Insect Repellents: DEET vs Natural


Repelling Mosquitos Chemically or Naturally at

As summer approaches, so do pests and biting bugs like mosquitoes, ticks, no-see-ums and the like. And they can do more harm than just an itchy bite. Mosquitos can transmit the Zika and West Nile viruses and ticks can transmit Lyme Disease.

These viruses and diseases can produce flu-like symptoms, debilitating aches and pains, infant defects, and even death.

As of June 20, 2016, there are 234 pregnant women in the United States with confirmed cases of Zika and 3 infants have been born with Zika-related defects.

The CDC says while Zika can be sexually transmitted, it is most often transmitted through a bite from an infected mosquito. Prevention is key.

RELATED: All Natural Insect Repellent

CDC: Steps to prevent mosquito bites

CDC: Zika Prevention

When in areas with Zika and other diseases spread by mosquitoes, take the following steps.

  • Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants.
  • Stay in places with air conditioning and window and door screens to keep mosquitoes outside.
  • Take steps to control mosquitoes inside and outside your home.
  • Sleep under a mosquito bed net if you are overseas or outside and are not able to protect yourself from mosquito bites.
  • Use Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-registered insect repellents with one of the following active ingredients: DEET, picaridin, IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus, or para-menthane-diol. Choosing an EPA-registered repellent ensures the EPA has evaluated the product for effectiveness. When used as directed, EPA-registered insect repellents are proven safe and effective, even for pregnant and breast-feeding women.

Yet, concerns related to the chemicals used in commercial insect repellents, like DEET, have left us questioning which active ingredient to use.

This article offers details on repellent so that you can make informed choices this summer.

Ingredient Options

Active Ingredient  Type Duration
DEET Chemical 8-10+ Hours
Picaridin Chemical Up to 8 Hours
Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus Synthesized Plant Oil Up to 6 Hours
Plant Oils (soybean, lemongrass,
cedar, citronella, etc.)
Nonsynthesized Plant Oil 30 minutes – 2 hours



DEET is the most widely used repellent. Yet, there are health concerns over DEET. The Washington Post says, “DEET (N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide), first used by the U.S. Army, has been sold to consumers since the 1950s. It can cause allergic skin reactions, particularly at concentrations of 50 percent and above, and eye irritation. A 2013 analysis of about 4,000 DEET-related calls to poison control centers found that 450 people needed medical treatment after applying DEET; two died. Most cases of seizures, slurred speech, coma and other serious side effects have occurred in people who ingested DEET or applied it for three or more days in a row, or used products with 95 percent DEET or more.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics cautions against using any product containing DEET on children under 2 months of age and only up to 30% on older children. Canada’s health department advises against using DEET above 10% on children up to age 12.

The CDC, however, believes that normal use of the product does not present a health concern to the general population. Here is the EPA’s Fact Sheet on DEET.


“Picaridin, developed by Bayer AG in the 1980s and sold in the U.S. since 2005, is not known to irritate skin and eyes, does not have a pungent odor like DEET and does not dissolve plastics (EPA 2005). It evaporates from the skin more slowly than DEET or IR3535 and may repel bugs for longer periods (Debboun et al. 2007).” EWG.

“Picaridin repels insects, ticks and chiggers. It was made to resemble the natural compound piperine, which is found in the group of plants that are used to produce black pepper. Picaridin has been widely used as an insect repellent in Europe and Australia,” according to the National Pesticide Information Center.

The difference between DEET and Picaridin: “Picaridin does not carry the same neurotoxicity concerns as DEET but has not been tested as much over the long term.  Overall, Picaridin is a good DEET alternative with many of the same advantages and without the same disadvantages,” says EWG.

Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus /PMD

Registered by the EPA in 2000, it is a chemically synthesized version of oil of lemon eucalyptus. Tree extract from the Austrailian native eucalyptus tree is chemically refined to intensify the naturally occurring methane substance, known to repel insects. The resulting oil is very different from the essential oil.

Repel and Cutter commercial brands make repellents containing Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus with a 30% concentration.

Effects of Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus has not been thoroughly tested in children. For that reason, it is recommended that it not be used on children under 3.

Natural Plant Oils

There are few data tables on the effectiveness of natural plant oil against bug bites. The EPA has classified them as “minimum risk.” Some are more effective than others, and some oils have potential allergen and irritant risks.


This has been a tough quandary for me. I really hate the idea of using insecticides, preferring anything natural. But the risk of disease today demands a fresh look at our choices. A friend asked me yesterday on Facebook if I was going to be using the natural insect repellent I wrote about on 31Daily.

This far into summer, and with the research I’ve done, for my family, we’re going to use both. Zika and West Nile and Lyme Disease are real, they can be debilitating and even deadly. My county public health department has stated that Zika is primarily spread through the bite of the Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus mosquitoes, which are not found in my area. As a result, for now, we will use natural repellents unless we are going to be outside for hours, are in wooded areas, like hiking, or prolonged periods by stream or lakes. Then we will use commercial chemical repellent.

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As summer approaches, so do pests and biting bugs like mosquitoes, ticks, no-see-ums and the like. And they can do more harm than just an itchy bite. Will you use Natural or Chemical Repellent this summer? Differences at

Written by 

Stephanie Wilson is an author, blogger, publisher, and former television news writer and producer. She lives in the Puget Sound area with her family.

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