Bug Off! How to Keep Mosquitoes from Ruining Your Summer
Scientific studies have repeatedly shown that the most effective insect repellents contain DEET, or N, N-diethyl-meta-toluamide. These repellents are applied directly to exposed skin. DEET does not kill mosquitoes, but instead works to block the body signals that alert mosquitoes to the presence of prey. In other words, DEET confuses mosquitoes into not seeing you as something worth biting.
The range of concentration of DEET is important, with some products having as little as 4 percent and some as high as 100 percent. In general, the higher the DEET concentration, the better the protection offered. Research has shown that the optimal DEET concentration seems to be about 30 percent: less than that does not work as well or as long, higher than that does not work much better, though the protection it offers does last significantly longer than most formulas which contain lesser amounts. Consumer Reports and other groups recently reviewed several popular brands of DEET containing repellents and found that the top performer regardless of concentration was 3M’s Ultrathon, which has a concentration of 33 percent. It tied with another formula containing 100 oercent DEET in terms of effective time of 13 hours.
DEET has been a widely used insect repellent for over 50 years. It is considered safe when used properly. DEET is classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as a Category IV Toxicity–practically non-toxic. It is also a Group D carcinogen (not classifiable as a human carcinogen). DEET is noted as slightly toxic to eyes, open skin and oral application and this should be avoided.
However, in recent years, there has been increased concern and a determination that more observation and study regarding DEET is necessary. The EPA notes, “although DEET’s use has been implicated in seizures among children (rare), the EPA believes that the incident data are insufficient to establish DEET as the cause.” Some studies suggest that the toxic effects are almost always the result of overexposure to DEET and misuse of the chemical. Parents are again cautioned against label-specified use. In the case of DEET, too much really IS too much.
So what is the right amount for children? Unfortunately, to date, there is no study that definitively answers what concentration is safest for children, though there is no evidence that adverse reactions are likely. Most experts do believe that DEET should not be used on children under two months old. Most experts also agree that lower DEET concentrations are safe for children aged 2 to 12. The American Academy of Pediatricians recommends a cautious approach of using DEET concentrations of under 10 percent on children between the ages of 2 to 12.
Reading labels on repellents is imperative, and parents should keep in mind several important points. Never use DEET containing products under clothing. Not only is DEET fairly useless under clothing, which provides it’s own protection, but DEET accumulates in the body. Use just enough to provide protection and no more. When you have come inside for the day, wash DEET-treated skin with soap and water. Wash any treated clothing.
Parents should be cautioned against any DEET containing product that claims to be specially formulated for children. The EPA “does not believe that certain DEET formulations are inherently safer for children.” It is the concentration that is the key factor.
DEET has not been shown to cause adverse reactions in pregnant women or in breastfeeding mothers.
Like any chemical, even those deemed safe by the medical community, use caution and common sense. Do not expose eyes, mouths, or any cuts/open sores to DEET products. Keep DEET away from hands of young children, and do not allow them to apply the repellents by themselves. Use the repellent only in a well-ventilated area (wait until you are outside before you spray). Do not spray near food. Do not spray near face, instead spray your hands and rub your face, avoiding your mouth and eye areas. Wash off with soap and water immediately if you suspect an allergic reaction.
One last note about DEET is that is has shown to be an effective deterrent to that other nasty bloodsucking, disease-carrying little monster–the tick. Ticks dislike DEET as much as mosquitoes and carry a serious health risk in the form of Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and anthropoid-borne encephalitis.
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