Choosing an insect repellent that prevents bug bites but that doesn’t contain potentially risky chemicals might be one of summer’s peskier problems.
Synthetic repellents with the chemical compound DEET have been the standard for more than 50 years, ever since the U.S. Army developed it to protect soldiers from insect-borne diseases such as West Nile virus, malaria, Dengue fever and Lyme disease. A synthetic compound — N,N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide, or DEET — was approved for use by the general public in 1957.
DEET remains the repellent of choice for the military and for outdoor enthusiasts looking for long-lasting protection from biting insects. It’s used by about 30% of the U.S. population every year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. And in a 2009 market survey, DEET-containing insect repellents accounted for about 90% of the market for insect repellents.
But the compound has its shortcomings, even compared to other synthetic repellents. For starters, it’s an organic solvent, which means it can dissolve plastics such as soldiers’ goggles, watch bands and computer keyboards. It can be an environmental pollutant, lingering in soil and water. It isn’t effective against all insects. It can be sticky on the skin. And it has a very strong scent.
Perhaps DEET’s biggest issue is safety — or the perception that it’s not safe. Despite the EPA’s assurances that the repellent is safe when used properly, much of the public is not convinced and is looking for safe, natural alternatives that are also effective. Those aren’t aways easy to find.
More than 50 years on, it’s still difficult to find anything that is as effective, long-lasting and affordable as DEET.
“There really is no chemical out there that works better than DEET,” says Donald Roberts, a retired professor of tropical public health at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md.
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