5 myths about DEET bug spray

October 5, 2015

There's little question that DEET is more effective than any other form of insect repellent, but some people are convinced that it's toxic. Here's some popular myths about DEET, and they might be wrong.

5 myths about DEET bug spray

1. DEET doesn't work

  • When used properly, this popular insect repellent is safe and effective.
  • Mosquitoes and other bugs track down humans through their antennae, but scientists believe DEET jams the signal.
  • It's no wonder that short of holing up indoors, the best defense against bugs is to wear the right clothes and apply an insect repellent that contains DEET.

2. DEET causes major health problems

  • Concerns about the chemical surfaced in 1989. Public health officials in New York reported that five people had seizures after using insect repellent containing DEET.
  • Other research has suggested that exposure to the chemical lowers sperm count.
  • Some studies have shown that laboratory rats exposed to it suffer brain damage.
  • Many people today refuse to use DEET on themselves or their children, but fear of this bug beater appears to be misguided.

3. DEET causes seizures in children

  • University of Toronto researchers found just 10 cases of children having seizures after using DEET-based insect repellent over a 50-year period, and none after 1992.
  • Yet millions of children are slathered with insect repellent each summer.
  • Seizures are relatively common in kids. Three to five percent experience one each year.
  • In other words, if a child has a seizure after having bug spray applied, it could be a coincidence.

4. DEET is dangerous for people who want kids

  • The same study as above determined that DEET poses no threat to pregnant or nursing women.
  • Several other groups of researchers have found that the repellent carries a low risk of causing other health problems (including low sperm count).
  • However, these studies emphasize that DEET is safe when users follow label instructions.
  • Most critical: keep DEET away from the eyes and especially the mouth. There's no question that ingesting large amounts can cause seizures and may be fatal.

5. Natural repellents are just as effective

  • Beware of "natural" insect repellents, which may wear off long before you're done enjoying the outdoors.
  • A recent study found that most bug sprays containing botanical ingredients, such as citronella, lemongrass oil and peppermint oil, only worked for about 20 minutes.
  • One product, made with soybean oil, repelled bugs for about 90 minutes.
  • These pale in comparison to a DEET-based spray, which lasted for five hours.
  • A caveat: wristbands containing DEET were worthless.

Keeping mosquitoes at bay is difficult enough even with DEET, but you're in no real danger if you follow the instructions. So feel free to lather up and get outside.

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