If the best offense is a good defense, then when it comes to bug bites, a critical summer survival tool is insect repellent. It can protect you from common annoying bugs like mosquitoes, and also from the scary ones like ticks… both of which can cause illness.
But it just so happens that the most common and most effective active ingredient available today has some controversy surrounding it. And that’s DEET. So let me tell you a little more about DEET.
DEET is just a simple abbreviation for Diethyl Meta Toluamide, a chemical that was developed by the United States Army to protect soldiers during jungle warfare. It’s used in many popular repellants available today.
While there's been some controversy over its safety, in my opinion, it’s safe. That’s based on many years of treating patients, and on information from the Environmental Protection Agency and peer review journals. In terms of my own experience, in 30 years of treating over 10,000 patient visits per year, I’ve never seen a case of DEET toxicity or irritation despite recommending it often. In addition, DEET is used by approximately 50 - 100 million people a year, with very few reports of harmful side effects.
Now yes, there have been reports of significant side effects to the nervous system in individuals who are sensitive to DEET, especially small children. But most are the result of over exposure from applying too much or reapplication too often. The fact is... Most people don’t have adverse effects when they use DEET, if used according to the manufacturer’s recommendations on the label.
When it comes to choosing a product with DEET, those containing higher concentrations don’t provide greater protection, they only last longer. For example, a product with 6.6% DEET will give approximately 2 hours of protection, while a product with 20% DEET will last almost 4 hours, and 25% can last 6. Concentrations of 50% or higher don’t increase the length of protection and should not be used.
This is the bottom line on DEET: You're much more likely to get a serious case of West Nile disease from a mosquito bite than you are to have a bad reaction to DEET… which you can almost certainly prevent by following the directions on the label.