Beat Bugs Without DEET: U.S. Boosts 2 Alternatives

John Roach
for National Geographic News
July 26, 2005
Summertime … swat … and the living is … swat … swat
… swat—nothing ruins a summer day like a swarm of bloodthirsty

For years the only scientifically proven way to ward off the buggers was to use an insect repellent containing the chemical compound DEET (diethyl toluamide).

But the pesticide has long been equally effective at repelling some consumers with its strong smell, its greasy feel, and its possible side effects.

Now, just in time for summer, the U.S. government has given its stamp of approval to two alternatives to DEET: picaridin and oil of lemon eucalyptus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced their recommendation of the alternatives this April.

Picaridin (KBR 3023) is found in many mosquito repellents used for years in Europe, Australia, Latin America, and Asia. It is now sold in the U.S. under the Cutter Advanced brand name.

Oil of lemon eucalyptus (p-menthane 3,8-diol or PMD) is the only plant-based active ingredient for insect repellents approved by the CDC. It is derived from eucalyptus leaves and is found in a variety of repellents throughout the U.S., according to the CDC.

"We still recommend DEET for someone who is traveling internationally, because it does have the most impressive record of safety and protection," said Jennifer Morcone, a spokesperson for the Atlanta-based CDC.

All of the repellents, Morcone added, work by creating a barrier on the skin that confuses mosquitoes and keeps them at bay. Proper application according to the label is essential for safe and effective protection.

Infection Protection

The CDC's approval of picaridin and oil of lemon eucalyptus comes as West Nile virus, a potentially deadly infectious disease spread by mosquitoes, is beginning its annual upswing across North America.

Most people who contract the virus show no symptoms, but about 20 percent experience headaches, fevers, and nausea. About 1 in 150 people fall seriously ill with symptoms that can lead to vision loss, paralysis, and death.

According to Morcone, the CDC hopes its approval of picaridin and oil of lemon eucalyptus will encourage more people to protect themselves against West Nile virus.

"Only 40 percent of Americans use repellent with DEET when they head outdoors," Morcone said. "So 60 percent of people who go outdoors are unprotected when the mosquitoes are out."

Despite government assurances that DEET is safe and effective when used as directed, some consumers have shied away from the chemical compound over concerns about reported adverse affects, such as rashes and seizures. Of particular concern to parents: The American Academy of Pediatrics discourages using repellents with DEET concentrations of 30 percent or higher on children.

In addition, the way DEET smells, feels on the skin, and the damage it causes to plastics, leather, and other materials have sent consumers in search of effective alternatives, said Mark Bauman, a marketing director for Spectrum Brands, which markets Cutter Advanced.

According to Bauman, Cutter Advanced with picaridin is odorless and has a light, clean feel on the skin. Spectrum also produces an oil of lemon eucalyptus-based repellent for consumers in search of a more natural alternative.

"DEET has been the gold standard, the only game in town. But now there's a new generation of insect repellents that offer the protection consumers have come to expect from DEET without the negatives," Bauman said.

Other Alternatives

Consumers have long used alternatives to DEET-based products, including pure vanilla, citronella oil, Avon Skin So Soft bath oil, fabric softener, and catnip.

While many people rely on these products and homegrown remedies, Morcone said they are not proven as effective against mosquitoes in the scientific literature—a prerequisite for CDC approval.

"We're not saying they don't work, but these aren't scientifically proven remedies. And with West Nile virus here to stay, we don't want people taking chances with their health," she said.

As individuals, corporations, and researchers work to improve insect repellents, Morcone said the CDC will keep an open mind and regularly assess active ingredients for possible approval.

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