EPA says DEET is safe for fighting off skeeters when used correctly; some natural alternatives are also effective

Though April showers did bring May flowers, May’s seemingly constant rain also grew something else in Kentucky: mosquitoes — and lots of them. To protect oneself from the irritating suckers (Getty Images), there is a host of products from which to choose.

The most obvious are products containing DEET, a synthetic compound that was approved for the general public in 1957, reports Amanda Leigh Mascarelli of the Los Angeles Times. DEET is used by 30 percent of Americans each year, the Environmental Protection Agency reports. A 2009 market survey showed products containing the compound accounted for 90 percent of the insect repellent market.
(LAT photo Kirk McKoy) Though popular, DEET has its drawbacks. It can dissolve some plastics, such as soldier’s goggles, watchbands and computer keyboards. It can pollute soil and water, is sticky on skin, is not effective against all insects, and is smelly. Is it unsafe? That is a common conception, but EPA insists it is safe when used properly. “There really is no chemical out there that works better than DEET,” said Donald Roberts, a retired professor of tropical public health at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. (Read more)
There are more natural alternatives on the market. Oil of lemon eucalyptus (LA Times photo by Hatley Mason), which is sold under the name Citriodiol, has been proven effective for six or more hours and is found in brands like Repel, Cutter and Coleman Botanicals. Though more natural than DEET, it is still considered a hybrid natural/synthetic product.
A pine oil derivative called isolongifolenone also shows great promise, though testing is still ongoing. “It does look as if this organic repellent functions pretty much at an equal level with DEET, maybe even better,” Roberts said. “Until we have a lot more test data, it would be hard to give a definitive statement on that, but I would say that it shows real promise.” It is hoped the product will be on the market within 18 months.
Unlike compounds such as DEET, natural repellents are characterized as “minimum-risk pesticides” by EPA, making them “exempt from safety testing because their active and inert ingredients have been deemed safe for intended use,” Mascarelli reports. But the manufacturers do not have to prove how well these natural repellents work. For the most part, they do work, but generally not for very long. The lemon-eucalyptus and pine oil alternatives seem to be the exception. (Read more)
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