DEET (N,N-diethyl-m-toluamide), was developed in the 1950s, and is the world's most effective insect repellent. It's also reasonably safe. Adverse reactions are rare - but not unheard of, especially among children. DEET passes through the skin and into the bloodstream. Since 1961, a handful of medical journal reports have blamed the chemical for confusion, convulsions, brain damage, and even three deaths in children who were doused with DEET. Several state health departments and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have recommended using DEET cautiously.
What's a parent to do? Dress children in light-weight, long-limbed clothing, and spray DEET on the fabric instead of kids' skin. That way, little if any DEET enters the bloodstream.
Read labels carefully. In a 1993 investigation, Consumer Reports urged parents not to use bug repellents on children containing more than 20 percent DEET. Unfortunately, most DEET products contain more. The American Academy of Pediatrics goes further, saying that 10 percent DEET should be the upper limit for children's products. Acceptable brands include Skeedaddle! (10 percent) or Off! Skintastic (8 percent).
Doubts about DEET have spurred interest in alternative insect repellents based on the aromatic oils of certain plants, particularly citronella, a lemon-scented tropical grass. Citronella oil has a long history of folk use as a bug repellent, and in Consumer Reports tests, Natrapel, with 10 percent citronella oil, made a "respectable showing."
Critics claim that because the lemony oil evaporates rapidly, citronella repellents are neither as effective nor as long-lasting as DEET. But botanist James Duke, Ph.D., a leading expert in medicinal plants, defends citronella, saying, "It works fine for me."
Biopharm Lab, of Bellport, New York, says it has solved citronella's rapid-evaporation problem by mixing the oil into a glycerine-based lotion. The company contracted with two University of Utah entomologists to test its citronella product, Treo, against DEET. In field tests, the researchers found Treo as effective as DEET in repelling mosquitoes, biting flies, and the ticks that spread Lyme disease. Because these tests were financed by Biopharm, they do not carry the weight of Consumer Reports' independent tests, but corporate sponsorship doesn't necessarily invalidate the findings. Many pharmacies carry non-DEET insect repellents.
P.S. In recent years, Avon Skin So Soft body lotion has acquired a major word-of-mouth reputation as an effective non-DEET insect repellent. Skin So Soft 3-Way licenses Treo's citronella formula.
Michael Castleman is the author of a dozen books on health related issues, including Nature's Cures and Before You Call The Doctor. In addition, he has written for newspapers and magazines such as The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner, The Nation, Sierra, Redbook, Self, and others. He has taught health and medical writing as an adjunct professor in the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley.
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