A child sits on brick steps outside.

Each time your children play in the yard or join you on a family hike or camping trip, you may feel like you face an unpleasant choice: Should you take a chance that a bug bite might lead to a mosquito- or tick-borne illness, such as Lyme disease, or expose kids to the chemicals in some insect repellents, such as deet?

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

“To the best of our knowledge, they are effective,” says Lisa Asta, M.D., 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. Certain less common illnesses spread by bugs, such as West Nile virus, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and ehrlichiosis, can be fatal.

And more diseases are emerging all the time. “We’re seeing newer pathogens from other areas that we did not used to have to concern ourselves with,” Asta says. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study from earlier this year found that nine new mosquito- and tick-borne diseases have been found in the U.S. since 2006.

So, how to keep the bugs away from your kids? Here, based on Consumer Reports’ insect repellent testing and other research, is what you need to know about how to use the most effective protective products the right way.

Reduce Their 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 in 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.

Choose Safe and Effective Repellents

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

Deet products earned most of our top scores, with concentrations of 25 to 30 percent providing the most reliable and longest-lasting protection—repelling mosquitoes for longer than 6½ hours for some products that we tested. One OLE product and two picaridin products 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 EPA, these issues typically occurred when 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 seizure is rare, likely to occur in only around 1 in 100 million users. And according to the CDC’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, Ph.D., extension professor of entomology at Mississippi State University—that the benefits 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 do take commonsense precautions, advises Joe Conlon, a former Navy entomologist and 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.

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Unlock Insect Repellent Ratings

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

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Unlock Insect Repellent Ratings
Quick Take
Unlock Insect Repellent Ratings

Oil of lemon eucalyptus. The evidence suggests that this plant-based ingredient is safe for use on those 3 and older. But it’s not approved for younger children, in part because its safety hasn’t been well-studied in them.

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Natural products. To avoid using chemicals, you may gravitate toward more “natural” products, such as those containing ingredients such as soybean oil, citronella oil, and peppermint oil. In CR’s tests, however, with the exception of OLE, repellents with plant 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 a repellent ingredient 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: Cover your infant’s stroller with netting when in buggy outdoor areas.

  • Have an adult apply repellents to kids. The exact age at which kids can put repellent on themselves isn’t clear, but the CDC recommends that no children younger than 10 apply deet by themselves. For spray or lotion formula, adults should apply it to their own hands, then rub the repellent onto the child.

  • 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, 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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