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How Safe Are Insect Repellents with DEET for Kids?

July 27, 2016

How Safe Are Insect Repellents with DEET for KidsIf we lived in a world where insect bites and stings didn’t exist, imagine how much more enjoyable spending time outdoors would be for everyone! Unfortunately, this is not a luxury we are given and insects can damper summer fun for a lot of folks. Insect repellents tend to be the first defense many of us choose to protect the body from pesky mosquitoes eagerly waiting to have a field day on any exposed parts of the skin. While repellents certainly can be helpful, there are certain ingredients used to ward off mosquitoes that you should pay particular attention to – insect repellents that contain DEET. If you’re curious to know how safe using insect repellents with DEET is on kids, the Children’s Wellness Center pediatricians have put together our recommendations and precautions to take when buying an insect repellent for your family.

DEET (which goes by the chemical name N, N-diethyl-tolumide) is the active ingredient used in insect repellents. Applied to the skin externally, DEET helps keep mosquitoes away rather than killing them and can come in a wide selection of concentrations (depending on the kind of insect repellent you buy). The higher the concentration of DEET, the longer you’ll be protected from mosquitos, which may sound ideal, but too much DEET can be harmful. The goal is to stick between 10%-30% DEET (do not use anything over 30% DEET concentration on kids) because the chemical can be extremely toxic.

Low concentrations of DEET, like repellents with 10% DEET, are recommended for use on kids who plan to be outside for just a few, short hours of fun in the sun while insect repellents with 30% DEET concentration would be more ideal for an all-day, outdoor adventure. DEET is directly absorbed into the skin and while high DEET concentrations may carry the stigma that they’ll work the best for intended purposes, repellents with more than 30% have been shown to not work any better than lower concentrated DEET repellents. It’s similar to the idea that sunscreens that have an SPF of 100 must work better to protect us than one with an SPF of 45 because the number is greater (but we now know that’s not always the case either).

Once you’ve made your purchase, properly applying an insect repellent to your child’s skin is just as important. Our most noteworthy suggestions include:

  • Never use insect repellents containing DEET on children under the age of 2 months.
  • Don’t apply repellents more than once a day. This isn’t the same rule where once you get into water or sweat a lot you must reapply like you do with sunscreens to avoid the dreaded sunburn.
  • Avoid applying insect repellent to your child’s face, mouth, and hands. They are more likely to accidentally ingest the repellent chemicals or experience some sort of irritation after being exposed to the repellent then touching their face or putting their hands in their mouths.
  • Always make sure you’re applying the insect repellent in a well-ventilated area to reduce your child’s chance of inhaling the chemicals.
  • When your child is in for the day and not planning on being outside for prolonged periods, be sure to thoroughly wash their skin with soap and water to remove any residual chemicals.
  • Don’t forget to also wash their clothes, especially before wearing again, in case any DEET lingers and finds its way back onto your child’s skin.

It’s important to check the active ingredients listed on a specific insect repellent to see what chemicals you’ll be exposing yourself and your child’s skin to. Be sure to always read and closely follow the product’s instructions to ensure proper usage and most importantly safety. Many insect repellents have been heavily tested and we recommend doing a bit of research to see which ones do its job most effectively without compromising your child’s health. If you’re traveling with the family, it’s a good idea to also remember to pack your own repellents, especially if going international.  Other parts of the world may not actively test products to the extent we do here, language differences could cause application errors, or perhaps the DEET concentration is higher than we would advise using. Either way, KidsHealth®, the FDA, and the American Academy of Pediatrics offer helpful guides for choosing the right insect repellent for your child – there are many out there, you just have to find the one that keep your child covered when they need it the most. We want everyone to have a safe, enjoyable, and bite-free summer!

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