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Protect Yourself From Bug Bites With an Effective Repellent

Monday, June 29, 2020

Summer is here, which means it’s also mosquito and tick season. As all 50 states reopen, more Americans are spending time outdoors and will need protection from bug bites.

Most of us have heard of some of the more common insect-borne illnesses, such as West Nile disease, Lyme disease and the Zika virus. However, there are countless others that people, especially parents, should be aware of.

One pathogen of particular concern is Eastern Equine Encephalitis, which is spread by infected mosquitoes. This illness is uncommon but extremely serious – it causes a brain infection and has a mortality rate of 30 percent. Survivors frequently suffer from ongoing neurological problems.

Fortunately, many of these diseases can be prevented with bug repellent.

How do you choose the right product? The EWG Guide to Bug Repellents can help.

Remember, not all bug repellents are effective against all disease-transmitting insects, so it’s imperative to select one that will have the most impact based on where you are or where you’re traveling.

First, choose a product with an effective and safer active ingredient.

EWG’s top ingredient picks are:

Each of these active ingredients has low safety concerns and is highly effective at preventing bites from a variety of ticks and biting insects.

Then select the repellent best suited to where you live. Use the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention map to find out if there is a risk for any insect-borne diseases where you live or where you are traveling. If you face a risk of Lyme or West Nile disease or other insect-borne illnesses, use a higher concentration bug repellent. Note that no product alone completely repels ticks, so make sure to check yourself for them whenever you’ve been outside in an area where they are present.

If you find there is no known risk of insect-borne illnesses, consider a product with picaridin at a 5 to 20 percent concentration. It’s less likely to cause eye irritation than DEET or IR3535. However, DEET at 7 to 10 percent concentration, and IR3535 at a 20 percent concentration, are still effective for low-risk areas and have low safety concerns.

If these three options cause allergies or irritation, there are others that are also relatively effective. These are:

(*Not recommended for children under 3 years of age.)

Two of these are botanical-based ingredients. Our research indicates that, in general, botanicals do not effectively repel insects, but the two listed above are exceptions.

Once you select an insect repellent, consider the concentration of the active ingredient, which doesn’t equate to effectiveness but does tell you how long the repellent will work.

If you are in a low-risk area and have chosen a lower concentration repellent, you will need to reapply it more frequently, following the directions. If you’re looking for information on specific brands, EPA’s bug repellent search tool can help you find the product that fits your needs.

EWG experts are frequently asked about permethrin-treated clothing, often called “repellent clothing” – a misnomer, because permethrin is an insecticide, not a repellent. As with all other repellent options, there are pros and cons to permethrin-treated clothing. Studies show that clothing treated with 0.5 percent permethrin is effective at preventing tick bites. However, other efficacy tests show that treated clothing offers lower protection from mosquito bites than repellents.

In addition, there are some concerns about the safety of permethrin. The Environmental Protection Agency has classified it as neurotoxic and a likely carcinogen. However, the EPA’s 2009 revised exposure review says “permethrin factory-treated clothing is unlikely to pose any significant immediate or long-term hazard to people.” If you are in an area with a high risk of tick-borne illnesses, and you choose to use repellent clothing, read all labels, use caution when wearing the products and wash them separately from untreated clothing.

Whatever the season, the best way to prevent bug-borne diseases is by avoiding bites. Here are more tips for warding off mosquitos, ticks and other bugs:

  • Cover up with pants, socks and long sleeves, especially when venturing into high grass or thick brush likely to be infested by bugs. Check thoroughly for ticks after returning indoors and remove ticks properly.
  • Use nets, fans or both over outdoor eating areas, and nets over strollers and baby carriers.
  • Read labels to make sure you’re using repellents correctly and maximize protection from bugs.
  • Choose a concentration rated for the time when you’ll be outdoors, but not longer.
  • Use products with the lowest effective concentration of repellent chemicals, particularly on children.
  • Use insect repellents in lotion, pump or towelette form and wash your hands after applying. Try repellents on a small patch of exposed skin before you slather it all over.
  • Avoid aerosol sprays in pressurized containers. You’ll inhale chemicals, and you could get repellent in your eyes.
  • Don’t use insect repellent mixed with sunscreen. If you reapply the sunscreen every two hours as advised, you will overexpose yourself to the active ingredients in the repellent.
  • Remember to wash clothing and repellent-coated skin when you get back indoors.
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