What you need to know about insect repellents for children

Bored with insect bites but worried about chemicals? Here’s how to protect children from ticks and mosquitoes.

By Catherine Roberts

You probably already know how important it is to use insect repellent to reduce the risk of catching illness from a mosquito or tick and to help avoid their irritating bites. However, you may also be concerned about the chemicals used in insect repellents, especially if you have children.

The good news: Experts say insect repellents registered with the Environmental Protection Agency, including those containing deet, pose little risk when used appropriately.

“To the best of our knowledge, they are effective,” says Lisa Asta, MD, spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics and clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco. “They are safe when used as directed.”

However, some mosquito and tick-borne diseases can make children (and adults) very sick. Lyme disease, the most common tick-borne illness in the United States, can cause fever, rash, severe headache, stiff neck, and joint pain. Other insect-borne diseases, such as West Nile virus and Rocky Mountain spotted fever, can be fatal.

So what are the best ways to keep mosquitoes and ticks away from your children? Based on Consumer Reports insect repellent tests and other research, here’s what you need to know about the most effective insect repellents for children.

Reduce the risk of exposure

A few steps that don’t involve repellents can help discourage contact between insects and children in the first place, so you can start with these.

For example, get rid of any standing water in your garden, says Asta, and remove containers where water can collect and allow mosquitoes to breed, such as empty buckets, birdbaths and tires. unused. To make the area less welcoming to ticks, clean up dead leaves or overgrown brush and mow tall grass. (Learn more about anti-tick yard modifications you can make.)

If you are going to an area where there may be a lot of mosquitoes, ask the children to wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants. If you go hiking, in the woods or in tall grass, make sure they also tuck shirts into pants, wear closed-toe shoes, and tuck pants into long socks to prevent tick bites.

Showering and performing tick checks soon after arriving from wooded or tick-rich areas has been shown to help reduce the risk of catching a tick-borne disease, so help your children check themselves- even attached ticks.

Choose safe and effective repellents

In CR’s tests, the products that provided the most long-lasting protection contained one of three active ingredients: deet, oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE), or picaridin.

Deet products get most of our top scores, with concentrations of 25-30% providing the most reliable and long-lasting protection, repelling mosquitoes for over 6.5 hours for some products we tested. Two of the four repellents we tested with 15% deet also earned our recommendation.

Four OLE products and four with picaridin also earn our recommendation, offering 5 hours or more of protection. CR members can view our insect repellent ratings for full details.

But what about security? Here’s what the experts say.

The safety of this chemical, available to consumers in insect repellents since 1965, has been studied extensively over the years. In the 1980s and 1990s, however, after a few health problems, such as seizures and brain damage, were reported in children exposed to deet, some parents became concerned about the ingredient. And some still worry.

But according to the Environmental Protection Agency, these problems have usually occurred after people didn’t follow label directions and used too much deet (PDF). A 1998 EPA Comprehensive Review of Deet Safety (PDF) estimated that deet-related seizures are extremely rare, likely to occur in only about 1 in 100 million users. And according to the Center for Disease Control’s 2017 deet toxicity update (PDF), the overall risk of any problems appears to be quite low.

“To me, that puts things into perspective,” says Jerome Goddard, PhD, an extension professor of entomology at Mississippi State University, meaning the benefits of preventing potentially deadly insect-borne diseases are likely to outweigh all risks, particularly when deet is used as directed.

The CDC and EPA (and Consumer Reports) agree that deet is safe to use on children as long as you follow label directions (see below).

And take common sense precautions, advises Joe Conlon, a former Navy entomologist and former technical advisor to the American Mosquito Control Association. “You should not leave bottles of this product around children, as it is harmful if swallowed,” he says.

Ben’s Tick & Bug Wipes

3M Ultrathon8 Insect Repellent

According to the EPA (PDF), picaridin, a synthetic chemical that resembles a compound found in pepper, causes few known side effects. But it can irritate eyes and skin. It hasn’t been studied as thoroughly as deet, but health experts generally consider it safe for children.

Sawyer Premium Insect Repellent

Natrapel Tick and Insect Repellent Aerosol

Lemon eucalyptus oil
Evidence suggests that this ingredient, a synthetic version of a chemical derived from the lemon eucalyptus plant, is safe for people ages 3 and up. But it’s not approved for kids younger than that. And note that this ingredient is not the same as lemon eucalyptus essential oil, which is not registered as an insect repellent by the EPA.

Repel Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent2

Cutter Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent Aerosol

Natural products
To avoid using chemicals, you can turn to more “natural” products, such as those containing ingredients such as citronella oil, citronella oil, and peppermint oil. In CR’s tests, however, repellents containing essential oils as active ingredients provided fewer hours of protection than the most effective products.

Use Bug Spray on Kids the Right Way

Once you’ve chosen an insect repellent for your child, take the necessary steps to maximize its effectiveness and safety:

  • The American Academy of Pediatrics advises against using repellents on infants under 2 months of age. One option, says Asta, is to cover your baby’s stroller with netting when they’re in outdoor stroller spaces.

  • Ask an adult to apply repellents to children. For spray or lotion formulas, adults should apply the repellent to their own hands and then rub it into the child’s skin.

  • Apply repellents only to exposed skin or the outside of clothing.

  • Avoid putting repellent on children’s hands, as this could put their hands in their mouths. Do not apply to cuts, sores or irritated skin, or near children’s mouths.

  • Apply the repellent spray in an open area to avoid inhaling it.

  • Wash off the repellent with soap and water at the end of the day when children come indoors and wash clothes sprayed with repellent before wearing them again.

  • Be aware that not all repellent formulations (sprays, lotions, or wipes) are equally effective. Of the lotions and wipes Consumer Reports tested, only those with DEET as the active ingredient performed well enough to earn our recommendation.

How to keep ticks out of your garden

Ticks like tall grass and cool, moist places. On the TV show “Consumer 101,” Consumer Reports expert Catherine Roberts explains how to make your garden less attractive to these pests.

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Consumer Reports is an independent, nonprofit organization that works alongside consumers to create a fairer, safer, and healthier world. CR does not endorse products or services and does not accept advertising. Copyright © 2022, Consumer Reports, Inc.

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