Expert Recommendations on DEET and Kids

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Popular insect repellents.
The best insect repellent is the one that you will use and that keeps the bugs off your kids. Photo by 2007 Vincent Iannelli, MD

Question: Have the recommendations on the use of insect repellents with DEET on kids changed? How do I protect my kids from getting bit by mosquitos and keep them safe?

Answer: Most experts, including those from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Centers for Disease Control, etc., report that insect repellents with DEET are safe for kids.

Are Insect Repellents With DEET Safe for Kids?

But this is one of those 'it depends on who you ask' questions.

If you visit the EWG, a site known for pushing the idea that we should fear chemicals and that we should be mainly guided by the precautionary principle, then you might wonder about the safety of DEET for kids.

One of their main articles about DEET talks about how DEET isn't perfectly safe and about how the researcher trashed a small bottle of 100% DEET. While insect repellents with 100% DEET are available, such as REPEL 100 and Deep Woods' Sportsmen, they are not exactly products that are targeted at children or the average family. They are marketed as being 'maximum strength' insect repellents for 'severe conditions.'

The AAP even states that protection from insect repellents likely tops off at about 24 to 30% DEET concentrations, so there would be no good reason to use 100% DEET.

The EWG ends up calling DEET 'a reasonable, if imperfect, choice,' and that consumers should "handle DEET with caution."

The EWG has a lot of warnings about sunscreen ingredients too.

Expert Recommendations on DEET and Kids

Some more helpful recommendations about DEET for kids come from the AAP, EPA, CDC and the FDA.

These organizations state that DEET is safe for kids and:

  • although there is no formal age restriction for DEET, the AAP advises that DEET should not be used on kids who are younger than two months of age
  • for kids older than two months of age, you can use insect repellents with 10% to 30% DEET
  • parents should choose an insect repellent with the lowest concentration of DEET that provides the required length of coverage, keeping in mind that 10% DEET provides about two hours of protection, with protection increasing to about five hours with 30% DEET
  • you should not apply insect repellents to your children's hands (they may put their hands in their mouth or rub it into their eyes)
  • you should not spray insect repellents directly onto your child's face, apply near their mouth or eyes, or over cuts or wounds
  • you should wash off the insect repellent once you kids go inside and aren't at risk for any more bites

These recommendations have changed over the years.

The AAP used to recommend that kids should just use insect repellents with up to 10% DEET.

In 2007 the recommendations on using insect repellents with DEET broadened. After concluding that "DEET appears to be safe for children in concentrations of up to 30% when applied correctly and according to the label," the new advice became that "If the child is going to be outdoors for an hour or so, use 10%-15% DEET (or similar concentrations of Picaridin); for all-day outings, use 24%-30% DEET."

DEET Safety

Insect repellents with DEET have been in use since 1957.

Several EPA safety reviews, including the latest in 2014, have confirmed that DEET "continues to meet safety standards based on current scientific knowledge" and that the EPA "has not identified any risks of concern to human health, non-target species or the environment."

It should be especially reassuring to parents that the "EPA continues to believe that the normal use of DEET does not present a health concern to the general population, including children."

Alternatives to DEET

For parents worried about the safety of DEET, continuing to use a product with a low concentration of DEET or a non-DEET repellent are good alternatives. Insect repellents without DEET include those made with Picaridin, oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE), and IR3535.

In general, they are not thought to provide as much protection or last as long as repellents with DEET though. And other insect repellents with other natural ingredients usually provide much less protection. For example, Citronella Oil usually provides about 20 to 30 minutes of protection.

Sources:

AAP News. What's the buzz? June 29, 2007

Antwi, Frank B. Risk assessments for the insect repellents DEET and picaridin. Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology, Volume 51, Issue 1, June 2008, Pages 31-36

EPA. DEET - Insect Repellents: Reducing Insect Bites. February 9, 2016

EPA. Using Insect Repellents Safely and Effectively. January 29, 2016.

Another question parents often ask is 'when can I begin using insect repellents on my kids?'

The AAP states that you can begin using insect repellents, even those with DEET, once your infant is 2 months old.

The concentration of DEET that you should use is not as clear. In most areas of their web site, the AAP states that you should use insect repellents with DEET concentrations of 10% or less. One article that appeared in Pediatric News does state that 'the Academy says a 30% concentration is safe for adults and children, but that 10% can be used for children if parents are concerned about the potential risks or if the threat of disease-carrying mosquitoes is small,' but I couldn't find anywhere else that they actually made that recommendation.

There is an article, Prevention of Lyme Disease, which states that 'concentrations of DEET greater than 30% usually are not necessary', but it doesn't actually recommend using concentrations up to 30%.

Using Insect Repellents Safely

Here are some more tips on the safe use of insect repellents on your kids:
  • Apply repellents only to exposed skin and/or clothing (as directed on the product label). Do not use under clothing.
  • Never use repellents over cuts, wounds, or irritated skin.
  • Do not apply to eyes and mouth, and apply sparingly around ears. When using sprays do not spray directly onto face; spray on hands first and then apply to face.
  • Do not allow children to handle the products, and do not apply to children's hands. When using on children, apply to your own hands and then put it on the child.
  • Do not spray in enclosed areas. Avoid breathing a repellent spray, and do not use it near food.
  • Use just enough repellent to cover exposed skin and/or clothing.
  • Heavy application and saturation is generally unnecessary for effectiveness; if biting insects do not respond to a thin film of repellent, then apply a bit more.
  • After returning indoors, wash treated skin with soap and water or bathe. This is particularly important when repellents are used repeatedly in a day or on consecutive days. Also, wash treated clothing before wearing it again. If you suspect that you or your child are reacting to an insect repellent, discontinue use, wash treated skin, and then call your local poison control center. If/when you go to a doctor, take the repellent with you.

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