Consumers Report, July 2015
Would you rather be eaten alive by mosquitoes and ticks that can carry debilitating — and even deadly — diseases, or douse yourself in harmful repellents full of potentially dangerous chemicals? Almost three-quarters of Americans say they worry more about insect-carried diseases, such as Lyme and West Nile as well as newer threats like chikungunya and Powassan, according to a recent survey of 2,011 U.S. adults conducted by Consumer Reports.
Here’s the real dilemma, though: Most people also say that safety is key when they choose a repellent, but only about a third think the products now on the market are safe for adults. Even fewer — 23 percent — think the repellents are safe for kids.
If you’re conflicted about what to do, Consumer Reports has good news: For the first time ever in its tests of insect repellents, new, safer products — made with milder, plantlike chemicals — were the most effective. The top scorers outperformed products that contained deet, a chemical that did best in its previous Ratings but can cause serious side effects. The active ingredients in the top repellents are picaridin and oil of lemon eucalyptus, both chemically synthesized compounds that are similar to or come from natural ingredients.
The secret sauce in best-scoring Sawyer Fisherman’s Formula is picaridin; in Repel Lemon Eucalyptus, it’s oil of lemon eucalyptus. They are not side effect-free, but “those problems are much less severe than deet,” says Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., executive director of Consumer Reports’ Food Safety and Sustainability Center. “Still, all repellents should be used sparingly and only for the time you need them — especially on children and older people.”
That’s why an effective bug-avoidance strategy requires a full arsenal. Consumer Reports’ new tests provide clarity on that, too, identifying nonchemical approaches that offer some relief (setting up a fan on your back patio, for example) and those that don’t help much, if at all (think citronella candles, wristbands and “all-natural” products with geraniol, lemongrass and rosemary oils).
THE SCOOP ON DEET AND ITS ALTERNATIVES
Deet (N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide) has been the go-to insect repellent since it was introduced in the 1950s. But consumers are still confused by it: 64 percent of people Consumer Reports surveyed admit that they don’t know how much deet a repellent should contain for it to be considered safe. And balancing safety and effectiveness is tricky. Products with 15 percent or more deet do work, though concentrations above 30 percent are no better, past tests have found. And deet, especially in high concentrations, can cause rashes, disorientation and seizures. That’s why Consumer Reports says you should avoid repellents with more than 30 percent deet and not use it at all on babies younger than 2 months. But go too low — such as 7 percent deet — and it won’t stop bites for long.
Picardin and oil of lemon eucalyptus — two repellents introduced in the last decade — make good alternatives to deet. Here’s why:
• They work. The repellents Consumer Reports tested that contain 20 percent picaridin and 30 percent oil of lemon eucalyptus (p-Menthane-3,8-diol) warded off mosquitoes for at least 7 hours and kept deer ticks away for at least 6 hours. But the concentration is important: A spray that contained just 5 percent picaridin performed worse than the 7 percent deet product that was tested.
• They’re safer. Picaridin is made to resemble the compound piperine, which occurs naturally in black pepper plants. Oil of lemon eucalyptus comes from the gum eucalyptus tree. Both have less serious side effects than deet. Oil of lemon eucalyptus can cause temporary eye injury. The Food and Drug Administration says it should not be used on children under age 3. Of the two, picaridin is a better choice for kids, although it can cause some irritation of skin, eyes and lungs.