What You Need to Know About Insect Repellent for Kids

Annoyed by bug bites but worried about chemicals? Here's how to protect children from ticks and mosquitoes.

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Applying insect repellents whenever you might cross paths with mosquitoes or ticks is one of the best ways to protect yourself from the bites of these disease-transmitting bugs. But if you have kids, you may also be worried about the risks associated with exposure to the chemicals in insect repellents, such as deet.

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

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

Some mosquito- and tick-borne illnesses, however, can make kids (and adults) quite sick. Lyme disease, the most common tick-borne disease in the U.S., can cause fever, rash, severe headache, neck stiffness, and joint pain. Other bug-borne diseases, such as West Nile virus and Rocky Mountain spotted fever, can be fatal.

So how to keep the bugs away from your kids? Based on Consumer Reports’ insect repellent testing and other research, here's what you need to know about the most effective products.

Reduce the Chance of Exposure

A couple of steps that don’t involve repellents can help discourage bug-to-kid contact in the first place, so you can start with these.

For instance, get rid of any standing water in your yard, Asta says, and remove receptacles where water can collect and allow mosquitoes to breed—such as empty buckets, bird baths, and unused tires. To make the area less hospitable to ticks, clean up any dead leaves or overgrown brush, and mow long grasses.

If you’re going to be in an area where there may be a lot of mosquitoes, have kids wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants. If you’re going hiking or into the woods or tall grasses, make sure they also wear closed-toe shoes and tuck pants into long socks to help keep ticks from biting.

Showering and performing tick checks soon after coming in from wooded or otherwise tick-heavy areas has been shown to help reduce the chances of catching a tick-borne disease, so help your kids check themselves for bites.

Choose Safe and Effective Repellents

In CR’s testing, the products that provide the longest-lasting protection have one of three active ingredients: deet, oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE), or picaridin.

Deet products earned most of our top scores, with concentrations of 15 to 30 percent providing the most reliable and longest-lasting protection—repelling mosquitoes for longer than 6½ hours for some products we tested. Four OLE products and three with picaridin also got our recommendation, providing 5 or more hours of protection.

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

Deet
The safety of this chemical, which has been available to consumers in insect repellents since 1965, has been thoroughly studied over the years. But after a handful of health problems—such as seizures and brain damage—were reported in children who’d been exposed to deet in the 1980s and 1990s, some parents became concerned about the ingredient. And some people still worry.

But according to the Environmental Protection Agency, those problems typically occurred after people failed to follow label instructions and used too much deet (PDF). An extensive 1998 EPA review of deet’s safety (PDF) estimated that deet-related seizures are rare, likely to occur in only about 1 in 100 million users. And according to the Center for Disease Control’s 2017 update on the toxicity of deet [PDF], the overall risk of any problems appears to be quite low.

“To me, that puts it in perspective,” says Jerome Goddard, PhD, an extension professor of entomology at Mississippi State University—meaning that the benefits of preventing potentially life-threatening diseases are likely to outweigh any risks, especially when deet is used as directed.

The CDC and EPA (and Consumer Reports) agree that deet is safe to use on kids as long as you follow the label instructions.

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

Picaridin
According to the EPA [PDF], picaridin, a synthetic chemical that resembles a compound naturally found in pepper, causes few known side effects. But it can irritate eyes and skin. It hasn't been studied as fully as deet, but health experts generally consider it to be safe for kids.

Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus
The evidence suggests that this ingredient, a synthetic version of a chemical derived from the lemon eucalyptus plant, is safe for use on those age 3 and older. But it’s not approved for younger children, in part because its safety hasn’t been well-studied in them.

Natural Products
To avoid using chemicals, you may gravitate toward more “natural” products, like those containing ingredients such as lemongrass oil, citronella oil, and peppermint oil. In CR’s tests, however, repellents with essential oils as their active ingredients provided fewer hours of protection than the most effective products.

Use Repellents on Kids the Right Way

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

  • The American Academy of Pediatrics advises refraining from using repellent on infants younger than 2 months. One option, Asta says, is to cover your infant’s stroller with netting when in buggy outdoor areas.
  • Have an adult apply repellents to kids. For spray or lotion formula, adults should apply the repellent to their own hands, then rub it onto the child's skin.
  • Apply repellents only to exposed skin or on the outside of clothing.
  • Avoid putting repellent on children’s hands or around their mouths, or to any cuts, wounds, or irritated skin.
  • Apply spray repellent in an open area to avoid inhaling it.
  • Know that not all formulations of repellents (sprays, lotions, or wipes) are equally effective. Of the lotions and wipes Consumer Reports has tested, only those whose active ingredient is deet performed well enough to earn our recommendation.

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Catherine Roberts

As a science journalist, my goal is to empower consumers to make informed decisions about health products, practices, and treatments. I aim to investigate what works, what doesn't, and what may be causing actual harm when it comes to people's health. As a civilian, my passions include science fiction, running, Queens, and my cat. Follow me on Twitter: @catharob