While it can be hard to navigate the evolving world of insect repellent and know what chemicals are safe to be lathering on your children, it's also imperative that you remember the bug spray if your family is spending time outdoors this summer.
Everyone knows mosquito bites can be a nuisance, but what they may not realize is that insect-borne diseases from mosquito, flea and tick bites have also tripled in recent years, according to a 2018 analysis from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Dr. Whitney Bowe, a dermatologist and the medical director of integrative dermatology, aesthetics and wellness at Advanced Dermatology, P.C., broke down everything you need to know for "Good Morning America" when shopping for or applying bug sprays.
Initially, Bowe recommends looking for one of three active ingredients in sunscreen, which she based on the most recent tests done by Consumer Reports. The ingredients to look for are DEET, oil of lemon eucalyptus, or picaridin. All three are safe when used as directed, even for pregnant women, according to Bowe.
In addition, the same way we look for an SPF number when buying sunscreen, Bowe recommends looking for a concentration number when purchasing insect repellent.
For DEET, you want to look for products between 15 and 30 percent -- that’s the sweet spot that gives you the best efficacy while minimizing potential risks and side effects.
For picaridin, 20 percent is the magic number, but you want to make sure it's in spray form because the picaridin lotions and wipes often didn’t work as well. And for oil of lemon eucalyptus, they found that a spray with 30 percent concentration performed very well.
Here, Bowe breaks down everything you need to know about buying and applying bug spray, and answers some of the most commonly-asked questions about insect repellents.
Q: What’s the safest way to apply bug spray to my face?
Dr. Bowe: I recommend that you spray the bug spray into your hands first and then smooth onto your face. I do not recommend that you let young children handle bug spray on their own. Instead, follow the same spray-into-your-hands technique and then smooth onto your child’s skin, being careful to avoid skin close to the eyes or the mouth. I like to pat a small amount on my daughter’s forehead and cheeks only. Children often put their hands into their mouths or touch their eyes, so it’s best not to apply bug spray on your child’s hands because you don’t want to risk accidental ingestion or contact with the eyes.
Q: If I have a cut, wound, or irritated skin, is it safe to apply bug spray to the area?
Dr. Bowe: I do not recommend applying repellents on broken or irritated skin. Be mindful of cuts and scrapes on your children as well! When the skin is broken or irritated, the bug spray ingredients can penetrate more deeply and that’s when you run into side effects such as rashes on the skin.
Q: Should I use a combination sunscreen plus bug spray product? It seems like this would be so easy because it’s a two-in-one!
Dr. Bowe: Even though this seems like such an easy and time-efficient approach, I do not recommend using combination products in this situation. The reason is because sunscreen is typically reapplied every two hours in order to effectively protect your skin. However, bug spray most often should not be reapplied this frequently. So, you might be overexposed to the chemicals in the bug repellent if you use such a combination product. Furthermore, some studies suggest that insect repellent can actually decrease the effect of sunscreen by up to 30 percent!
Q: At what ages is it safe to use DEET and Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus on children?
Dr. Bowe: The American Academy of Pediatrics and the CDC do not recommend using DEET on children under 2 months old. Concentration is key here, particularly when using this ingredient on children. For DEET, I recommend looking for products between 15 percent and 30 percent so that you are optimizing efficacy while minimizing risks. Of course, follow the guidelines on your particular repellent. In contrast, the American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend using Oil of Eucalyptus on children under 3 years old! That’s a very large leap from two months and is often surprising to parents, given that oil of Lemon Eucalyptus is a natural option. I recommend that my patients use a spray containing a 30 percent concentration, as this is the level that tested as most effective, according to Consumer Reports.
Q: What are the risks associated with using DEET?
Dr. Bowe: Many of my patients -– and even my family members -– are very concerned about the dangers of using DEET. According to a Consumer Reports survey, only one-third of adults believed that DEET was a safe option for adult usage, and even fewer adults believed that it was safe for use on children. These concerns are fueled by news stories about death and toxicity arising from DEET usage. However, according to Consumer Reports, it is estimated that since 1960, the incidence of seizures linked to potential DEET exposure was one per 100 million uses. Many of the reported cases of death or seizure actually involved a misuse of the products, including ingestion. When it comes to selecting bug repellents for your family and loved ones, your comfort level is key -– this is something I always tell my patients. The most important thing is to educate yourself about the facts and studies surrounding these options and to select the one that is the best fit for your personal beliefs and preferences. However, I would not recommend letting fear in the absence of facts guide your decisions when it comes to protecting your family from insect-borne illnesses.