Choosing an Insect Repellent

Spring and Summer Safety Primer

A child applying insect repellent to her child.
Don't spray insect repellents near your child's face.. Photo by Getty Images

Parents often have problems choosing an insect or mosquito repellent for their kids. It seems even more difficult to know when to start using the mosquito repellent.

Surprisingly, there is an easy answer for these parents. The American Academy of Pediatrics states that insect repellents with DEET are safe to use on children as young as two months old.

Choosing an Insect Repellent for Kids

When choosing an insect repellent, some factors that you must consider:

  • the age of your child
  • are you going to go for a natural or DEET-free insect repellent?
  • which active ingredient you want in the insect repellent?
  • the concentration of the active ingredient
  • how long you need your child protected against mosquitoes and other bugs?
  • what type of bites you are trying to avoid?

So it is not as easy as just grabbing a mosquito repellent off of the shelf...

Mosquito Repellents for Babies

As with most things, the older your child gets, the more choices of insect repellents you will have.

When it comes to insect repellents, there are only a few basic restrictions to consider:

  • no insect repellents for newborns or infants under two months of age
  • no oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE) products on infants or toddlers under three years of age

And most importantly, it is generally okay to use other insect repellents, including those with DEET, once your infant is at least two months old.

Use a bug screen over your child's stroller, as it can help your baby avoid getting bites, even after he is two months old.

Choosing an Insect Repellent Ingredient

Insect repellents with ingredients that provide long-lasting protection against mosquitoes and other bugs include:

  • DEET
  • Picaridin
  • Oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE)
  • IR3535

These are all chemical or biopesticide insect repellents. Although oil of lemon eucalyptus sounds very natural, it is synthesized from natural materials, which makes it a biopesticide.

Of course, that doesn't make it bad, unless you think that all chemicals are bad.

Most experts advise that insect repellents with these active ingredients, DEET, picaridin, OLE, and IR3535, provide the most long lasting protection.

Other insect repellents with other natural ingredients usually provide less protection. For example, Citronella Oil usually provides about 20 to 30 minutes of protection. There are also natural insect repellents that are made with lemongrass oil and soy bean oil. These are not recommended if you are trying to avoid insect related diseases, like West Nile or Zika.

Pure oil of lemon eucalyptus, as an essential oil, is also not recommended to be used as an insect repellent.

There are other products that provide no protection when used as insect repellents and should also be be avoided, including:

  • chemical repellent wristbands
  • ultrasonic insect repellent devices
  • bug zappers
  • garlic
  • vitamin B1

Again, these do not work as insect repellents.

Choosing the Best Protection Against Bites

So which insect repellent ingredient and strength provides the best protection?

The easy answer is that it is going to be the one that works best on your child and keeps the bugs off of him or her.

In general though, the best insect repellent is going to depend on how much protection you need and how long you want your child protected.

For example, although not recommended, an insect repellent with a natural ingredient might be okay if you just need a very short amount of protection and you weren't concerned about West Nile or Zika virus. And you usually shouldn't be overly concerned about these mosquito borne infections, as West Nile rarely causes serious symptoms in young children.

If you needed more long term protected or protection against ticks, then you will likely need something stronger than a natural or DEET-free insect repellent. Remember, that "in general, higher concentrations of active ingredient provide longer duration of protection, regardless of the active ingredient."

For ticks that may spread disease, such as Lyme disease, the CDC recommends using an insect repellent with a DEET concentration of 20% or higher on your child's exposed skin.

What You Need To Know About Choosing an Insect Repellent

Other things to know about choosing a child's insect repellent include that:

  • While long-sleeve clothing may not seem like a good option during the spring and summer because of the heat, it does offer double protection against the sun and bugs. Thin, loose-fitting clothing, while not as protective as thicker clothing, may help to make it more tolerable.
     
  • The AAP recommends that insect repellents for children should contain no more than 30 percent DEET.
     
  • You should usually avoid combination products with a sunscreen and insect repellent, such as Avon Skin So Soft Bug Guard Plus IR3535 Expedition SPF 30 Pump Spray. The main problem with them is that sunscreens should be reapplied every few hours, while insect repellents should not. They may be a good option if you are sure that you will only be out for a few hours and you want the convenience of a single product, however.
     
  • To be safe, only apply insect repellents to exposed skin. Do not apply it under clothing, on a child's hands, near the mouth or eyes, or over cuts and irritated skin. You can even apply the insect repellent to your hands first and then rub it on your child to avoid over-application. And never spray an insect repellent on or near your child's race.
     
  • Wash off insect repellents once your child comes inside and will no longer be exposed to mosquitoes.
     

You should also work to keep mosquitoes and ticks away from your yard and other areas where your kids play.

Sources:

What's the buzz? Be prepared to answer parents' questions about insect repellents. James R. Roberts, M.D., M.P.H., FAAP AAP News Vol. 28 No. 7 July 2007, p. 1

Safe Use of Insect Repellents Can Minimize Itching, Scratching. AAP News - June 2013.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The Insect Repellent DEET

Comparative efficacy of insect repellents against mosquito bites. Fradin MS - N Engl J Med - 4-JUL-2002; 347(1): 13-8

DEET Alternatives Considered to be Effective Mosquito Repellents. AAP News - June, 2005

2016 Yellow Book. Protection against Mosquitoes, Ticks, & Other Arthropods.

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