About Skin Repellants

If you’ve always used Deet-based (N,N-diethyl-m-toluamide) insect repellants,
you might want to reconsider.

Several organizations – including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the American Academy of Pediatrics – are now suggesting that Deet may not be as safe as you thought it was.

Consider the following quote from the EPA website on Deet:

“As long as consumers follow label directions and take proper precautions, insect repellents containing Deet do not present a health concern. Human exposure is expected to be brief, and long-term exposure is not expected.”

The actual EPA report also requires manufacturers to remove child safety claims on products sold with low levels of Deet.

“The scientific data on Deet do not support product label claims of child safety based on the percentage of active ingredient.”

Additionally, the report recommends deferring comment on products that contain both Deet and sunscreen, “since directions to reapply sunscreens generously and frequently may promote greater use of Deet than needed for pesticidal efficacy and thus pose unnecessary exposure to Deet.”

Recognizing that mosquitoes and ticks carry disease – sometimes life-threatening diseases – the American Association of Pediatrics also supports the use of Deet. Even so, they have a series of warnings:

  • In formulations of less than 10 percent
  • Applied sparingly, according to product label instructions
  • Only to exposed skin, and not to a child’s face, hands, or skin that is irritated or abraded.
  • After the child returns indoors, treated skin should be washed with soap and water.

Not exactly what you would call glowing endorsements, but they balance the danger of insects with the damage caused by smearing pesticides on your skin.

You can find several interesting articles on neem on the National Institutes of Health (a sister agency to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration) database including a 1993 article from the Journal of the American Mosquito Control Association. The direct quote from that government-funded source reads:

“Two percent neem oil mixed in coconut oil, when applied to the exposed body parts of human volunteers, provided complete protection for 12 h from the bites of all anopheline (mosquitoes that carry malaria) species. Application of neem oil is safe and can be used for protection from malaria in endemic countries.”

A report written by a committee of the National Research Council and published by the National Academy Press – also affiliated with the U.S. government – notes that neem “deters certain biting insects more effectively than the synthetic chemical called Deet.” (See page 4.)

But is neem any safer? Tests required for agricultural use of neem as a pesticide also show that it is “practically non-toxic” even when rats are fed extraordinarily high doses. (Extension Toxicology Network)

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