Any way you look at them, mosquitoes suck. Ward them off with mosquito repellent to protect your skin and keep away blood-borne illnesses like malaria, Zika and dengue.
Mosquito bites can spread diseases including malaria, dengue, Zika virus and West Nile Virus, which can cause meningitis. And mosquito bites itch so much that you can end up scratching and scarring your skin. So mosquito repellent will always be welcome.
The best mosquito repellent is, of course, the one you’re actually going to use. While effective, are chemical repellents still the best way to go? We’ve got expert advice on using insect repellents, safely.
How safe are chemical insect repellents?
The choice of mosquito repellent depends on how long you will be spending outdoors. On a summer vacation or hike into the woods, the benefits of preventing mosquito bites far outweigh the risks.
When you’re headed into the woods, pharmacists and physicians around the world over recommend products containing DEET, a chemical compound with a proven safety track record. It’s highly effective against mosquitoes and also biting flies, fleas and ticks. A higher concentration of repellent will have longer-lasting effectiveness.
And a newer compound, Picaridin, has been found to be as effective as DEET in shielding you against mosquitoes. Most repellents pose few side effects if used according to instructions.
Generally, when are used as directed, chemical repellents have been proven to be safe and effective, even for pregnant and breastfeeding women. For example, DEET has been shown to be safe in the second and third trimester of pregnancy. But during the first trimester, it should be sprayed onto the clothing instead of the skin, to minimise absorption.
What are the side effects of mosquito repellents?
As with any product, there is a possibility of developing side effects when using mosquito repellent. Any unpleasant side effects, such as skin redness, rashes or a slight burning sensation, are usually temporary and will go away once you stop using the product.
To minimise these side effects, do not spray the insect repellent directly onto your face. Spray onto your hands first before applying it to your face. Avoid using products which contain ingredients you are allergic to, and use repellents in a well-ventilated area. Inhalation of repellents in large amounts can cause caughing and throat and bronchial (airway) irritation.
If you have asthma, be aware that some repellents which emit smoke or vapours such as mosquito coils, scented candles or liquid vaporisers, may aggravate asthma conditions and trigger wheezing.
For your day-to-day errands and excursions, natural plant-based repellants may do enough. It also helps to wear light colors and breathable fabrics that let sweat evaporate off your skin, because insects are drawn to the smell of sweat.
Repellents should not be used on babies younger than two months old. Instead, cover the crib, stroller and baby carrier with mosquito netting.
How to safely apply insect repellent
- Read the directions on the label.
- Use just enough insect repellent to cover exposed skin.
- Apply sparingly around the ears.
- Stop using the insect repellent if it causes skin reaction.
- Stick patches onto clothes or to an article close to you.
- Spray in enclosed areas or near food.
- Apply over cuts, wounds or irritated skin.
- Spray directly onto the face.
- Apply to eyes or mouth.
- Use DEET with sunscreen, as it may make the sun protection factor (SPF) less effective. Apply sunscreen first, then apply insect repellent 15 minutes later.
- Spray a patch directly onto the skin.
- Apply insect repellent to your child’s palms or hands, as it’s likely to make contact with the child’s eyes or mouth.
- Use more than needed; heavy doses won’t work better.
Originally by Ng Wan Ching, The Straits Times, 6 September 2016 / Last Updated by Brooke Glassberg August 2021