for your kids, but it’s important to use something to protect them. To further help you make your decision, I’ll soon be posting the results of the various insect repellant sprays and products my family has been testing. (And I’m sure you’re all just itching to read it, right?)Published August 14, 2013. Last updated February 27, 2016.