ABC Blog

How Does DEET Work?

how does DEET work

During the warmer months of the year, we are drawn to the outdoors. Unfortunately, these times of year are also the peak months for mosquito activity. We often reach for insect sprays and other repellents in an attempt to avoid the itching and discomfort associated with mosquito bites, in addition to protecting ourselves from the risks of dangerous diseases such as the West Nile and Zika viruses. One of the most common ingredients in insect repellent is DEET. How much do you know about DEET and how it keeps these pesky pests away?

How Does DEET Work?

Before we discuss why DEET is an active ingredient in most sprays designed to keep mosquitoes, as well as biting fleas, chiggers, no-see-ums and ticks from biting us, let’s learn a little more about this chemical and why it gets mixed reviews.

What is DEET?

DEET is a clear or faintly yellow liquid chemical compound that is also known as diethyltoluamide and is short for N, N-Diethyl-3-Methylbenzamide. DEET was first developed by the U.S. Army in 1946 to protect soldiers in insect-infested areas. Eleven years later, DEET was approved by the government for general public use. About 30% of Americans use DEET-based products each year, which include store-bought insect repellent lotions, wipes, wristbands and sprays. Products can contain anywhere from 4% to 100% concentrations of DEET.

How Does DEET Keep Bugs Away?

Although DEET has been around for over 50 years, there are still disagreements within the scientific community about how it actually works. What scientists do know is that mosquitoes can detect you using their sense of smell. Lactic acid that we give off when we sweat and carbon dioxide that we emit when we breathe can attract these pesky biting animals. Insects use their antennae to smell, and different odors trigger different types of neural activity.

One study suggested that DEET prevents insects’ odor receptors from working properly, which effectively prevents insects from recognizing humans as prey. Strangely, bugs may land on you if you apply DEET, but they will not actually bite you. Whatever the exact reason, DEET has been proven to be an effective method in deterring biting bugs. So although it won’t actually kill mosquitoes, it will definitely keep them away.

Facts and Myths About DEET

DEET is a controversial ingredient; because the acronym is so close to DDT, some people may confuse it for an unrelated, dangerous compound which was banned in the United States in 1972. Early worries that the chemical is linked to neurological problems have been disproven by the medical community, as further trials have found no evidence of negative impacts from DEET. In rare cases, individuals who were exposed to high concentrations of the DEET experienced skin rashes, blisters and irritation.

Research done into the effectiveness of DEET-based products has found that the substance keeps ticks away anywhere from two to ten hours, while mosquitoes stay away from two to twelve hours, depending on the concentration of the chemical in the product.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends using DEET-based products at a concentration of up to 30% on children at least two months old. The Centers for Disease Control and the EPA have done similar studies and reached the same conclusion—that DEET is safe for both adults and children.

Tips for Using DEET Safely

DEET can be applied directly to the skins and clothes. A higher concentration of DEET in a product doesn’t mean it’s stronger; it simply means that the repellent will last longer on your skin before you have to reapply. With that in mind, it’s best to decide which product to use based on the amount of time you’ll be spending outside. To avoid any skin irritation from products containing DEET, take the following precautions:

  • Check the DEET concentration before choosing a repellent. If you’ll only be outside for an hour or two, a four to seven percent concentration should provide you with adequate protection. If you’re planning a fishing trip or a hike, something with a concentration over 25% would be more effective.
  • Don’t spray DEET-based products directly on your face. Spray or apply the product onto your hands and then spread the liquid or cream onto your skins, avoiding around your eyes and mouth to avoid irritation and inhalation. If swallowed, DEET is toxic.
  • Use DEER sparingly. Unlike a product like sunscreen, DEET is a strong product, so be sure to apply only a thin layer so you don’t overuse it.
  • Apply with care. Don’t use DEET on or near any open wounds or rashes, as it could cause an infection.
  • DEET is intended for outdoor use. Wash off with soap and water once you go back inside for the day.
  • Be safe. DEET is safe to use for children over 2 months of age, but be sure to use the minimal amount since their skin could absorb too much of the chemical. An adult should apply DEET-based products to children under 10 years of age. To protect children younger than 2 months from biting insects, draped a carrier with mosquito netting which uses a snug elastic edge to keep insects out.

ABC Can Protect Your Family From Biting Insects

We all want to enjoy the time we spend outside without being bothered by mosquitoes, ticks, fleas and other insects. ABC Home & Commercial Services has been working with homeowners for decades to come up with solutions to keep these biting bugs at bay through a variety of methods. If repellents alone aren’t doing the job, contact ABC. We can send an experienced technician to inspect your property to come up with a set of recommendations so that you can take advantage of your outdoor spaces without the annoyance and risks of biting insects and other pests.

Learn More