Camping, cookouts, hiking and fishing — these are all enjoyable summertime activities if you can keep the bugs away. Insects like ticks and mosquitoes don’t just get under your skin or leave behind annoying, itchy bites — they can also spread diseases External Site.
While some people might reach for a generic insect repellent to ward off these tiny pests, others are concerned about the chemicals in them (especially with younger children) and prefer more natural alternatives. Luckily, there are several ways to lower your risk of getting mosquito bites whether you choose to use bug spray or avoid it altogether.
Preventing mosquito bites with insect repellent
While using insect repellent is one of the easiest ways to prevent mosquito bites External Site, one of the common concerns lies in its active ingredients.
Common active ingredients in bug spray
- DEET, short for diethyltoluamide, is the most common active ingredient in insect repellents. You can apply it to skin or clothing for protection against mosquitoes, ticks, fleas, and many other biting insects. However, you shouldn’t use DEET on infants younger than two months, and you should avoid repellents with more than 30 percent DEET for older children. Some repellents can be very concentrated, so it’s important to check the label before use.
- Picaridin is a lab-made chemical that mimics a compound found in pepper plants and has been available in the United States since 2005 for use as an insect repellent. You can use it on both skin and clothing. Testing from Consumer Reports recommends sprays with 20 percent concentration over lotions and wipes.
- Oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE), which isn't the same as lemon eucalyptus oil, is a lab-made chemical External Site that mimics an extract from the gum eucalyptus plant. While it hasn’t been studied as well as other ingredients, experts say it’s relatively safe. However, it does not prevent tick bites and should not be used in children younger than three because it can cause eye irritation.
How safe is DEET?
DEET has been around the longest and is generally considered the most effective active ingredient in insect repellent. However, Consumer Reports found around a quarter of Americans External Site avoid using it. Experts say it is safe when used appropriately, and there shouldn’t be cause for concern External Site. That’s because the overall rate of DEET poisoning is extremely low — with most reported incidents involving product misuse, like ingesting it — and even then, the majority of DEET poisoning cases are mild.
What about natural repellent?
You may have seen repellents marketed as “natural” in stores, which means they can include plant extracts like lemongrass, citronella, peppermint, and rosemary. Because the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) doesn’t consider these chemicals to pose any safety risks, it doesn’t review products that contain them. And, while products like citronella candles may smell nice, they won’t provide nearly as much protection as the ingredients listed above.
Experts advise against buying into other alternative products as well. Studies have shown External Site that patches, bug-repellent wristbands and bracelets, and even ultrasonic devices (which claim that they repel mosquitoes by a high-pitched sound human ears can’t hear) are ineffective.
How to use insect repellent safely
As with anything you apply to your skin, follow these safety precautions External Site for using insect repellent:
- Don’t put on broken skin, like cuts, scrapes, burns or other irritated areas.
- Use just enough to cover exposed areas, and don’t put on places you will cover with clothing anyway.
- Once you come inside, wash any areas you treated so it doesn’t remain on your skin and wash clothes you treated before wearing them again.
- Don’t spray it indoors — always apply in a well-ventilated area.
- Take caution when applying to your face — if using a spray, apply to your hands and gently rub into your face, avoiding your mouth, nose, and eyes. Follow the same method for applying bug spray to children External Site.
Other ways to keep mosquitoes and ticks away
In addition to bug spray, there are other ways you can lower your chances of getting mosquito bites:
- Avoid standing water. Mosquitoes breed in water, especially where it collects and sits for a long period of time. Standing water can sometimes be unavoidable, especially after a heavy rainstorm. However, you should frequently check for places that might be prone to stagnant water. Empty standing water from things like bird baths, unused flowerpots, gutters, wading pools, swimming pool covers, and certain areas of children’s play structures.
- Install window screens. This addition to your home will allow you to enjoy the nice breeze on a warm summer evening without letting flying insects inside.
- Wear long-sleeved shirts and pants. Though not ideal in hot weather, covering your legs and arms is one of the best ways to prevent mosquitoes from biting and ticks from landing. Choose light and breathable fabrics, like cotton, nylon, and polyester, to keep you cool and covered. If you’re hiking in a heavily wooded area where ticks can thrive, wear closed-toe shoes and tuck pants into your socks for further protection.
- Use mosquito netting. If you’re planning to be in a heavily wooded area, bring along mosquito-blocking fabric or netting designed for strollers, infant car seats or wearable baby carriers to protect babies — who sometimes can’t wear repellent — from mosquitoes and ticks.
The bottom line
Protecting yourself from mosquitoes and other flying insects like ticks is important, as bites can be more than just a nuisance. Diseases transmitted by these insects, like West Nile virus, Lyme disease, and Zika virus, are on the rise and can cause serious health issues.
Most commercially available bug repellents are widely tested and safe when used appropriately External Site (and in addition to other ways to keep bugs away) — while natural alternatives are not nearly as effective, and in some cases, aren’t effective at all.
If you need help choosing an insect repellent, the EPA has a search tool External Site to determine which product will work best for you.
Concerned about a bug bite?
While bug bites generally resolve on their own, it's important to talk to your personal doctor if you start showing any symptoms of mosquito- and tick-borne illnesses, like fever, headache and fatigue, or if you have swelling or irritation around a bite. If you're away from home or don't want to make a trip to a doctor's office, you can use Doctor On Demand® External Site to see a board-certified doctor from your smartphone or tablet in minutes.
Virtual visits are covered by many Wellmark plans — just be sure to log in or register for myWellmark® to check your coverage for details Opens New Window.