The Full Story
DEET is an insect repellent. It is sold widely in different concentrations, usually as a lotion, spray, or wipe to be used on the skin. While DEET is effective at small concentrations, higher concentrations offer protection for a longer period of time. For example, about 5 percent DEET protects for about 90 minutes, while about 25 percent DEET may provide about five hours of protection. The highest recommended concentration is 30 percent.
DEET offers important protection, but must be used safely. Here are some tips:
- Apply insect repellents according to label directions, only to exposed skin.
- If the label recommends applying the chemical to your clothing, be sure to follow the instructions.
- Apply only as often as the label recommends. Usually, that means only once a day.
- When you return indoors, shower or wash your skin with soap and water. Wash clothing to remove any remaining DEET.
- When applying DEET to children, apply it first to your hands and then to their faces and skin. Avoid their hands, eyes, and mouths.
- The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that products containing DEET not be used on children under the age of 2 months.
- Sunscreens and products containing DEET can be used together. It is better to use individual products rather than a combination product. Usually, DEET should be used only once a day while sunscreen needs to be re-applied more often.
If you get insect repellent in your eyes, rinse them in the shower or under running water for 15 minutes, then call Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222.
If someone swallows insect repellent, give a small amount of water to drink, then call Poison Control right away.
There are other important steps you can take to avoid insect bites.
To avoid mosquito bites:
- Limit your outdoor time around dusk and dawn, when mosquitoes are most active.
- Wearing long pants, long sleeves, and hats may also help.
- Mosquito netting can be used on carriages and infant carriers.
- Eliminate sources of standing water in which mosquitoes can breed.
To avoid tick bites:
- Wear light-colored long sleeved shirts and long pants. Tuck pants legs into socks.
- Check all areas of your skin, including your scalp, after returning indoors. If you find a tick, remove it carefully by grabbing the head with tweezers and pulling gently.
- Call Poison Control for further advice: 1-800-222-1222.
Rose Ann Gould Soloway, RN, BSN, MSEd, DABAT emerita
For More Information
ToxFAQs™ for DEET (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry)
Osimitz TG, Murphy JV, Fell LA, Page B. Adverse events associated with the use of insect repellents containing N-N-diethyl-m-toluamide (DEET). Regul. Toxicol. Pharmacol. 2010;56(1):93-99.
- Follow label instructions exactly when using DEET-containing insect repellants.
- Do not use DEET on children under 2 months of age.
- Wash yourself and your clothing when you return indoors after using DEET.
This Really Happened
Case 1: At bedtime, a 3-year-old girl drank some insect repellent which contained DEET. Her older brother watched but didn't tell the parents. During the night, the child suddenly woke, asked for some water, then become unresponsive and started vomiting. In the emergency room, the child was unconscious with a rapid heart rate. In the ICU, she had seizures, for which she received medication. She woke up over the next four hours and was sent home after 24 hours.
Reference: Petrucci N, Sardini S. Severe neurotoxic reaction associated with oral ingestion of low-dose diethyltoluamide-containing insect repellent in a child. Ped Emerg Care. 2000;16(5):341-342.
Case 2: A babysitter was spraying a 2-year-old boy all over with an insect repellant containing DEET 15% and may have sprayed some in his mouth. She called Poison Control forty-five minutes later. The child appeared fine. Poison Control recommended giving the child something to drink. The small amount in the child's mouth could cause irritation but not poisoning. The child received a bath and was fine according to his mom in a follow-up call from Poison Control the next day. Poison Control advised against using this higher percent of DEET on a small child.