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What the heck is DEET, anyway?

Updated: Jun 1, 2018

Spring time means longer days, warmer weather, and lots of opportunities to get outdoors. If you're anything like me, it also means it's time to restock your supply of insect repellent. Bugs love me. Seriously. When I was 10, my parents took me to the doctor because they thought I had the chickenpox. Turns out, I had merely been attacked by mosquitoes while riding my bike with the neighbor kids at dusk. Believe it or not, it is possible to enjoy those BBQs, picnics, and evening hikes while avoiding being eaten alive by blood-sucking critters.

Repellent - DEET, picaridin, or permethrin?

When choosing a repellent, you have a few options. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates the effectiveness of bug repellents and measures chemical effects on the environment. Be sure to use an EPA-registered insect repellent on exposed skin (skin that is not covered by clothing), and carefully follow the instructions on the label. Apply insect repellent as liberally as you would apply sunscreen (though you probably won't have to apply it as often).

DEET (N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide)-based products are great for protection against mosquitoes, fleas, and other flying insects that may carry diseases like malaria and Zika. When applied to skin, DEET works by creating a chemical barrier that essentially renders you invisible to bugs.

The effectiveness and safety of DEET has been been studied extensively since the late 1940s. DEET is recommended by the National Pesticide Information Center (NPIC) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In terms of its effects on the environment, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has determined that DEET does not pose any risks to the environment based on current scientific knowledge.

DEET has been used by millions of people since it was developed in the late 1940s, and has proven very effective. However, DEET has a strong odor, and can cause deterioration of plastics and other synthetic materials during periods of prolonged exposure.

Picaridin is an odorless, topical insect and arachnid deterrent. Picaridin was developed by Bayer in the 1980s, and will not damage fibers like DEET will. However, because it is relatively new compared to DEET, any long-term health or environmental effects have yet to be seen (if there are any such effects). Picaridin has been deemed non-toxic and safe for use by the EPA in its effectiveness in providing protection from insect bites.

Permethrin is a highly effective repellent that can be used to treat clothing. You can purchase pre-treated clothing and gear, or treat your own clothing with a permethrin-based spray. The EPA states that very little permethrin is absorbed through skin when in contact with permethrin (which is why it is recommended as a clothing treatment rather than a topical repellent), and there are no known health risks associated with exposure to clothing treated with permethrin. Ex-Officio makes excellent pre-treated travel clothing for men and women.

In addition to repellents, wearing long pants, long-sleeved shirts, and hats can help protect against pests. Tucking in your shirt, and tucking your pant legs into your boots can help keep bugs off clothes, which keeps bugs off of you.

We hope this information made choosing the right repellent a little less complicated. Please post any questions in the comments, shoot us an email, or contact us via Facebook or Instagram.

If you want more information on preventing tick bites (I know I did!), check out this article on the Peninsula Open Space Trust blog.

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