DEET (chemical name, N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide) is the most common active ingredient in insect repellents. Developed by the US military after experiencing jungle warfare during World War II, DEET was approved for civilian use in 1957.
When applied to the skin or to clothing, DEET is believed to work by blocking the body odors that insects like mosquitoes and ticks are attracted to and replacing them with an odor that insects intensely dislike. This chemical also interferes with the nervous system of insects, as well as mammals.
But is this toxic chemical safe? Only if used exactly as instructed.
Bug repellents containing DEET, whether in spray, lotion, or aerosol form:
- Are only for external use, and only for the skin
- Are not to be sprayed directly on the face, in open wounds, or near the mouths or eyes of children
- Should not be used underneath clothing
- Should be washed off with soap and water after use
- Should not be sprayed in enclosed areas
It is especially important to keep insect repellents containing DEET out of the hands of children. If inhaled or swallowed, DEET can cause poisoning, and children are especially at risk for its harmful effects. If a small amount of DEET is swallowed, symptoms can include:
- Moderate to severe stomach irritation
If a large amount is swallowed, low blood pressure and a low heart rate may result.
More seriously, DEET poisoning can cause neurological damage resulting in:
- Clumsiness when walking
- Coma, or even death
The EPA (environmental protection agency) has authorized its use in products with concentrations up to 100%, but the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) recommends 30-50% concentration levels. The lowest levels should be used on children, and their exposure should be limited. The National Institute of Health does not recommend DEET for use on infants.
If you suspect a case of DEET poisoning, wash it off immediately, call poison control, and call your doctor.
So remember to read usage instructions on bug repellents containing DEET very carefully for a safe and effective way to keep the pesky insects of summer at bay.
Sources: http://www.epa.gov/ and http://www.nlm.nih.gov