DEET vs. DEET-free Insect Repellents: Zika experts explain!

DEET may very well become a buzzword at the same time as sales of insect repellent see another mosquito-borne disease outbreak-fueled boom. DEET appears at the top of the EPA-registered bug repellents recommended by the CDC to prevent mosquito bites – including Aedes aegypti, which carries the Zika, Dengue, and Chikungunya viruses.  Why DEET? Not only does it provide the best protection against mosquito bites and is the most common active ingredient in topical insect repellents (applied to skin and/or clothing). Some sunscreens also include DEET insect repellent.

EPA-registered skin-applied insect repellents

Active ingredient

Number of products



More than 500

·         Off!

·         Cutter.

·         Sawyer.

·         Ultrathon

IR 3535

About 45

·         Skin So Soft Bug Guard Plus Expedition.

·         SkinSmart.


About 40

·         Cutter Advanced.

·         Skin So Soft Bug Guard Plus.

·         Autan.

para-menthane-3,8-diol (oil of lemon eucalyptus)


·         Repel.

·         Off! Botanicals.

Nepeta cataria (catnip oil or catmint)


·         Refined Oil Of Nepeta Cataria 7% Liquid.

·         Refined Oil Of Nepeta Cataria 7% Lotion.

·         Refined Oil Of Nepata Cataria 15% Liquid.

·         Refined Oil Of Nepeta Cataria 15% Lotion.

Oil of citronella


·         Bug Block Sunscreen and Insect Repellent.

·         Natrapel Sun.



·         BIO-UD-8 Spray.


The number of products that contain it is not the only difference, though. Like picaridin, DEET is catalogued by the EPA as a “conventional repellent” – as opposed to “biopesticide repellents.”

DEET in Depth

Active ingredient


Safety reviews


The EPA concluded that the normal use of insect repellents containing DEET does not present a health concern to the general public, including children.


DEET continues to meet safety standards based on current scientific knowledge. The EPA did not identify any risks of concern to human health, non-target species or the environment.


Repels potentially disease-carrying insects and ticks.

Hourly protection

Studies in EPA’s database indicate that DEET repels mosquitoes from 2-12 hours depending on the percentage of DEET in the product*. 


  • Read and follow all directions and precautions on the label.
  • Store out of the reach of children.
  • Do not apply over cuts, wounds, or irritated skin.
  • Do not apply to hands or near eyes and mouth of young children.
  • Do not allow young children to apply this product.
  • Do not breathe in, swallow, or get into the eyes.
  • Use just enough to cover exposed skin and/or clothing.
  • Do not use under clothing.
  • Use just enough to cover exposed skin and/or clothing.
  • Avoid over-application.
  • For outdoor use only.
  • After returning indoors, wash treated skin with soap and water.
  • Wash treated clothing before wearing it again.
  • Use of this product may rarely cause skin reactions.

The following will appear on the labels of aerosol and pump spray formulation labels:

  • Do not spray in enclosed areas.
  • To apply to face, spray on hands first and then rub on face.
  • Do not spray directly onto face.

In case of a skin reaction

·         Discontinue use.

·         Wash treated skin.

·         Call your local poison control center or doctor.

·         If you go to a doctor, take the repellent container with you.


Approved for use on children with no age restriction, without restriction on the percentage of DEET in the product.

* Higher concentrations offer longer-lasting, though not better, protection. Studies suggest that concentrations of DEET above approximately 50% do not offer a marked increase in protection time against mosquitoes. The CDC recommends using products with ≥20% DEET.

Other EPA-registered topical insect repellents


Active ingredient

2-(2-hydroxyethyl)-1-piperidinecarboxylic acid 1-methylpropyl ester.

Use sites

Human body.

Target pests

Biting flies, mosquitoes, chiggers, ticks, and fleas.

Risks to human health

Some people have had skin irritation, though this is very rare. Considered practically non-toxic if inhaled.

Risks to the environment

Moderately toxic to freshwater fish.

IR 3535

Active ingredient

3-[N-Butyl-N-acetyl]-aminopropionic acid, ethyl ester.

Use sites

Human skin.

Target pests

Mosquitoes, deer ticks, body lice, and biting flies.

Risks to human health

Not harmful when ingested, inhaled, or used on skin. Eye irritation could occur if the chemical enters a person’s eyes.

Risks to the environment

No risks to the environment are expected if used only in products applied to the human skin.

Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus

Active ingredient

p-Menthane-3,8-diol derived from eucalyptus plants.

Use sites

On humans and their clothing.

Target pests

Mosquitoes, biting flies, and gnats.

Risks to human health

No adverse effects except for eye irritation.

Risks to the environment

Minimal or no risks to wildlife.

Catnip oil

Active ingredient

Refined, multi-component extract of Oil Nepeta cataria, a member of the mint family of plants.

Use sites

Direct application to human skin.

Target pests

Black flies, mosquitoes and other biting insects.

Risks to human health

No risk to human health is expected.

Risks to the environment

Exposure and risk from the proposed use into a formulated product is not expected to occur or pose a threat to non-target organisms.

Oil of citronella

Active ingredient

A volatile, liquid oil derived from dried cultivated grasses.

Use sites

On humans.

Target pests

Mosquitoes, black flies, fleas, and ticks.

Risks to human health

The only concern is skin irritation.

Risks to the environment

Minimal or no risks to wildlife.


Related: Early symptoms of zika virus