Healthy Living

Bug Bites Season: Get the Deets on DEET

Citronella has become my summer night perfume. But to my surprise, the chemical repellent DEET may actually be the safest choice for me and my family.It’s bug bites season. And that means that I can sit at a table full of people and be the only one walking away with bug bites. According to the Smithsonian, it might have something to do with my blood type, which—for the record—is O.

Regardless, I’m not taking chances with bug bites this summer. Because of my work with the Environmental Working Group, I was lucky enough to read early versions of their brand new Bug Repellent Report, which represents 18 months of research.

Citronella has become my summer night perfume. But to my surprise, the chemical repellent DEET may actually be the safest choice for me and my family. And I was truly surprised at what I learned: According to EWG, the chemical repellent DEET may actually be the safest choice for me and my family.

That’s because there are truly scary things borne by bug bites in this day and age: The incidence of tick-transmitted Lyme disease has more than doubled in the last 15 years, and mosquito-borne West Nile Virus infected 5,000 people last year—it can be life-threatening for kids.

Traditionally, I’ve stayed away from DEET and depended on botanical repellents like citronella—I actually like the way they smell. But according to EWG, many can cause allergies. Plus, they only work for a short time, if at all.

“Botanicals are worth trying in some situations when you’re not concerned about bug borne diseases,” said Renee Sharp, Director of Research for EWG. So, since I’m not allergic, in the back yard I might still stick with repeated sprays of citronella from something like California Baby Bug Repellant Spray—it’s become my summer night perfume.

But for travel to places where Lyme disease and West Nile Virus is prevalent, I’ll stock up on DEET. According to Dave Andrews, EWG’s Senior Scientist, the key is repeated uses of a product that contains a low percentage of the active ingredient. “The percentage doesn’t affect the efficacy, but it does affect how long the product lasts,” he said. “Generally, you’re better off with a lower percentage: No higher than 30% and lower for children, to be on the safe side.”

Point taken.

Disclaimer: I’m honored to be consulting for the Environmental Working Group, the non-profit that has inspired so much of my work with Mommy Greenest. But I would have written about the Bug Report even if I wasn’t working with them!



  • Nancy

    I live in Maine where we grow some huge mosquitoes – I too use Ava Anderson Non Toxic bug spray and even my ever doubtful husband agrees – it works fantastic! DEET is a pesticide and not something I want to use on myself or children.

  • Stacy

    I live in the Florida Kets (mosquito heaven) and use Ava Anderson Non Toxic bug spray. This spray contains catnip which is 10x more effective than Deet!!

  • Elena

    Very enlightening article, Rachel. I live in Puerto Rico where Dengue is prevalent. Children and older adults are especially susceptible and there is even a typy which causes internal hemorrhages and death. Each year people die from it. As a mother of 3, I have always been confused by what products I should use on the kids. I have gone between natural products and deet containing products. But I agree with your reasoning and find that the low level deet products may be our answer. My oldest had dengue when she was about 4. It was very scary and I certainly don’t want my kids to go through that again! If you have any brand recommendations that would be super. Thank you!!

    • Rachel Sarnoff

      Oh that does sound scary! I’m so glad your daughter is okay!! I think the EWG guide would be really helpful to you, because they categorize what you should use based on where you live and what your lifestyle is like, i.e. pregnant, etc. I have not yet researched brands with DEET, but the percentages on the bottles should be (hopefully) straightforward. I was in Costa Rica last month and used Herbal Armor for mosquitoes there, but I don’t think there is Dengue there. The Herbal Armor worked GREAT but you have to reapply at least once an hour. I basically carried it with me everywhere. One thing I really liked about it is it has a cooling sensation which works on bites you already have. But again, your situation is so different, I think it does make sense for you to take a look at the guide in terms of what percentage is best for you and your family. Good luck! And thanks for reading MG 🙂

    • Rachel Sarnoff

      I will have to try that! I also heard that vanilla works as an insect repellant, which seems bizarre but I want to try that too!

  • nicole

    there are more cases of lyme disease in the US than west nile, AIDS and rabies. i’m not sure what all the hype is about west nile, when it truly is so rare. 200,000+ cases of lyme disease every year in the US. i am one of them. i choose not to use deet, as i’m already sick and don’t need any more toxins floating around in my body. i have found ‘tick tock’ to be amazing, not just for ticks, but also mosquitos. no bites in months! and it smells like eau-de-cologne! thanks for bringing this issue to the attention of your readers. i’m going to read this report for myself…sounds fascinating!

  • Delia Barrett

    I’m also O (+, though you don’t mention which). And I don’t get bitten. But my husband and kids do. I thought it was the heat, which my husband gives off plenty. I think that every time I’m with him, they aim for him and not me 😉

  • Britni Bradford

    Please don’t take this comment to be mean =) but I live in North Texas where we are bombarded with news about WNV. It’s the next “flu” if you go by media hype. If you look on the CDC’s website, you will see that most people are in fact immune to WNV – if you live in an area where it’s at all prevalent, you’ve probably been bitten by a WNV mosquito. For most healthy people you don’t need to lock yourselves indoors and hide (side note, the majority people infected last year, were elderly people who were bitten while they were inside their homes). We never use DEET. I use Honest Co. bug spray if we are going to be out at dusk but that’s about it. I got covered in bites on the 4th of July because I forgot our spray, and no WNV here. Sorry, I just get a little annoyed with the media’s “we’re all going to die” attitude toward WNV and the cities going and spraying everything and killing the honey bees etc… (stepping down off the soap box now) =)

    • Rachel Sarnoff

      Thanks Britni! I know, I have been hearing people say that their communities are starting to spray, even, which is terrifying. I think the point of the EWG bug report is to get people to think about where they live and what they’re doing, and to use bug spray accordingly. Thank you for your perspective, and your soap box is always welcome here! 🙂

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