The Best and Safest Bug Repellents

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With school almost out and swarms of children soon to hit the great outdoors, now’s a great time to think about what might be bugging you … as in, insect repellents. What ingredients should you look for and which ones are safe? We interviewed Dr. Darren Saks of Tenafly Pediatrics to get the scoop.
Bergen Mama: How do insect repellents work?
Dr. Saks: First, it’s worth noting that the term bug “repellent” is inappropriate because the way these products work is to actually to make us invisible to all of those biting bugs. Think of it like the invisibility cloak that Harry Potter wears-- they just don’t know we are there. I think a better term is to call these products “bug cloaks.” 
Bergen Mama: We hear a lot about DEET.  Is it safe?
Dr. Saks: Historically DEET has been the mainstay of effective bug cloaking. It was actually developed by our federal government in the 1940s to help soldiers deal with the bugs of jungle warfare. DEET has continually demonstrated its effectiveness and it seems the higher the concentration, the longer the protection. Initially, there were safety concerns that surrounded an association of DEET and neurotoxicity, but further research has shown that when DEET is used as recommended in concentrations of 20-30% it is very safe and can be used in children as young as 3 months. There are a lot of DEET products available so it is important to look at the DEET concentration. For effective and long acting bug cloaking, one should use a product that has 20-30% DEET. Very often parents are scared to use DEET due to the stories of toxicity, so as a result people avoid DEET or purchase products that have very low DEET concentrations. This is not an effective strategy because DEET works well but when used in low concentrations it will do little to prevent bug bites, and in low concentrations any protection will be for a very short period of time.
Bergen Mama: What are some products you recommend?
Dr Saks: The most common commercially available products with DEET that would be safe and effective are:
  • Off! Deep Woods VIII: 25% DEET
  • Cutter Backwoods: 25% DEET
  • Sawyer Premium Ultra 30: 30% DEET
Bergen Mama: Are there any alternatives to DEET?
Dr. Saks: A new line of bug cloaking products with the chemical Picaridin came to the U.S. market in the last decade. Picaridin has demonstrated comparable and possibly superior effectiveness compared to DEET. There are no reports of toxicity associated with Picaridin, and an added benefit is that overall they have a more pleasant scent than DEET products and they do not irritate the mouth and eyes. 
The most common commercially available products with Picaridin that would be safe and effective are:
  • Sawyer Fisherman’s Formula Picaridin: 20% Picaridin
  • Natrapel: 20% Picaridin 
Bergen Mama: Any other products that are effective?
Dr. Saks: There is another product that has become a great option and it is derived from a naturally occurring bug cloaking ingredient called “oil of lemon eucalyptus.” It should be noted that the effective bug cloaking chemical in oil of lemon eucalyptus called PMD (p-menthane-3,8-diol) is not ‘natural’ and is chemically manufactured when used in commercial bug cloaking products. PMD has no toxicity, has a pleasant odor, and works as well or better than the gold standard DEET. 
The most recognizable brands that produce PMD products are:
  • Cutter Lemon Eucalyptus Repellent
  • Repel Lemon Eucalyptus Repellent
It should also be noted that there are a lot of other products that market themselves as “natural,” “DEET free” or “nontoxic.”  The evidence suggests that if the product doesn’t contain DEET, Picaridin, or PMD, you will be quite visible and uncloaked, and therefore you will remain a juicy target as you embark into the world of insects.
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