Your enemy has six legs, wings, bulging alien-invader eyes and — yes, it gets worse — a taste for human blood. How will you defend yourself? Whether you’re seeking protection from mosquito-borne West Nile virus, or just trying to get through a backyard barbecue without a half-dozen itchy red welts, you’ll want to choose a mosquito repellent with an active ingredient that’s registered with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
“If the EPA has registered a product, it means it’s safe to be used by the consumer and it has been tested and found effective as well,” says Bill Jordan, deputy director of the EPA’s pesticide program.
Among the most effective registered ingredients: DEET, the gold standard of effectiveness in the U.S.; picaridin, a European favorite that’s stood up well against DEET in some studies; the intriguing upstart IR3535, which is structurally similar to a naturally occurring amino acid; and oil of lemon eucalyptus, a plant-derived option that can provide long-lasting protection.
Each of these ingredients comes in different concentrations — say, anywhere from 4 to 100 percent DEET. And you can have different formulations designed to stay on the surface of the skin for longer or shorter lengths of time, Jordan says.
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The age of the user is a factor, too. Insect repellents shouldn’t be used on children younger than 2 months, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. And Jordan says that oil of lemon eucalyptus carries some possibility of skin irritation in children 3 years and younger.
The association recommends against using repellents containing more than 30 percent DEET on children and offers tips for safe use (healthychildren.org). No matter what your age, consider steering clear of repellents with greater than 50 percent DEET; studies suggest that they don’t provide much additional protection time and may increase the risk of skin irritation.
According to the EPA, many products with DEET, picaridin and IR3535 provide eight hours of mosquito protection, and several products with oil of lemon eucalyptus provide six.
All repellents should be used properly, Jordan says. Read the label and follow the instructions.
If you want a customized mosquito repellent recommendation, taking into account factors such as how long you’ll be outside, the EPA online-search tool (www.epa.gov/repellentfinder) is a great place to start. For general purposes, we’ve assembled a list of four good options for four
different types of consumers.
The great-outdoors enthusiast
Off! Deep Woods Sportsmen II: You’re not the type to be deterred by biting winds, scorching sun or a little filmy residue. You want what works and DEET, developed by the Army in 1946 and used by about one-third of Americans every year, has been proved effective again and again. We went with this 30 percent DEET product because Consumer Reports ranked it No. 1 in a testing session, and we know you’re not looking for second best. Options with less DEET, including Off FamilyCare Smooth & Dry, performed almost as well.
The weekend gardener
Natrapel 8-Hour with picaridin:
You’re outdoors for hours, and you need a good mosquito repellent, but you also want something that’s gentle on your skin. A 2004 study in the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology says that picaridin is comparable to DEET in effectiveness, and less irritating. In recent Consumer Reports testing, Natrapel 8-hour with picaridin was the highest-ranking non-DEET option tested, providing an impressive seven hours or more of protection. If you’re only going to be out weeding for an hour or two, you can go with a less-concentrated formula.
The concerned parent
Avon Skin-So-Soft Bug Guard Plus IR3535 Expedition SPF 30 Pump Spray: Government scientists say DEET is not harmful when used properly, and point out that complaints of adverse effects — ranging from skin irritation to seizures and death — have been rare over the course of billions of exposures. But those seeking non-DEET repellents have good options. Among the most effective: IR3535, the active ingredient in the above Avon product. IR3535 is functionally identical to a naturally occurring amino acid, according to the EPA, which found data indicating it is “practically nontoxic to mammals, including infants and children.” You can find formulations with various amounts of IR3535 depending on your needs; this one is designed to repel mosquitoes for eight hours.
Repel Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent Lotion: In 2005, plant-derived oil of lemon eucalyptus joined picaridin and DEET as active ingredients recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for effective long-lasting protection against mosquito bites. (IR3535 is now also recommended by the CDC.) Repel Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent Lotion with 30 percent oil of lemon eucalyptus actually did better than a 15 percent DEET formula in a small 2011 study. Oil of lemon eucalyptus products often give as much as six hours of protection.