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Insect Repellent Use and Safety

Why should I use a mosquito repellent?
Mosquito repellents help prevent mosquito bites. Mosquitoes can transmit potentially serious viruses such as West Nile virus.

When should I use mosquito repellent?
In New York City, mosquitoes are generally active between May and October. Mosquitoes are likely to be found in areas where there is standing water such as discarded tires, bird baths, and gutters. Mosquitoes also like to rest in bushes, weeds and shady areas. The mosquitoes that carry West Nile virus are more likely to bite between dusk and dawn. However, some mosquitoes bite during the day. To prevent mosquito bites, apply repellent whenever you are outdoors where there are mosquitoes.

Should I wear repellent while I am indoors?
If mosquitoes are biting you while you are indoors, check window and door screens for holes that may be allowing mosquitoes inside. If your house or apartment does not have screens, a quick solution may be to tape, staple or tack screening (available from a hardware store) across the windows.

What types of repellents are available?
There are many mosquito repellents with different active ingredients sold under different brand names in New York City. Active ingredients approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and New York State for protection against biting mosquitoes are DEET (N,N-diethyl-m-toluamide), picaridin (KBR 3023), IR3535, and oil of lemon eucalyptus (citriodiol or p-Menthane-3, 8 diol.) Repellents containing these active ingredients have been found to be effective for repelling mosquitoes for different lengths of time.

How should I choose a repellent?
Always read the repellent's label completely. When choosing a repellent, review the label for the EPA registration number, the active ingredient and its percent, protection times and use instructions. In general, the higher the percent of active ingredient a repellent contains, the longer the time it can protect you from mosquito bites. But, the concentrations of different active ingredients cannot always be directly compared. Protection times vary for different people and depend on factors such as the species of mosquito in the area, how much a person sweats and how hot it is outside.

DEET is the most common active ingredient proven to prevent mosquito bites. DEET-based repellents come in a wide range of percentages, but in New York City, no one should need a repellent with more than 30% DEET. Repellents with greater than 10% DEET should not be used on children. Picaridin-based repellents ranging from 5-15% have shown similar protection times to DEET.

General guidelines for choosing a repellent are as follows:

  • Repellents containing 15-30% DEET can be used by adults spending long periods of time outdoors (about 5 to 8 hours).
  • Repellents with less than 15% DEET or picaridin can be used by adults if time outdoors will be limited to 1 to 5 hours. Oil of lemon eucalyptus can also be used if time outdoors will be limited. Re-applying these repellents can extend protection times, but do not exceed the maximum number of applications recommended per day on the label.
  • Repellents with less than 10% DEET or picaridin can be applied on children by an adult. Read the label and follow instructions carefully.
  • Repellents containing oil of lemon eucalyptus are not recommended for use on children under the age of three years.
  • Repellents should not be applied to children under the age of 2 months.

Are there any non-chemical, natural, or botanical products that are effective in repelling mosquitoes?
Some products containing botanical oils also provide protection from mosquito bites. However, studies have suggested that these products offer protection for much shorter periods of time.

A product containing 26% oil of lemon eucalyptus and a product containing 2% soybean oil have been shown to provide protection for up to 4 hours.

Should I be concerned about the safety of repellents?
Repellents are regulated by the U.S. EPA and New York State, and are tested for toxicity and effectiveness. The EPA does not require that all botanical repellents be tested or registered before their sale and use. The active ingredients for all products should be stated on the labels.

Over the long history of DEET use, very few confirmed incidents of illnesses following its use have occurred when the product was used properly in low concentrations. Repellents like picaridin and oil of lemon eucalyptus that are newer to the market have been reviewed by the US EPA and NYS DOH and been approved for use as specified by the label.

Any repellent can cause eye irritation. Certain people may also be sensitive to repellents, and can develop skin reactions. If you think that you may be sensitive, test the product by applying it to a small area of skin on your arm and wait 24 hours to see if a reaction occurs.

What precautions should I take when using repellents?
  • Always follow the manufacturer’s directions on the repellent’s label.
  • Apply a light coat of repellent to exposed skin. Heavy application is not needed to achieve protection.
  • Do not apply repellent to skin that is under clothing.
  • Do not apply repellent to cuts, wounds, or irritated skin.
  • Do not apply aerosol or pump products directly to your face. Instead, spray your hands and then rub them carefully over the face, avoiding the eyes and mouth.
  • Do not exceed the maximum number of applications marked on the label.
  • After returning indoors, wash treated skin with soap and water and always wash your hands before eating or drinking.
  • Do not spray aerosol or pump products in enclosed areas or near food or drink.

How should repellents be used on children?
Parents should choose the type and concentration of repellent by taking into account the amount of time that a child will be outdoors, their likelihood of exposure to mosquitoes, and the risk of mosquito-transmitted disease in the area. Always follow the directions on the label. Parents can protect their children from mosquito bites in several ways:

  • Repellents should not be applied to infants under the age of 2 months. Dress infants in long sleeves and long pants whenever possible or use netting over strollers, playpens, etc.
  • Do not allow young children to apply insect repellent themselves. Keep repellents out of reach of young children.
  • When around mosquitoes and when practical, dress children in long pants and long sleeved shirts to prevent bites.
  • Use a DEET or picaridin-based repellent with less than 10% of the active ingredient on children. Oil of lemon eucalyptus (citriodiol or p-Menthane-3, 8 diol)-based repellents can be used on children over the age of three.
  • Apply repellent to your own hands and then rub it on the child. Avoid children’s eyes, mouth and hands and use it sparingly around their ears.
  • Reapply repellent if the child is outside for a prolonged period of time and mosquitoes start to bite.

Should children be given repellent to use at camp or school?
Parents should consult local school or day camp officials to obtain policies and procedures specific to bringing repellent with them. Only an adult should apply repellent to young children. If older children bring repellents with them to use at camp or school they should review the label prior to use with an adult.

If I am pregnant or breastfeeding, should I use repellent?
On rare occasions, West Nile virus can be passed from a mother to her fetus during pregnancy. Women who are pregnant should take precautions to protect themselves from mosquito bites. Insect repellents help reduce exposure to mosquitoes that may carry potentially serious viruses such as West Nile virus. Pregnant women who want to minimize the use of repellents on their skin should avoid mosquito habitats, and wear clothing that also covers arms and legs. Nursing mothers who apply repellent should wash all repellents off their hands and areas of the breast with soap and water before breastfeeding their children.

Where can I get more information about repellents?
For more information about using repellents safely please consult the EPA Web site or the CDC web site. For more information on West Nile virus, call 311 or visit nyc.gov/health/wnv.

Last Updated: 07/18/2006