How to Choose and Use Insect Repellents

Mosquitoes, biting flies, and ticks can be annoying and sometimes pose a serious risk to public health. In certain areas of the United States, mosquitoes can transmit diseases like equine, West Nile Virus and St. Louis encephalitis. Biting flies can inflict a painful bite that can persist for days, swell, and become infected. Ticks can transmit serious diseases like Lyme disease, West Nile Virus, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. When properly used, insect repellents can discourage biting insects from landing on treated skin or clothing.

Why You Should Use Mosquito Repellent

Insect repellent helps reduce your exposure to mosquito bites that may carry West Nile virus or other diseases, and allows you to continue to play, work, and enjoy the outdoors with a lower risk of disease.

When You Should Use Mosquito Repellent

Use repellent when you go outdoors. You should use repellent even if you're only going outside for a few minutes. Many of the mosquitoes that carry the West Nile virus bite between dusk and dawn. If you're outside during these hours pay special attention to using repellent.

Which Mosquito Repellents Work Best

A wide variety of insect repellent products are available. CDC recommends the use of products containing active ingredients which have been registered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for use as repellents applied to skin and clothing.

When EPA registers a repellent, they evaluate the product for efficacy and potential effects on human beings and the environment. EPA registration means that EPA does not expect a product, when used according to the instructions label, to cause unreasonable adverse effects to human health or the environment.

Of the active ingredients registered with the EPA, two have demonstrated a higher degree of efficacy in the peer-reviewed, scientific literature.* Products containing these active ingredients typically provide longer-lasting protection than others:

  • DEET (N,N-diethyl-m-toluamide)
  • Picaridin (KBR 3023)

Oil of lemon eucalyptus [p-menthane 3,8-diol (PMD)], a plant based repellent, is also registered with EPA. In two recent scientific publications, when oil of lemon eucalyptus was tested against mosquitoes found in the US it provided protection similar to repellents with low concentrations of DEET.

These recommendations are for domestic use in the United States. See CDC Travelers' Health website for specific recommendations concerning protection from insects when traveling outside the United States.

In addition, certain products which contain permethrin are recommended for use on clothing, shoes, bed nets, and camping gear, and are registered with EPA for this use. Permethrin is highly effective as an insecticide and as a repellent. Permethrin-treated clothing repels and kills ticks, mosquitoes, and other arthropods and retains this effect after repeated laundering. The permethrin insecticide should be reapplied following the label instructions. Some commercial products are available pretreated with permethrin. Permethrin is not to be used directly on skin.

How Often You Should Re-apply Repellents

Follow the directions on the product you are using. Sweating or getting wet may mean that you need to re-apply more frequently.

How the Percentage of Active Ingredient in a Product Relates to Protection Time

In general, the more active ingredient (higher percentage) it has, the longer a repellent will protect you from mosquitoes. For example, DEET products are available in many formulations--something with 30% DEET will protect you longer than one with 5% DEET. You cannot directly compare the percentage of one active ingredient to another, however.


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