Everything You've Ever Wanted to Know About Insect Repellent

Get the answers to the most common questions about bug spray.

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Ever since news broke that the Zika virus has been making its way through the Americas, people are more concerned than ever about finding ways to avoid mosquito bites. Applying insect repellent is the most effective solution, but which one? Is it safe for children? And what happens when you mix it with sunscreen? We have the answers.

Which ingredients should you look for in a bug spray?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends choosing EPA-registered (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) mosquito repellents that contain the following active ingredients: DEET, IR 3535, picaridin, p-Menthane-3,8-diol (aka oil of lemon eucalyptus or OLE), catnip oil (aka catmint) and oil of citronella. A repellent with an EPA registration number on the product label means the agency does not expect this item to cause any harmful effects to human health or the environment when used properly.

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Which repellent is the most effective?

According to a 2015 test conducted by Consumer Reports, the top-performing insect repellents were pump sprays and aerosols that contained 20 percent picaridin and 30 percent oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE). Both types repelled mosquitoes (including the culex, the type of mosquito that transmits the West Nile virus, and the Aedes, which carries the Zika and chikungunya viruses) for a minimum of seven hours.

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Have any ingredients been deemed unsafe for certain groups of people?

Most repellents can be used on children beginning at 2 months of age; however, all oil of lemon eucalyptus products should not be used on children under the age of 3, according to the EPA. There are no other age restrictions for the remaining registered ingredients. According to the CDC, EPA-registered insect repellents have been found to be safe and effective for pregnant women, as well as women who are breastfeeding.

Which natural repellents work? And which ones don't?

While some products contain natural oils, Consumer Reports concluded that repellent wristbands or other items that contained plant oils (including citronella oil, geraniol oil, mint oil, rosemary oil, and lemongrass) provided little to no protection.

That said, according to information from The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, insect repellents that contain either 26 percent oil of lemon eucalyptus or 2 percent soybean oil have been shown to provide protection for up to four hours. And another 2015 study conducted by Consumer Reports found that sitting near an oscillating pedestal fan on its highest speed resulted in up to 65 percent fewer mosquito bites compared to people who sat near a citronella bucket.

What's the right way to apply bug spray?

Aerosol and pump sprays offer an even application, while liquids, lotions, and sticks can be used for more precise application. Follow the instructions on the product label and apply to all exposed skin (don't forget the back of your hands, ankles, and feet, if exposed) and/or over clothing. When using a spray repellent on your face, spray the product into your hands and then apply to your face. Also, consider lightly spraying your hair because some bugs may find their way to your scalp.

There are also a few precautions to keep in mind. Do not apply over cuts, wounds, or irritated skin, and also avoid the eyelids and lips. Use sparingly around the ears. Lastly, apply repellent outside to reduce your risk of inhaling the spray.

Once you've returned indoors and no longer need to wear repellent, wash treated skin with soap and water and toss your clothes into the laundry basket or washing machine.

How often should repellent be applied?

As a general rule, the higher the percent of an active ingredient a repellent contains, the longer it will protect from mosquito bites; however, various factors play a role in duration of protection, including how much a person sweats, if they're going for a swim, etc. That's why it's important to reapply according to the product's instructions. Also keep in mind that applying a thicker layer of repellent doesn't mean you're protected for longer.

According to the EPA, graphics (like the pictured here) will be appearing on some skin-applied insect repellent labels this year, which will indicate the type of bug(s) the product repels and the average amount of protection time it offers.

Is it okay to mix sunscreen and insect repellent?

Absolutely. The CDC says most products recommend applying sunscreen before the bug repellent. It is not recommended to use a two-in-one product that contains an insect repellent with DEET and sunscreen because sunscreen may need to be applied more often. Make sure to follow the instructions on the labels of both products.

Still got questions? Learn more about insect repellent and protecting yourself from mosquito bites on the EPA and CDC websites.

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