Fight the Bite — Without Toxics

Child with mosquito bites doing yoga

Cropped image. Lars Plougmann, Flickr. CC License.

Would you knowingly spray a chemical on yourself or your children that’s been linked to motor deficits and learning and memory dysfunction? A chemical that’s been found by the National Institutes for Health to cross the placenta, that sacred barrier that protects unborn children from harmful substances? Of course not.

But for years, consumers have accepted the potential neurotoxic health effects of DEET in insect repellents in exchange for the assurance that the chemical works well, is long lasting, and protects against West Nile virus.

Earlier this June, Michigan recorded its first cases of the disease in three crows in Ingham County. Within days, the state put out the call for preparedness. “Michiganders should take the precautionary steps of applying repellents during peak mosquito biting periods such as dusk and dawn, and to drain standing water around their homes to remove mosquito breeding sites,” according to a State of Michigan press release. The State advises using mosquito repellent products containing active ingredients registered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Fortunately consumer demand for safer products, coupled with scientific research, created a thriving market for effective DEET alternatives. Picaridin, oil of lemon eucalyptus, and para-menthane-diol (PMD, synthesized oil of lemon eucalyptus) are all EPA-registered active ingredients, but don’t have known adverse human health effects.

Research shows that some botanical oils — such as soybean, geraniol, thyme, citronella and clove — also protect against insect bites, but may require more frequent application. Protection times range from 1.5 – 5 hours versus 2 – 8 hours for EPA-registered active ingredients. Manufacturers aren’t required to register these botanical oils as active ingredients with the EPA due to the lack of any safety concerns.

DEET-free repellents

If you do rely upon DEET-containing products, remember these tips:

  • Do not use DEET/ sunscreen combination products. The frequent reapplication of sunscreen will, “…pose unnecessary exposure to DEET,” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. DEET is not water-soluble and will last up to eight hours, while sunscreen washes off and may only last a few hours.
  • Do not use products with more than 30% DEET. They do not offer any extra protection according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, and should especially be avoided for use on children.

For all insect repellents, the EPA recommends:

  • Do not allow children to handle…”and do not apply to children’s hands. When using on children, apply to your own hands and then put it on the child.
  • “Apply sparingly around ears.” According to the EPA Reregistration Eligibility Decision report on DEET, absorption of pesticides through the skin is, “…approximately four times greater around the ears than the forearm.”

To help you find the right product for you, consult:

– Melissa Cooper Sargent, Environmental Health Educator with LocalMotionGreen at Ecology Center. For more information, you can email her at or visit

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