Insect Repellents and Your Skin

Sue Chung Health Guide
  • I'm planning on going camping this summer and I don't want to come back with a million bug bites. How can I keep my skin safe from mosquitoes?


    One or two mosquito bites can be chalked up as the toll we pay for warmer weather and outdoor vacations, but if you seem to attract every mosquito within a five-mile radius as soon as you step foot outside, dealing with summer bugs may not be so easy to dismiss.


    At first glance, mosquito bites don't look like dire health or cosmetic threats. However, bug bites can leave you scratching away at your skin, leading to infection and scarring. Not to mention the awkwardness of being slathered in calamine lotion.

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    There are some theories as to why some people are more attractive to mosquitoes and other blood-sucking insects. Scientists haven't pinpointed any one reason why female mosquitoes bite, but we do know that they're attracted to a variety of factors, including temperature, movement, odors, and the level of carbon dioxide emission. If you're one of the people who rarely gets bitten by mosquitoes, consider yourself lucky. If you're like the rest of us, here are some guidelines on how to choose an effective mosquito repellent to suit your summer needs.


    Chemical Repellents


    For the forty years that this compound has been in use as a mosquito repellent, DEET (scientifically known as N,N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide) has proven to be highly effective at keeping mosquitoes away from skin for several hours. In addition, it's proven to be safe for use when used appropriately and according to directions. Of the documented adverse medical situations involving DEET, most were the result of deliberate ingestion or overuse. In fact, both the EPA and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) state that DEET is effective and nontoxic if used sparingly and away from mucous membranes. DEET is used in many over-the-counter commercial insect repellents like OFF! and is available in a range of concentrations. However, don't mistake a high concentration of DEET as "more" effective; a higher concentration of DEET has the same results but lasts longer. The AAP recommends that you apply low concentrations (10% or less) to children and reapply more frequently to avoid negative effects.


    A fairly new alternative to DEET, picaridin (also known as icaridin) is available in the Cutter line of bug repellents. It's been shown to be as effective as DEET but many consumers prefer picaridin due to its relative lack of odor. While scientists don't know exactly how these repellents work, they believe these chemicals keep insects away by interfering with their sense of smell. DEET and picaridin are both recommended by the CDC as the two most effective methods of repelling insects.


    While permethrin also falls into the category of chemical "repellents," this compound does not work in the same way as DEET and picaridin. Instead, permethrin is a contact insecticide that can be sprayed on skin or (more effectively) on clothing. Permethrin is also the active ingredient used to treat head lice and can be found in tick repellents for dogs. Cats are sensitive to permethrin, so be careful when using it around them. Spraying clothing with permethrin can help keep you bite-free for up to several washings.


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    Natural Repellents


    Although chemical repellents are more effective, there are some situations in which you may want to opt for "natural" alternatives. Pregnant or lactating women, for instance, should avoid inhaling chemical repellents since there may be a rare chance of side effects.


    There are plenty of natural oils that serve as insect repellents. Among the most effective are soybean oil and lemon eucalyptus oil. Soybean oil has been shown to repel mosquitoes for over an hour and the CDC recommends the use of lemon eucalyptus oil as an alternative to DEET. Citronella oil is another chemical-free option but it needs to be reapplied frequently (about every half-hour) and it may cause minor irritation if you have sensitive skin.


    Regardless of which method you choose to keep yourself bite-free, remember to follow the instructions on the repellent container. Different concentrations of active ingredients may carry different usage guidelines. If you plan to be outdoors only briefly, wear long sleeves and pants whenever possible and avoid using perfume or other scented toiletries. Do not spray or apply repellents (even natural ones) on irritated or open skin and remember to wash repellents off before sleeping. If you think you're reacting to an insect repellent, wash the affected skin, save the repellent container, and call your doctor.



Published On: August 05, 2008