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Natural Insect Repellents: Do They Work?

Not all bug sprays are created equal. Find out which will best protect you from getting bitten.

| June 25th, 2013
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Natural Insect Repellents: Do They Work?

The weather is warming up, which means mosquitoes and ticks will start biting soon. Some spread nasty illnesses, from West Nile Virus to Lyme Disease. With a preference for natural products on the rise, YouBeauty asks: Do botanical bug sprays really protect you, or should you reach for the DEET?

Insect repellents in the U.S. fall into two broad categories: registered and unregistered. Registered means that the companies that make the repellents have submitted data to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) showing the ingredients are safe and that they work, and the EPA has agreed and allowed the product to go to market.

Registered repellents include synthetics, such as DEET and Picaridin, as well as a few derived from natural ingredients, including lemon eucalyptus oil, PMD and IR3535. The Centers for Disease Control recommend products with these ingredients for protection against biting, disease-spreading mosquitoes, and health experts in Connecticut, the state where Lyme Disease was discovered, recommend some to ward off ticks. To figure out if a specific product is registered, look for an EPA registration number on the label.

Unregistered ingredients fall under section 25(b) of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act, which is what gives the EPA the power to regulate pesticides, including repellents. There are 31 active ingredients on the list, and these are exempt from registration because they are generally considered safe. But, because they aren’t registered, they are also not officially tested for efficacy, which means there may be scant evidence that they actually work. Most are essential oils or common food ingredients.

Sometimes, unregistered products will include language like, “100% natural oils approved by the EPA.” This just means the EPA considers these oils safe for use; it does not mean the agency says they will work against bugs.

If a product lists an active ingredient in a repellent that is not EPA-registered or is not on the 25(b) list, then it isn’t a legal pesticide in the U.S.

Here is the breakdown on some of the most common active repellent ingredients and whether there is science backing up their claims:

Name: DEET (N, N-diethyl-meta-toluamide)
What it is: A synthetic repellent. The U.S. Army developed DEET in 1946, and it's been registered for commercial use since 1957.
Does it work? DEET is EPA-registered, which means the agency has seen data that shows the ingredient works. DEET is widely considered the most effective insect repellent and lasts longer than most alternatives. According to the EPA’s list of registered DEET products, the repellent lasts between two and 12 hours, depending on the formulation and concentration.
Is it safe? Yes, if used according to directions on the label. Both the EPA and the CDC cite reports associating DEET with seizures, but there is no firm data linking the two.

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