Insect Repellents: DEET vs Natural

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Pests, mosquitoes, ticks, and others make themselves known during summer. Repellents are a must. This article explores natural repellents vs. DEET repellents and when you should use them.

Repelling Mosquitos Chemically or Naturally at 31Daily.com

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As summer draws near, it brings the unwelcome presence of pests and biting bugs such as mosquitoes, ticks, no-see-ums, and others. These tiny creatures are not to be undermined as they pose more than just the nuisance of an itchy bite. Mosquitoes can transmit Zika and West Nile viruses, while ticks can transmit Lyme disease.

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

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

Take the following steps in areas with Zika and other mosquito-related diseases.

  • 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 cannot 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 breastfeeding women.

Yet, concerns about 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 you can make informed choices this summer.

Ingredient Options

Active Ingredient TypeDuration
DEETChemical8-10+ Hours
PicaridinChemicalUp to 8 Hours
Oil of Lemon EucalyptusSynthesized Plant OilUp to 6 Hours
Plant Oils (soybean, lemongrass,
cedar, citronella, etc.)
Nonsynthesized Plant Oil30 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 believes that regular 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 Australian 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. Therefore, it is recommended not to 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 challenging quandary for me. I 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 would be using the natural insect repellent I wrote about on 31Daily.

This far into summer, and with the research I’ve done, we’re going to use both for my family. Zika, 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 for prolonged periods by streams or lakes. Then, we will use commercial chemical repellent.

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