DEET is a chemical commonly present in insect repellants. Although it can cause a skin reaction in some people, it typically has no health risks when people use it safely.

People rarely have adverse reactions to DEET and can usually avoid them by following product guidelines. If a person uses too much, they can experience side effects such as skin irritation, rashes, and blisters.

This article discusses the safety of DEET, its risks and side effects, and DEET alternatives.

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DEET is the active ingredient in many insect-repellant products. It repels insects such as ticks and mosquitos by making it hard for them to smell people.

Products containing DEET come in various forms, including liquids, sprays, lotions, and roll-ons. They also come in different strengths, ranging from 4–100%.

The strength of a DEET product indicates how long it will provide protection, not how effective it is. For example, 10% DEET lasts roughly 2 hours, and 30% lasts about 5 hours. Concentrations higher than 50% don’t provide protection that lasts longer.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), DEET products are usually safe as long as people follow their label instructions and do not use them heavily.

When choosing a DEET product, a person must use the lowest percentage necessary for the amount of time they will be outside. For example, if a person will only be outside for 2 hours, they will not need to use anything stronger than 10%.

Children have sensitive skin that can react to chemicals in unexpected ways. Therefore, it is advisable to take the following precautions when applying DEET to children:

  • Use just enough insect repellent to cover exposed areas.
  • Only apply on exposed areas and clothing, not under clothing.
  • Do not apply to the hands or around the eyes or mouth.

Products containing DEET are typically very low risk when people use them correctly. DEET can cause skin irritation in some people, but this is rare.

Some people who have used high strength DEET or had exposure to DEET over a long period have experienced adverse effects. DEET is also toxic if ingested.

Adverse effects of overexposure or ingestion of DEET include:

  • skin irritation
  • mucous membrane irritation
  • rashes
  • blisters
  • seizures
  • movements that can make someone feel or appear unsteady
  • aggressive behavior
  • agitation
  • low blood pressure

Other chemicals can work as alternatives if a person does not want to use DEET.

Environmental Protection Agency alternatives

The CDC recommends using products approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Aside from DEET, there are several other EPA-approved active ingredients for insect repellants. They include:

  • picaridin
  • IR 3535
  • oil of lemon eucalyptus
  • p-menthane-diol
  • 2-undecanone

Picaridin and oil of lemon eucalyptus work similarly to DEET. Like DEET, products with these as active ingredients come in various strengths that provide protection for different amounts of time.

Natural insect repellants

Various products claim to be “natural” insect repellants. These include:

Although some of these products may be safe and effective, the EPA has not tested them for effectiveness, and the organization does not recommend them.

If a person has concerns about DEET’s safety, they may want to talk with a doctor. Here are some example questions a person could ask:

  • Is DEET right for me?
  • How can I apply DEET safely?
  • What should I avoid when using DEET?
  • What type of DEET product would be best for me?
  • What strength of DEET should I use?
  • Is DEET safe for children?
  • What are some effective alternatives to DEET?
  • What are potential adverse reactions to DEET?

DEET is usually safe for many people if they use it correctly. Adverse effects caused by DEET are rare and can occur from using it heavily or inappropriately.

When using a DEET product, it is advisable to follow the guidelines on the product.

If a person wants to use an alternative to DEET, it is important for them to use an EPA-recommended product.