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Are Bug Bites or Bug Sprays Worse?

Honestly, it depends. EWG’s new report points out that some bugs bite and little will come of it, but other bug bites may transmit diseases or cause serious harm. For example, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), West Nile virus, a virus carried by mosquitoes, infected more than 5,674 Americans last year and 286 of them died. While Lyme disease cases, spread by ticks, has more than doubled over the last 15 years, with 24,364 confirmed cases recorded in 2011. As EWG and the CDC note, Lyme and West Nile, among other bug bites can have serious and sometimes deadly consequences. On the flip side, bug sprays are no picnic either. Many people worry about DEET in particular. DEET is a bug repellent that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has deemed safe for use on humans IF you don’t get it near your eyes, nose or mouth. Although I think we can agree that the only kids who don’t mess with their eyes, nose, or mouth are maybe robot children. Other studies show that DEET is potentially very harmful, causing rashes, skin irritation, numb or burning lips, nausea, headaches, dizziness and difficulty concentrating. EWG report looked into bug bite prevention sprays and they note that there is, “No completely safe way to prevent bug bites,” as “All bug repellents have pros and cons.” EWG also states that surprisingly, among the four repellent chemicals EWG researched, DEET wasn’t all bad. EWG notes that DEET is one of the most effective bug spray ingredients and “DEET’s safety profile is better than many people assume.” Of course, you’ll have to decide for yourself if DEET is worth the risks. Keep reading to see which bug prevention sprays EWG suggests.

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Which Bug Repellents are Best?

EWG has broken down their bug repellent list into best repellent chemical ingredients, other repellent chemical options and repellents you should be cautious when using or avoid entirely. They also have broken down their list by age group, which is an important read, especially since they suggest zero repellents for babies under six months of age. EWG notes that when you really need bug protection, “Your best bets are products made with active ingredients that have been registered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and approved by the CDC.” EWG also points out that tests conclude that the following four registered and approved repellent chemicals offer a high level of protection from a variety of biting insects and ticks and have good safety profiles. So, going by EWG advice, when choosing a repellent, read your labels to look for the following ingredients:

  • Picaridin
  • IR3535
  • DEET
  • Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus with enhanced PMD concentration
  • PMD

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Which Bug Repellents are Okay?

The following repellent chemicals fall under EWG’s idea of sort of effective and safe, but not as effective as their top picks.

  • 2-undecanone (Methyl Nonyl Ketone)
  • Citronella
  • Catnip oil
  • Various botanical blends

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Bug Repellent Chemicals You Should Use Cautiously or Avoid

EWG notes you should use permethrin-treated clothing cautiously as it’s more toxic than skin-applied repellents and sometimes home application of permethrin can lead to overexposure. Below are all the chemicals EWG is urging families to avoid due to their toxicity levels and/or ineffectiveness at fighting bug bites.

  • Bug zappers
  • Yard bug treatments
  • Clip-on repellents, Insecticide fans
  • Repellent candles
  • Pure essential oils

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10 Effective Bug Repellent Options

Using the information gathered by EWG’s new report, we’ve gathered up 10 bug repellents that fit the safety and effectiveness profile provided by EWG. Meaning, these repellent choices may be better than others if you choose to go by EWG’s advice. NOTE: Be sure to read EWG’s criteria before buying a repellent, because not all of these are recommended for children under age three.

  1. Avon SKIN SO SOFT Bug Guard Plus Picaridin
  2. Cutter Backwoods Cutter Unscented
  3. Repel Lemon Eucalyptus Pump-Spray Insect Repellent
  4. Sawyer Premium Ultra 30 Insect Repellent Lotion
  5. Coleman Skin Smart Pump Spray Insect Repellant
  6. BullFrog Mosquito Coast
  7. OFF! Botanicals
  8. Natrapel 8 Hour Insect Repellent
  9. Watkins Great Outdoors Insect Repellents
  10. Croc Block Insect Repellent

+ Search for more bug repellents by chemical

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Get More Bug Bite Tips

For a more in-depth look at summer bug bites, read Natural Solutions to Prevent & Treat Bug Bites & Stings this Summer. This article covers the following:

  • Why you should panic less about bug bites.
  • Bug bite prevention for kids and adults, including natural common sense prevention.
  • How to recognize a bug bite when you see one.
  • Bug bite treatment myths.
  • More about child safe bug sprays.
  • When you should call 911.

+ EWG’s Advice for Avoiding Bug Bites (pdf)

+ EWG’s Guide to Bug Repellents