Bugs Be Gone! What’s Really in Bug Spray

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It’s a summertime dilemma — you want to douse yourself in bug repellant to keep off the pesky — and sometimes disease-causing — critters, but you also worry about whether all those sprays are dangerous for your health.

Fortunately, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has released an extensive review of virtually all bug repellant ingredients, including both synthetic as well as natural compounds with an assessment of how safe and effective they are. Increasingly, warding off insects is about more than just dismissing a nuisance; mosquitos and ticks can carry diseases such as West Nile and Lyme that can cause serious health problems, sometimes even death. So far this year, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) documented 14 cases of West Nile Virus and two deaths; last year, 43 states reported hundreds of cases of West Nile Virus-related illness. In 2011, the last year for which the CDC has confirmed statistics for Lyme disease, 24,364 cases of the condition were recorded, in all but three states.

What are best ingredients for keeping bugs away? No bug repellant was completely effective in protecting against bites, but the report found that four chemicals or compounds provided long-term protection against ticks and mosquitoes with few health risks:

  • Picaridin
  • IR3535
  • DEET
  • Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus or its synthetic derivative PMD

(MORE: 5 Things You Need to Know About West Nile Virus)

The fact that DEET, which has been linked to side effects such as dizziness, disorientation, seizures and even death, is on the list may be a surprise. The CDC and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency maintain that when used properly, and for short periods of time on the skin, DEET is relatively safe at doses found in sprays, lotions, and liquids. Just to be safe, however, the researchers recommend using only products with less than 30% DEET. “DEET isn’t a perfect choice, nor the only choice. But weighed against the consequences of Lyme disease and West Nile virus, we believe it is a reasonable one,” the authors write.

To reduce the risk of inhaling an excess of potentially harmful chemicals, they also recommend avoiding outdoor “fogger” insecticides, candles, and aerosol sprays that release fine particles of bug repellant that can lead to respiratory problems.

As far as the ineffective repellents, it turns that while it may be satisfying to hear bug zappers dispatch flying pests, neither they nor wrist bands embedded with bug-repellent compounds are that effective in preventing bug bites.

(MORE: What Ticks Teach About Blood Clots)

Brand names also don’t guarantee better protection. “

Brand names also don’t guarantee better protection. “More important than brand name for repellents is the active ingredient and the concentration used in the product,” says, David Andrews, a senior scientist at EWG. “Many people, like I was, are probably unaware that using a higher concentration repellent is not better and more effective but provides longer protection time.”

(MORE: A Tick-Borne Parasite Invades the Blood Supply)

The best way to guard against an insect onslaught is to think in layers. Bug repellent should not be the first line of defense against critters, since these products can carry risks for the environment as well as your health. However, for people living in regions where ticks and mosquitoes are plentiful, it’s important to use repellents as part of your protection against diseases like Lyme and West Nile Virus. Wearing light covered clothing with sleeves and collars can also keep bugs away. And tucking pants into socks when walking through tall grass can create another barrier against ticks who hitch a ride and embark on a search for skin. Around the house, experts recommend draining areas with sitting water, keeping lawns mowed and regularly clearing brush to clear out infestations of mosquitoes and ticks.

To test whether you might have a reaction to a bug repellent, start with brands that have the lowest effective concentrations of active ingredient and apply the repellant to a small patch of skin first before using it on the rest of your body. Adults should help young children to apply these products, avoiding the youngsters’ hands, since children tend to rub their eyes and mouths and may ingest potentially harmful amounts of the agents.

Below are brand name versions of repellants with the recommended ingredients that the EWG says are safe and most effective:

Avon Skin-So-Soft Bug Guard Plus Picaridin
Cutter Advanced
Natrapel 8-hour
OFF! Active
OFF! FamilyCare
Walgreens Light & Clean

Coleman Skin Smart

Bug Off
Buzz Off
OFF! Active
OFF! Family Care
OFF! Deep Woods

Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus with enhanced PMD concentration
Coleman Botanicals
Fite Bite
Repel Essential

For detailed descriptions of the ingredients, you can check out the EWG’s Guide to Better Bug Repellants here.