DEET Facts (Definitive Safety Guide)

We've all heard of DEET, from the label on the bug spray to the horror stories floating around online.

As the summer kicks off and you spend more and more time enjoying the long days under the sun, chances are you're going to run across your fair share of products with DEET as an active ingredient.

DEET facts safety guide

But what is this stuff?

Is it as harmful as some people believe? How does the government feel about DEET, and why is it still such a mainstay of the insect repellent market if it's so bad for humans?

Keep reading our guide for the full scoop on this big-name bug repeller.

What is DEET?

DEET is a chemical compound developed in 1946 for use primarily against mosquitoes. It was made available to the public in 1957, and since then has been expanded to target several different biting pests including (but not limited to) the following:

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How Does DEET Work?

DEET works to mask its target to the insect's radar. 

Basically, anyone who uses DEET on their skin of clothing becomes sort of invisible to the pests circling around. The mosquitoes, ticks, fleas, and other bugs can't smell the target when DEET is present, and therefore don't feed on anyone using DEET.

What are the Benefits and Uses of DEET?

Well, for starters, it's extremely beneficial to skirt away from mosquito bites. Not only are these bites painful on their own, but mosquitos are actually considered the most dangerous animal on the planet. 

Pretty unbelievable, right?

You'd think that such small insects would be pretty easy to thwart, but don't underestimate them based on size alone; these might menaces are responsible for the spread of the Zika virus, the West Nile virus, and malaria—three devastating illnesses which affect millions of people worldwide.

By using DEET to protect yourself from mosquito interference, you're doing more than just preventing a bothersome bite...you could be sidestepping a life-threatening illness.

DEET infographic

Which Products Use DEET?

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Where will you normally find DEET? Is it sold on its own, or is it more likely to be formulated into outside products?

100% DEET

Believe it or not, the Environmental Protection Agency has cleared a 100% DEET formulation for sale in the USA.

This product is, as its name suggests, totally unrefined DEET, unmixed with other ingredients. It's meant to be used as an insect repellent in areas with high insect population like rainforests and jungles.

Insect Repellent

Most of the time, this is where a person will find DEET: as an active ingredient in a name-brand bug spray like OFF! or Cutter.

Generally speaking, the DEET content is usually only 7% of the overall amount, the rest of the spray contributing normally to other ingredients such as ethyl alcohols or fragrances.

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DEET Towelettes

These disposable wipes are designed to be taken on the go for hikes and camping trips. They're sold in packs of around 20 wipes each, and ideal for travelers or outdoor aficionados who want to pack as lightly as possible.

Each wipe is pre-moistened with a DEET solution to rub along the skin in order to protect the wearer from insect bites.

When Should You Consider Using A DEET-Based Product?

Is DEET a good idea for you? Check out how the following types of insects react to this chemical.

For Mosquitoes

For decades, scientists have been stumped by how, exactly, DEET manages to repel mosquitoes. For the longest time, the scientific community has accepted a collective shoulder shrug on the matter; coming to the conclusion that they don't exactly know how DEET works its magic, according to the National Pesticide Information Center.

However, a recent study from UC Davis has shown that some mosquitoes actually do smell DEET, and are indeed repelled by its aroma.

Either way, check out this video demonstrating how effective DEET is. Watch how the mosquitoes totally ignore the DEET-treated hand, yet flock completely to the non-treated hand!

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For Ticks

DEET works to repel ticks in the same way as it does to ward off mosquitoes: by making the host to a tick seem invisible. 

Many pet owners utilize DEET-soaked towelettes on their dogs and cats in order to disguise the animals to the blood-sucking radar of ticks, and have seen success through these methods.

For Fleas

Fleas are known for their astonishing ability to jump from one place to another, but DEET works to remove their ending target. 

Of course, the target is still there, but the flea doesn't sense it anymore. Any human or animal sprayed and wiped with DEET is basically invisible to a flea, and therefore no longer a landing pad. 

Is DEET Best for Zika?

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the best way to stop the spread of the Zika virus is to be knowledgeable about the signs and symptoms as well as vigilant in order to prevent infection.

The CDC recommends using insect repellent after applying sunscreen anytime you're going outdoors for a prolonged period of time, but they also recommend to cover your skin with long sleeves and long pants. 

This means that there are several ways to prevent the spread of Zika, which is now found in 39 states (as of the time of this writing). Only you can make the choice on what is best for you and your family. 

Is DEET Dangerous To Humans?

Here are the big questions on everyone's minds: is DEET toxic? Will it cause birth defects? Is it safe to spray onto kids' skin??

Because DEET was created in a lab specifically for human use and because it's applied directly to the skin, it always has been (and pretty much always will be) the subject of a ton of scientific scrutiny. 

Here's the truth: when used correctly, DEET has a low (basically non-existent) toxicity rate) toward humans. 

So...why do so many people think it's unsafe?

Well, "DEET" sounds a lot like "DDT," which is a pesticide that is no longer in use in the USA due to its adverse affects to the environment and in human beings. In addition to this mixup, DEET was blamed for several cases of encephalopathy in children and teenagers in the 1980s.

Don't freak out, though, because the EPA has since conducted investigations which concluded that these individuals had misused DEET and overexposed themselves to the chemical. They have published literature with proper guidelines on using pest control products safely in order to avoid another situation like this in the future.

The US Army Public Health Center has published this video to help aid the general public with the tactics the Army uses for safe application of DEET as not to overexpose yourself. 

General Side Effects

According to the National Pesticide Information Center, a brief overexposure to DEET can result in the following symptoms:

  • eye irritation including redness and tear production
  • skin swelling, rash, and redness
  • stomach pain upon ingestion
  • vomiting after ingestion
  • nausea after ingestion
  • in very rare cases, seizures have occurred after drinking DEET.

In the most severe cases of side effects from DEET, users have not read the product label and have not used this product properly.

For Pregnant Women

Studies have indicated that when used as directed and applied carefully, DEET poses no risk to the expectant mother or the unborn child when used in any of the three trimesters of pregnancy.

However, we can't stress enough that DEET must be used as directed. We recommend that you and your partner ALWAYS read the product label in full and follow all directions, and exercise caution when using any chemical during pregnancy. 

For Babies and Toddlers

DEET is placed at the top of the list (literally) for the American Academy of Pediatrics's Insect Repellent recommendations for children. 

The only special consideration given to DEET is to refrain from using it on newborns under two months old, and to use caution when applying to the skin of babies. Otherwise, DEET is the top recommendation from what many parents would consider to be the authority on pediatric care in the United States.

Is DEET Dangerous To Cats?

Data from the National Pesticide Information Center (as well as other scientific outlets) are scarce when it comes to reports of DEET-related toxicity to cats.

However, this doesn't necessarily mean that DEET won't hurt your cat. Just like with humans, cats that are exposed to too much DEET may develop unsavory side effects that could make them seriously ill.

Side Effects

When misused, a DEET overload can present in the following ways in cats:

  • vomiting
  • trembling
  • ataxia
  • seizures

Is DEET Dangerous To Dogs?

Dogs, it has been shown in a recent study by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation, were less susceptible to the toxicity of DEET than cats. 

The mystery of why dogs have a higher tolerance for DEET goes unsolved, but it was found that canines are much more suited to handle the chemical compounds than their feline counterparts.

Dog Products That Use DEET

While there aren't any products specifically tailored to dogs that contain DEET, many pet owners take advantage of dogs' resilience to the chemical and wipe their pups' fur with pre-moistened DEET towelettes before a hike or a camping trip. 

This helps keep their pup protected not only from fleas and ticks, but also from biting mosquitoes and other bugs in the great outdoors.

What Does The Government Think About DEET?

Did you know that DEET was actually developed by the US government? 

It's true!

In 1946, the US Department of Agriculture formulated DEET for the US Army to use in World War II. These soldiers were deployed to mosquito-heavy areas and needed a high-powered repellent to use in the field, and POOF! DEET was created. Eleven years later, DEET was made available to the public marketplace and has been protecting the public at large pretty much since then. 

DEET facts

So, we know that the Department of Agriculture actually made DEET...but what do the other branches of government think of this chemical?

Environmental Protection Agency 

Due to the outcry over DEET's supposed safety (or lack thereof), the EPA is fully on board with investigations into whether or not this chemical can be declared harmless for the general public.

Not only has the EPA published an in-depth fact page about DEET, but they've also conducted several investigations over the years to determine whether or not DEET upholds itself to safety requirements. Each time, the Agency has found no evidence of excessive toxicity in DEET when it is used directly.

Center for Disease Control

The CDC mentions DEET in several articles pertaining to mosquitoes and the Zika Virus, the West Nile Virus, and malaria. 

In addition to these, DEET is listed in the CDC's Agengy for Toxic Substances and Disease Portal. However, its listing is NOT classifiable as a human carcinogen and not evaluated further for toxicological profiling.

DEET Vs Other Stuff

Okay, so we've told you pretty much everything there is to know about DEET. But what about how DEET compares to the other chemicals (and oils) on the block??

DEET vs DDT

As we noted earlier, the only real similarity between DEET and DDT is how closely the names sound.

DDT is a dangerous pesticide that was banned from use in the USA in 1972 due to its elimination of birds and other wildlife.

DEET  vs Eucalyptus Oil

The CDC recommends both DEET and oil of lemon eucalyptus for protection of against mosquitoes, particularly in areas where mosquito-borne illnesses are present. 

The difference?

DEET applications provide around double the duration of protection time. Generally speaking, you'll have to reapply DEET every 4 or 5 hours, whereas eucalyptus oil wears off after only about two hours.

Read Also: What is eucalyptus oil?

DEET vs Oil of Citronella

If DEET was made in a lab, think of oil of citronella as its free-spirited cousin.

These two insect repellents are actually quite similar (in many ways, they work to achieve a lot of the same goals by repelling the same pests), but oil of citronella is extracting by plants in a completely natural fashion, and DEET was synthetically manmade.

DEET  vs Picaridin

Picaridin was developed in Europe in the 1990s as a competitor to DEET and made available in the US marketplace in 2005. 

While many of the pest-fighting attributes remain the same between picaridin and DEET, the former is more adept at warding off flies.

DEET vs Permethrin

While both of these substances are used to repel insects, they're used in vastly different ways.

DEET is meant to be applied to the skin directly and used for topical pest control to the body and clothing. Permethrin, on the other hand, is not designed for skin contact and can be dangerous if applied topically. The closest permethrin should ever come to someone's body is to be applied to the clothing.

DEET vs IR3535

IR3535 (which is short for Insect Repellent 3535) was developed by Merck in Europe over two decades ago. 

According to the EPA, IR3535's uses, targeted insects, and application methods are similar to those of DEET, but there's one stark difference between these two repellents.

DEET has shown to be more effective at fighting off Anopheles mosquitoes, which are vectors of malaria.

Final Thoughts on DEET

There's a lot of hype surrounding DEET, and for good reason. It's a powerful chemical that has certainly changed the world—saving countless lives from mosquito-borne illnesses and saving more each and every second.

While it's easy to confuse "DEET" with "DDT," and it's absolutely horrifying to read case studies of the children who fell ill due to improper use of DEET in the 1980s, one must remember that any product can have fatal consequences when used incorrectly. 

Our recommendation? Use DEET as directed, after applying sunscreen. Enjoy the summer sunshine. With science on your side, you can't go wrong.

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