What’s the Deal with DEET?

via flickr/Mike Mozart

via flickr/Mike Mozart






With our short summers, not even mosquitos, black flies, deer flies, and ticks can keep me from enjoying warm evenings by the campfire. I’ve been avoiding DEET, but only based on a general understanding that it’s toxic. How bad is it? Here’s my breakdown on DEET and some alternatives, looking at findings from regulators and environmental groups.

What is DEET?

DEET is a synthetic chemical pesticide that is believed to prevent bugs from smelling us (though it seems we haven’t quite figured out the details). It was developed in 1946 by the US army.

What the Regulators Say

The US EPA reviewed studies submitted by DEET producers and have not identified any risks to human health or the environment, when used as directed (2002, 2014). Health Canada’s last review in 2002 came to the same conclusion.

The EPA classifies DEET as “slightly toxic” – one step above “practically non-toxic”. Some studies have linked seizures in children to DEET, but the EPA maintains that there is insufficient evidence to substantiate the link.

The US Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry indicates studies of very small sample sizes which potentially connect DEET exposure to seizures, illnesses among Gulf War veterans, skin reactions, dizziness, headaches, and nausea. Studies on 3 women found birth defects linked to DEET, but another study of 900 women found no adverse effects.

Use recommendations from Health Canada include “wash treated skin with soap and water… when protection is no longer needed.” (My question: how often do you think this happens after a few drinks around the campfire, when protection is most likely needed?)

What the Environmental Groups Say

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) came to the surprising conclusion that DEET is among their top choices for insect repellant.

Canada’s Environmental Defence recommends DEET not be used on children, and nobody should use concentrations greater than 30%. (Note that increased concentrations don’t increase efficacy, but higher concentrations don’t have to be applied as frequently.) It cites a potential link to neurological damage at high doses.

What about alternatives?

Other than avoiding the outdoors, you can use preventative measures to reduce the amount of repellent you need to apply – wear light coloured clothing and remove standing water from your yard. Or go all-out and get an ever-so-stylish bug suit.

When you need repellent, it’s important to consider what insect you need protection from, as repellents may not be effective on all bugs. In EWG’s review, oil of lemon eucalyptus came out on top for botanical options, but can’t be used on children under 3. Environmental Defence also suggests soybean oil.

DEET-alternatives suggested by Health Canada are P-menthane 3,8-diol (related oil of lemon eucalyptus, not for children under 3), soybean oil, and citronella oil (not for infants or toddlers). Other chemicals (Icaridin and IR3535) are available but more widely in the US. Icaridin (aka Picaridin) is approved by Health Canada and seems to be less of an irritant than DEET, but as it has not been on the market as long there are fewer studies.

There are several products with combinations of oils that get good reviews (though not tested like those registered by Health Canada). Check your local or online health/wellness shop –  you may have to look for products labelled as “Outdoors Spray” or “Nature Spray” rather than the more obvious “insect repellent.”

I’m a little less scared of DEET now, but I still don’t have much interest in using it on me, let alone my kids (maybe unless we’re somewhere with more significant insect-borne disease concerns).

My current favourite alternative is Boo Bamboo Nature Spray. It works on mosquitos and blackflies, though you do have to reapply often. What’s yours? Come on over to the Green Product Forum Facebook Group and share it with us!


  1. Laura says

    Hi! Wondering if you list if bug repellents choices has changed since this was posted? Looking to get one for my 2 yr old and I’m also pregnant. Thanks!

    • Emma Rohmann says

      I made some minor updates from the original post, so it’s still relevant :).

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