Is Insect Repellent Harmful to Your Skin?

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Is All Insect Repellent the Same?

During the summer months, insect repellent is an essential part of any outdoor activity. When the only clouds in the sky are swarms of hungry mosquitoes, it’s an easy option to reach for another splash of bug spray.

But while repellents offer an effective way to fend off insects, are they really the safest way of protecting yourself from bites or is there a hidden cost?

An Age-Old Problem

Having been around since the Jurassic period, there are many, many more mosquitoes on this planet than humans. Whilst it’s only the females which feast on us, their blood sucking behaviour has naturally led them to be viewed as an irritating pest.

Beyond the annoyance of itchiness and unsightly red marks left behind by their bites, there’s also the risk of mosquito-borne diseases to consider. The recent outbreak of the Zika virus along with other pathogens such as encephalitis, dengue, and the West Nile virus has recently brought this back into sharp focus.  

mosquito bite

To combat this problem, there are many new products and improved repellent formulas becoming available with each passing year. The increased choice often means increased confusion though, with many people left unaware of the chemicals contained within the various sprays, creams, and lotions now available.

With a growing reliance on these repellents which are now widely regarded as a necessity, it’s worth considering exactly what we cover ourselves with and whether there are alternatives you can use in the market.

The King of Insect Repellents: DEET

Despite there being a wide variety of products to choose between, there are only a few active ingredients commonly used in repellents, one of which is considerably more popular than the others.

Diethyltoluamide, or DEET as it’s commonly called, was created in 1946 primarily for use by the United States army in tropical climates. It has since become the active agent used in the vast majority of insect repellents across Northern America largely due to the general consensus which places it as the most effective repellent on the market.

Classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as being slightly toxic, DEET has been approved for adult use but not for children under six months old. Furthermore, children aged between 6 months and 2 years old should only be given sparing quantities of products which contain less than 10%, while formulas with high concentration levels are considered unsuitable for children under the age of 12.

The Cloud Behind the Silver Lining

Over half of the DEET you use on your body is absorbed into your skin, with around 17% then entering your bloodstream. The most serious risk of using DEET is a possible effect on your nervous system, however, such cases are extremely rare from light use. A more common side-effect is an irritation of the skin, with discoloration and rashes resulting as a reaction to the chemical, especially areas of softer, more sensitive skin.

While severe effects remain relatively few in practical terms, it’s also worth noting that DEET does have a negative effect when used in conjunction with sun cream, reducing the sun blocks effectiveness by up to a third. 

spraying insect repellent

Synthetic materials such as polyester and nylon can also be damaged in contact with higher concentrations which is proven to offer little extra protection from insects than the weaker formulas. This has lead health Canada to take the step of banning products that contain in excess of 30% DEET.

The Best of the Rest

Another commonly used chemical designed as an active ingredient is IR3535. While this repellent is confirmed by all relevant authorities as being non-toxic and, therefore, of no harm to your skin, it’s also much less useful as a shield against mosquitoes.

Additionally, there are many natural deterrents to choose between, of which oil of lemon eucalyptus and picaridin are scientifically proven to be the most effective. While these products are not as efficient as DEET either in effectiveness or in the length of time they remain active, they do provide some relief from an insect assault. While there are reports suggesting that these products can also cause skin irritations, they typically don’t occur as frequently as with DEET-based repellents.

One thing which all of these options have in common is that they typically leave behind a residue on your skin. While there are varying degrees of strong smelling and sticky solutions amongst these choices, none of these repellents are waterproof and so need to be reapplied frequently in hot and humid climates or after water-based activities.

Staying Safe with Bug Spray

If you choose to use any liquid repellent on your skin, there are several guidelines which should always be adhered to. This includes avoiding contact with open wounds, sores, and areas of your skin which are cracked, as well as your eyes and mouth. You should also keep the use of repellents well away from food and food preparation areas to prevent ingesting any chemicals accidentally.

You should also keep the use of repellents well away from food and food preparation areas to prevent ingesting any chemicals accidentally.

While everyone has different sensitivity levels, another good practice is to test any new product on a small area of skin before applying repellents fully. A good tip is to do this on the inside of your elbow, as the skin here is particularly delicate and will show any reactions much clearer than tougher areas of skin on your body.

Alternative Insect Repellent on the Market

While there appears to be a sliding-scale of a repellents effectiveness at repelling insects that are proportional to the chances of harming your skin, there are other solutions available. While a strong DEET-based product is recommended for regions which pose a significant threat of malaria, yellow fever, or any other serious diseases, other options should be preferred for regular and daily use.

mosquito wrist band alternative

Furthermore, there are established products available which do not require applying any chemicals directly onto your skin and consequently, do not pose a threat of causing your skin any harm. From mosquito bands and fabric bracelets to repellent patches, products exist which not only safeguard you from mosquitoes but can help to keep you protected for longer.

While it’s also true that no single solution can guarantee a 100% prevention from insect bites, different insect repellent products can have better results in various circumstances. However, using a combination of contact and non-contact products can further help to shield you from attack, but when using spray or lotion remedies, it’s always best to read the label thoroughly.

Try TravPack's Spray-Free Mosquito Repellent Bands!

If you are looking for an alternative option than the chemicals they normally put in bug spray, like DEET, there are other options available for you! Tackle annoying bug bites with the Silicone mosquito repellent bands, which infuses natural plant oils (citronella) into a fashionable bracelet to help prevent mosquito bites.

Another natural bug repellent that is available through ESN Products is the Fabric mosquito bands. The DEET-free bracelets have been designed as an eco-friendly option to ensure that you aren’t harmed and can remain protected from insects outside. Visit our shop today to learn more!


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