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What’s DEET, is it Dangerous and What Bug Sprays Can I Use Instead?

Someone spraying an insect repellent on a child's arm

Spending time outdoors brings on mosquito bites, and with those itchy bites, potential diseases.  This is the ultimate buzzkill to any summer BBQ, run in the park, or pool day. The solution to this problem seems easy enough: just grab some bug spray and douse yourself. Amiright?  Unfortunately, it might not be so easy. The most commonly used bug sprays contain a chemical called DEET, because it’s the most effective in warding off these obnoxious little critters. But, is DEET dangerous?

Some people believe DEET may kill mosquitoes and cause harmful effects in humans (i.e. birth defects, brain damage, etc.).  Studies so far haven’t proven this to be true, but people regard it as a toxic chemical nonetheless and, as an insecticide, could affect the nervous system long term.

This begs the question: are there alternatives?  The following two products are believed to be just as effective as DEET, and are naturally found in the environment. By comparison, DEET is dangerous. Try these better choices instead.

Bite Blocker Insect Repellent

Good For: Kids or adults, and it’s waterproof so it’s great for outdoor exercise.

Notable Attributes: Bite blocker lasts for up to 90 minutes—longer than some low-grade DEET repellents.  Mild herbal scent.

Pros: Bite blocker is a soy-based spray that prevents mosquitoes from biting you and soothes bites too.  It’s much gentler on your skin than DEET, which tends to run into your eyes and mouth if you sweat and burn.  It also doesn’t leave stains, so you can apply it to your skin under your clothes.

Cons: Doesn’t last as long as some higher-concentrated DEET sprays, so you may have to apply it more often and buy more bottles.

Bottom Line: This repellent lasts up to 90 minutes and is safe to use on children as well.  It has an herbal aroma which is much milder than DEET’s chemical smell. It’s also gentler on your skin and doesn’t stain your clothes—while DEET might.  You may have to apply it more than DEET, but it’s a great alternative if you want to avoid toxicity.

REPEL Plant-Based Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent

Good For: Keeping mosquitoes away during any outdoor activity. Better for adults than children since it is a very strong substance.

Notable Attributes: This repellent lasts for up to 6 hours and has an amazing, cool, refreshing scent.  It may be just as effective as Bite Blocker (and even lasts longer) but hasn’t gotten as much attention.

Pros:  It isn’t greasy or sticky.  Can also be sprayed on skin under clothes without staining them. Where DEET is dangerous, this alternative is a plant-based insect repellent.

Cons: The lemon scent is extremely strong when first applied, but it dissipates.  It is stronger than Bite Blocker, so it may cause irritation if you get it in your eyes.  Also, you can’t just spray lemon eucalyptus on. It’s an oil base, so you must rub it on like a moisturizer in order for it to be effective.

Bottom Line: This repellent lasts up to 6 hours and is most comparable to DEET in effectiveness.  Since it is so strong, it may cause more skin irritations, and you should be careful applying it near your eyes and mouth.  Also probably not the best for kids for the same reasons.