The Truth About Bug Spray

Summer brings with it all kinds of fun, as well as some risks and nuisances, including tick and mosquito bites, which have the potential to transmit illnesses like Lyme disease and West Nile virus. Although these kinds of bug-borne infections are on the rise, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there’s no reason to hide indoors. Instead, arm yourself with a good insect repellent, especially at dusk, near the water, and when traipsing through woodsy areas.

DEET Insect Repellent Isn’t That Scary

Around since the 1940s, DEET, or diethyltoluamide, remains the gold standard for protection against mosquito-borne illnesses like West Nile virus, Zika or malaria and tick-borne illnesses like Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. “As a general rule, I’d say there’s DEET and then there’s everything else,” says Bruce Farber, MD, an infectious disease specialist with Northwell Health. “It’s the tried-and-true option.”

Although it’s possible to buy up to 100 percent DEET, that’s not necessary. A formula that contains 25 to 30 percent will provide eight hours of protection against both mosquitoes and ticks, says entomologist Joseph Conlon, technical advisor for the American Mosquito Control Association.

The downside is that this chemical makes some people uneasy because it’s been associated with neurological problems. That sounds scary – until you hear the details. “While there have been isolated reports of neurological damage and brain toxicity in rats, these reports have not translated to any real dangers in humans,” says Robert Glatter, MD, assistant professor of emergency medicine at Northwell Health. “I recommend the use of DEET for my family and my patients,” says Dr. Glatter. “The CDC and the Environmental Protection Agency both agree that products containing DEET are safe to use in anyone over 2 months old. ”

Good DEET Alternatives: Picaridin and IR 3535

If DEET still makes you nervous – or if you just hate the smell – then picaridin or IR 3535 are your best options. Picaridin is synthesized from pepper plants; IR 3535 is a derivative of a naturally occurring amino acid. IR 3535 comes in only one strength (20 percent). If you choose picaridin, then look for 15 to 20 percent of this active ingredient to protect against both ticks and mosquitoes.

Natural Repellents are not Always Safer – Or Better

Don’t bother with bracelets and citronella candles, because there’s no great proof that they work. If you want a natural repellent that’s effective, choose oil of lemon eucalyptus, which is approved by the EPA. Conlon confirms it will prevent tick and mosquito bites (provided a product contains 30 to 40 percent of the active ingredient). Butt here’s one caveat. While you might assume that a plant-based product is better for kids, that’s not the case. You shouldn’t use oil of lemon eucalyptus in kids under age 3. Their skin is more permeable, so they could absorb too much of the oil, says Dr.Glatter. Wipes with DEET, picaridin, or IR 3535 are good options for kids, says Conlon. Help them apply it so they don’t get the chemicals near eyes, mouths and other sensitive spots.

Don’t Bother with Yard Sprays

What you can do, however, is minimize mosquitoes by being vigilant about standing water. “Make sure your yard doesn’t contain any areas of dead water space – bottle caps, buckets, garbage pails,” Dr. Farbar says. “Mosquitoes reproduce in water very quickly.” Meanwhile, mowing your lawn regularly will help cut down on the number of ticks that can hide out there.

Use Coils, Lanterns and Clip-Ons with Caution

Conlon says sprays and lotions designed to be applied to your skin are far less toxic than any of these devices, which release chemicals like allethrin, metofluthrin, and pyrethrin into the air. Also worth noting: If the wind blows the fumes away from your body, you’re still going to get bitten.

That said, as with many things in life, you have to weigh the pros and cons. While most people in the U.S. are better off sticking with sprays and lotions, if you’re someone who’s especially prone to mosquito bites – or you live in an area where West Nile is running rampant – then it might make sense to take your chance with a coil or lantern. But in such high-stakes cases, you may also want to apply DEET. “It’s the most well-studied repellent on the planet,” says Conlon. “It’s saved thousands of people from mosquito-borne illnesses.”

For an unabridged copy of this article, visit ‘The Well,’ Northwell’s online newsletter.