What’s Wrong With Traditional Insect Repellent?

Written by:

Maia James

07/09/2012

Updated: 12/06/2023

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This blog entry is part of our “What’s Wrong With” series, which profiles a different product each week and gives you the bottom line on its safety. Think of these as cheat sheets for our more comprehensive Safe Product Guides.

Buggin’ Out About Insect Repellent

Insect bites can be a mere nuisance or a serious health hazard. Gardening during black-fly season in Vermont is a maddening, uncomfortable experience, but it’s nothing compared to the problems associated with tick-borne Lyme disease, which always seems to be on the rise.

It’s no wonder that this time of year we see so many choices of insect repellent in every drug store. So what’s wrong with using Off or another conventional brand?

How Insect Repellent Works

Insect repellents are designed to confuse, discourage, and even kill bugs so that they don’t find us or bite us. The most commonly found active ingredient in commercial insect repellents is deet (chemical names: N,N-diethyl-m-toluamide or N.N-diethyl-3-methylbenzamide), and by now most of us know that it’s not good stuff. But what exactly is so bad about it?

The Deets on Deet

According to a 2009 study, deet is “not simply a behaviour-modifying chemical but also inhibits the activity of a key central nervous system enzyme, acetylcholinesterase, in both insects and mammals.”

So…I’m a mammal. I’m pretty sure most of the people I know are mammals, too.

The scientists conducting this study found that, in rodents, deet blocked cholinesterase, an enzyme that is responsible for transmitting messages from brain to muscle.

When deet is sprayed on your skin, it is absorbed and eventually enters your bloodstream, where it is pumped through your nervous system, potentially causing neurological damage. Heavy exposure to deet can result in memory loss, headache, pain, and shortness of breath. According to the EPA, At least 14 seizures and four deaths have been attributed to deet toxicity, although considering how many people are exposed to deet each year, the odds of such an event are of course exceedingly low.

In any event, the more you learn about deet, the less terrible the itching of a mosquito bite seems.

Better Bets for Bugs

Ok, so you want to avoid deet when buying an insect repellent, but beyond that I always prefer plant-based products (conventional brands like Off typically contain fragrance and other chemicals in addition to deet). My favorite natural repellent is Badger Bug Spray , it is both effective at keeping insects at bay, and also totally lacks that gross citronella scent (I know some of you probably dig that smell; I don’t!). An added bonus: all ingredients are organic.

Organic Bug Repellent Spray

Note that the good stuff–be it Bugs be Gone or another natural brand– always requires more frequent applications than products containing deet. But because Bugs Be Gone is so pure, there is no need to rinse it off when not outside with the bugs. The EPA warns us that we should indeed wash deet from our skin after each use, in order to avoid “side effects.” Manufacturers tell us that conventional bug spray should not be used under clothing or on damaged skin, and to always wash it off between applications. This sort of warning doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.

This summer, be smart about biting insects…but be just as smart about the bug spray you choose.

Stay sane,

Maia, Founder & CEO

Note: This article contains affiliate links or sponsored content, which means that if you make a purchase, we may earn a commission. We only recommend products that meet our strict standards for non-toxicity and that we use (or want to use!) ourselves. Thank you so much for supporting the brands that make Good Stuff! 

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Leave a Reply

  1. Asha Crews Williams Avatar
    Asha Crews Williams

    What products are effective when traveling to countries that have malaria? I’m going to Africa with my toddler and infant and need an effective insect repellent.

  2. Kadie Avatar
    Kadie

    Hey! What do you think of the Honest Company’s bug spray?

    Thanks!
    Kadie

  3. Sarah Avatar
    Sarah

    I read you should not put lemon eucalyptus oil on children under 3. Do you know if that is true? I see it is one of the ingredients in this spray. Would love to also know if there is another natural spray that isn’t quite as expensive.

    1. Maia James Avatar
      Maia James

      I use this as sparingly as possible on my children when they are under age 3, but you should check with your pediatrician before doing so. I’m sorry, but I don’t know of other brands that cost less. You could check in Whole Foods or another natural foods store.

  4. Kimberly Avatar
    Kimberly

    Thank you so much for this information! What is your opinion of Lafe’s organic baby insect repellant?

    1. Maia Avatar
      Maia

      Look’s like Good Stuff, although I can’t speak to its effectiveness.