The truth about bug repellents
Which ingredients are safe? And which ones work?
Friday, July 22, 2005
Bug season has arrived—you know that if you have been outside in the evening watching a Little League game or supervising the swing set at the park.
But it’s less obvious what parents should do to keep their kids from being devoured.
Between dire warnings about mosquitoes carrying West Nile virus, on the one hand, and confusing messages about the safety of repellents, on the other, many parents are a little lost.
But they shouldn’t be confused, nor should parents think repellents are not worth the smell or the mess. Leading doctors, public health experts and environmental authorities say several available repellents are safe for kids and help them ward off insects that could, in rare instances, carry dangerous diseases.
“Five years ago, I would have said that repellents are nice because mosquitoes are a nuisance,” says Dr. Michael Shannon, chair of the Committee on Environmental Health of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “But now we talk about their importance to our health.”
“Given that one mosquito could be carrying a life-altering virus, and since it’s not difficult to prevent, you might as well use repellent,” adds Emily Zielinski-Gutierrez, a behavioral scientist with the division of vector-borne infectious diseases at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
You should spray
Still, they want to clarify a few points. West Nile virus—which can cause fever, headache and, in the worst cases, coma or death—is not the biggest mosquito-borne worry for parents. While a handful of young children have caught the virus since it hit North America in the late 1990s, these cases account for a small portion of the total. From 1999 through last year, public health officials counted 16,018 cases nationwide, including 985 in Illinois. “It’s something to be aware of but not freaked out over in terms of kids,” says Zielinski-Gutierrez.
She and Shannon warn that mosquitoes transport other dangerous diseases, including different strains of encephalitis, or brain swelling. These viruses are also rare, but the mere fact that children could be vulnerable justifies using repellent.
And no one needs to be reminded of what it feels like to watch your child itch all night. As Zielinski-Gutierrez puts it: “A child scratching at mosquito bites isn’t going to make anyone happier.”
Picking the right bug repellent is actually pretty straightforward. Most experts still recommend products based on the chemical DEET. First used by troops in the 1940s, DEET wards off tics and other insects as well as mosquitoes, and applications last about four hours, on average—longer than most alternatives.
And repeated studies have concluded that it poses a minimal health risk. “It is certainly true that questions and concerns about DEET have come up, and they’re based on reports of a handful of published cases of adverse affects in children,” says Shannon, the chair of emergency medicine at Children’s Hospital, Boston, and a professor at Harvard Medical School. “But this is no more than 15 cases out of millions or billions of applications. We’re talking about something safer than milk.”
Use with care
Still, these repellents need to be used with care. Parents should consult labels and pick brands that contain 10 to 30 percent DEET. Lower concentrations aren’t as effective, and higher concentrations aren’t recommended for children.
Repellent should be kept away from the eyes, ears and mouth. Parents should put it on their own hands first and apply it carefully to children’s faces, rather than spraying it on or letting the kids spread it on themselves. A typical dose will last four hours, and there’s no need to over-use it.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates pesticides and repellents, has signed off on DEET for all ages, but Zielinski-Gutierrez says it shouldn’t be used on babies younger than 2 months old because their skin is more permeable than that of older children.
Two other repellents have received EPA approval: picaridin and oil of lemon eucalyptus. Picaridin may last as long as DEET, but it doesn’t stink the same way and it feels less filmy on the skin. On the downside, it doesn’t ward off as many different insects, and while tests have concluded that it’s safe, it hasn’t been around long enough to undergo the same scrutiny.
Some parents find oil of lemon eucalyptus an attractive alternative because it’s more organic. But some testing has found that it only works for about half the time DEET and picaridin do, with limited effectiveness against bugs other than mosquitoes. And it’s not good for toddlers: It can irritate the eyes, and the EPA says it shouldn’t be used on children younger than 3 years old.
Like picaridin, oil of lemon eucalyptus hasn’t been through nearly the analysis that DEET has. “You always have people who say, ‘I’d rather use a natural product on my kids,’ ” says Zielinski-Gutierrez. “But just because it’s plant based doesn’t mean it’s safer.”
Finally, it’s not a good idea to use any of these products along with sunscreen. Sun lotion will reduce the effectiveness of bug repellent, leading parents to reapply it more often than they should.
That said, Shannon thinks DEET is still the best option for kids. “I believe DEET is a very safe substance, and it should be used to prevent mosquito-borne infections.”
Mick Dumke is a Chicago writer, an uncle and a teacher in the journalism department at Columbia College Chicago.