Do you know what’s in your bug spray?
Every year when the weather warms up, we armor up with insect repellent. It’s a necessity on the trail, partly to keep insects from bugging us and partly to prevent the spread of disease (like malaria). And when it comes to repelling annoying bugs, DEET is the reigning queen bee.
DEET has been the leader of insect repellents for decades. According to the EPA, about a third of Americans annually turn to DEET to fend off bloodthirsty mosquitoes. DEET has been proven to be highly effective and is found in over 100 products.
But is this stuff all it’s cracked up to be?
There’s been another insect repellent catching all the buzz in recent years, and that repellent is picaridin. Like DEET, picaridin is highly effective in warding off insects. Lather it on and you’ll find yourself pleasantly bug-free for hours. Odorless and non-greasy, picaridin has become a favored alternative to the industry’s gold standard DEET.
The question is, which one should you be using?
Before you go reaching for another aerosol can of OFF!, or choosing to roll the dice on picaridin, there are some things you need to consider. We’ll break down these two common insect repellents so you can make an informed decision about which one is a better insect repellent for you and your health.
DEET (N, N-diethyl-meta-toluamide) is a synthetic and active ingredient used as an insect repellent. It was originally developed in the 1940s by the US Army as a means of protecting soldiers when entering insect-infested areas. Since DEET’s release to the public in the 1950s, it has become the most widely used insect repellent.
DEET is primarily used for warding off mosquitos and ticks. Depending on the concentration level, its effects can last anywhere from 2-12 hours. Although colorless, DEET does have a recognizable odor that’s detested by bugs (and many people). Despite being effective, it can cause damage to plastics and some synthetic materials.
Is It Worth It?
DEET has been studied more than any other insect repellent on the market. It’s highly effective against warding off mosquitos and ticks, which is a major plus in the prevention of malaria and Lyme disease. It can last half a day in higher concentrations, so you won’t have to worry about reapplying.
The downside: there are side effects. When used in high concentrations, DEET can cause rashes, blisters, and skin irritation. At risk of sounding like a drug commercial, some people have reported dizziness, nausea, headaches, and burning lips. Research has also suggested DEET can have negative effects on the nervous system — yikes!
Another concern is its reaction to plastic and certain synthetics. If you plan on using any outdoor gear while armoring up with DEET, this can be an issue. And let’s face it — even if you’re not using these types of materials, that’s still a red flag.
In terms of the environment, DEET is not considered to be a risk by EPA standards. However, DEET is not biodegradable, meaning it can and will accumulate in the environment.
Despite the negatives, DEET meets EPA requirements for safety and is not considered to be a health risk. If you’re going to use DEET, follow the directions on the label carefully to reduce unwanted side effects.
Picaridin is a synthetic compound resembling piperine, which is a repellent found in pepper plants. This repellent was developed in the 1980s by Bayer, the largest pharmaceutical company in the world. Although picaridin has been around for decades, it wasn’t until 2005 that it became available in the US.
This repellent has proven to be effective in fending off a wide range of insects including mosquitoes, ticks, and flies. It’s odorless, non-greasy, and can last for up to 14 hours. Unlike DEET, it does not have adverse effects when coming into contact with plastic or synthetic materials.
Is It Worth It?
Evidence from more than 140 tests proves picaridin to be just as effective at repelling bugs as DEET. It can ward off mosquitos and ticks equally as well, and is even considered to work better at deterring pesky flies. It has a slower evaporation rate than DEET, so it’s possible it can last longer.
Picaridin doesn’t have an unpleasant odor and doesn’t leave your skin feeling greasy. For anyone who’s ever hated the feeling of slick sunscreen or been bothered by overpowering scents, you’ll appreciate this factor.
Another major consideration when choosing picaridin versus DEET is it doesn’t have a damaging effect on plastic or other synthetic materials. That’s good news for your outdoor gear, and definitely a good sign for the environment.
In terms of human health, picaridin doesn’t raise the same neurotoxicity concerns as DEET and hasn’t been known to lead to skin irritation. Unlike DEET, picaridin is biodegradable.
Which One is Right For You?
DEET has been around the block way longer than picaridin. It’s used in over 100 products and has had more studies conducted on its effects than any other insect repellent on the market. In terms of longevity and effectiveness, it can be hard to ditch DEET for a new product.
On the other hand, research has shown DEET may pose potential harm. It’s been proven to damage plastic and quite possibly can have a negative effect on your nervous system.
Meanwhile, picaridin hasn’t had the luxury of having so many tests done. What researchers have found, however, is it’s as effective as DEET, poses no harm to your nervous system, and is biodegradable. Oh, and it won’t damage your sunglasses.
While the choice is up to you, there’s strong evidence to suggest it might be time to say “out with the old and in with the new.” Given how picaridin can keep up with DEET without the negative side effects, our money is on picaridin.
Protect Your Skin From More Than Just Bugs
Now that you’ve crossed bug spray off your list, how about some UV protection? Bug bites are a minor nuisance compared to blistering sun burns, and preventing skin cancer should always be on your mind if you spend a lot of time outdoors. Check out our guide to the Best Sun Protective Clothing for tips on how to read UV protection labels and a list of our favorite clothing items.
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