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June 17, 2013 at 10:20 AMComments: 4 Faves: 0

Choosing the Right Insect Repellent

By Dr. Jeff Chamberlain, MD More Blogs by This Author

When I was a kid, the only reason we ever used bug spray was to avoid the annoying itching that goes along with mosquito bites. Now we have to worry about mosquitos bringing West Nile Virus and ticks carrying Lyme Disease. On top of that, depending on where you live or travel, you might encounter Malaria, Yellow Fever, Dengue Fever, Easter Equine Encephalitis, Western Equine Encephalitis, Rift Valley Fever, Japanese Encephalitis, La Crosse Encephalitis, or St. Louis Encephalitis.

If you are buying insect repellents here in the U.S., I recommend looking for products that are EPA-registered and provide protection time information on the product label. Most people don't realize this, but a shorter protection time does not mean the product is less effective, it just means it needs to be reapplied sooner. Also, by itself, EPA-registration does not imply anything about effectiveness or protection time. If a product is EPA registered, it means that the EPA is confident that the product, if used as directed, is safe for the person using it and for the environment.

Bug Spray

When selecting an insect repellent, consider the following:

  • Insects from which you want protection
  • Length of time you need protection
  • Active ingredient
  • Percentage of active ingredient

Application Advice

  • Apply just enough repellent to cover exposed skin and/or clothing.
  • Do not use under clothing.
  • Do not spray the face. When applying to the face, first apply on hands then rub on face, and avoid near eyes and mouth.
  • Do not use over wounds, cuts, or irritated skin.
  • Do not spray in enclosed areas. Avoid breathing a spray product or spraying near food.
  • Re-apply repellent according to label instructions.
  • Follow the label directions to ensure proper use.
  • Store insect repellents safely out of the reach of children

Protection Time information

The ingredients with the longest protection times are the DEET, which can last up to 5 hours.
If you want to stick with a natural product, 40% Lemon Eucalyptus oil lasts up to 2 hours and provides protection from mosquitoes, biting flies, and gnats. Repel lemon eucalyptus spray claims to also repel deer ticks (carriers of Lyme Disease) for up to 6 hours.

Protection Times


Active Ingredient

Minutes of Complete Protection

Off! Deep Woods

23.8% DEET


Sawyer Controlled Release

20% DEET


Off! Skintastic

6.7% DEET


Repel Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent

40% Lemon Eucalyptus oil


Bite Blocker for Kids

2% Soy oil


Skin-So-Soft Bug Guard Plus

7.5% IR3535



10% Citronella


Herbal Armor

12% Citronella

2.5% Peppermint oil

2% Cedar oil

1% Lemongrass oil

0.05% Geranium oil


Green Ban for People

10% Citronella

2% Peppermint oil


Buzz Away

5% Citronella


Skin-So-Soft Bug Guard

0.1% Citronella


Skin-So-Soft Moisturizing Sun Care

0.05% Citronella


Gone Original Wristband

9.5% DEET


The following products are not effective repellents:

  • Wristbands soaked in chemical repellents
  • Garlic or vitamin B1 taken by mouth
  • Ultrasonic devices that give off sound waves designed to keep insects away
  • Bird or bat houses
  • Backyard bug zappers (Insects may actually be attracted to your yard.)

Repellents and Children


The EPA does not recommend any additional precautions for using registered repellents on pregnant or lactating women, or on children, other than those listed on the label. With insect repellants, it's always important to balance the risk of the product with the risk of getting sick from not using the product.

Some repellents are considered natural, but just because a product is safe to put on skin, does not mean it is safe to put it into your body.  As children frequently put their hands in their eyes and mouths, please observe the following cautions:

  • Do not allow children to handle repellents
  • Do not apply to children’s hands.
  • When using on children, apply to your own hands and then put it on the child.
  • After returning indoors, wash your child’s treated skin and clothes with soap and water or bathe."

According to the label, oil of lemon eucalyptus products should not be used on children under the age of three. Also, the AAP recommends that repellents should contain no more than 30% DEET when used on children. Insect repellents also are not recommended for children younger than 2 months.

Combination Sunscreen/Insect Repellants

Most experts say no! Although it seems convenient to buy a one-size-fits-all combination product, it is not a good idea. Remember that insect repellents (even natural ones) are chemicals that we are putting on our bodies, so it is important to use as much as is needed, but not more. Most sun screens need to be reapplied more often than insect repellents, so with a combination product, you would be applying the repellent more often than needed. Also, insects usually aren't an issue when you're out in the sun. They are more of a problem in shaded areas such as forests, or in the evening. Therefore, you typically don't need simultaneous protection.


Studies show that products with a higher percentage of DEET protect people longer. For example, products with amounts around 7% may repel pests for about 2 hours, while products with amounts of about 24% last an average of 5 hours. But studies also show that products greater than 30% DEET don’t offer any extra protection.

Reaction to an Insect Repellent?

Skeeters II

If you suspect you or your child is having a reaction to an insect repellent (such as a rash), stop using it, and wash the skin and clothes with soap and water. If you're concerned about a more serious reaction, call poison control, and have your child see a health care provider. If you see a doctor, bring the repellent container with you.

Avoidance of Insect Bites

  • Avoid areas that attract flying insects, such as garbage cans, or stagnant water.
  • Wear long pants, a lightweight long-sleeved shirt, socks, and closed shoes.
  • A broad-brimmed hat can help to keep insects away from the face.
  • Mosquito netting strollers in areas where your baby may be exposed to insects.
  • Keep door and window screens in good repair.
  • Check skin at the end of the day if you are in an area where ticks are present.
  • The most effective repellent for ticks is permethrin. It should not be applied to skin, but on clothing.
  • Get rid of standing water in rain gutters, old tires, buckets, plastic covers, toys, or any other container where mosquitoes can breed.
  • Empty and change the water in bird baths, fountains, wading pools, rain barrels, and potted plant trays at least once a week to eliminate potential mosquito habitats.
  • Drain temporary pools of water or fill with dirt.
  • Keep swimming pool water treated and circulating.

Have a fun, safe summer,
Stay Healthy,
Dr. Jeff MD

Read More:

Natural Mosquito Repellants: 4 Natural Alternatives to DEET

More from Health Coach Dr. Jeff Chamberlain, MD Others Are Reading


  • I love that chart of info of the different products. Is DEET harmful to humans if you use Bug spray consistently?

  • We've been struggling with ticks at our house this year. I used some Herbal Armor and sprayed my shoes and sandals with it, as well as the lower 8 inches of my legs and haven't had one on me since. My shoes and sandals smell like the product even after two days of not spraying them, and seem to be just as innocuous to the dreaded beasties as on day one.

  • Dr. Jeff great suggestions and awareness but I was hoping for some home made remedies. I have heard keeping a dryer sheet in your pocket will help keep the bees and mosquitoes away!

  • Nancy, I have read about people using dryer sheets, some say put it in your pocket, others say you have to rub it on. I wanted to include more home remedies, but I could not find any studies that actually looked at them.

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