Ask Dr. Nandi: How safe is Deet?

Posted at 9:36 AM, Jul 19, 2018
and last updated 2018-07-19 14:33:18-04

As much as we love summer, no one loves the pesky biting bugs that come with it.  Insect repellents with Deet are widely used to keep them at bay but many people are still concerned about its main active ingredient.   

Question: How safe is Deet?

I understand people’s reluctance to use Deet as there have been reports of seizures and deaths that were potentially linked to it.  But the Environmental Protection Agency has conducted two safety reviews and they did not identify any risks of concern to human health.   Deet has also not been classified as a carcinogen, which means it has not been shown to cause cancer.   But there have been reports of Deet toxicity.  Most of them were mild and treated at home.  But in a lot of those cases, the products were being misused or applied wrong. 

Question: What should we know when using DEET?   

First you want to use the right concentration.  You don’t need 100% Deet.  If you’re only looking for several hours of protection, buy 30 percent Deet.   The number represents how long it will keep you protected for, not how effective it is at keeping the bugs away.  Next, be sure to read and follow the product's instructions.  Do not spray it near your eyes or mouth or over cuts, wounds or irritated skin. You can spray it on clothes and on exposed skin only.  And also be sure to wash it off before bedtime.

Question: Deet is such a strong chemical, if people still are not comfortable using it, are their effective alternatives?

There are other options like using Picaridin and Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus.  Picardin has been shown to work just as well as Deet.   And Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus has also done well in testing but it should not be used on kids younger than three. Both of these ingredients have been researched and checked out but not as thoroughly as Deet.  Deet still is the most widely used bug repellent, its been used billions of times over the years and has been deemed not only highly effective but considered safe when used as directed.