Are insect repellents safe for kids?

Kid-friendly Insect Repellents
Citronella grass and lemongrass (shown) are closely related and often confused for one another. They do share the commonality of being ineffective at keeping mosquitoes away from humans, however.
Citronella grass and lemongrass (shown) are closely related and often confused for one another. They do share the commonality of being ineffective at keeping mosquitoes away from humans, however.

After a federally mandated safety review of DEET was completed in 1998, the chemical was cleared and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and other agencies issued opinions that DEET in recommended doses is safe for children. These haven't settled all parents' concerns, however. So manufacturers have created bug sprays that are marketed as kid friendly.

Perhaps because of the popular backlash against synthetic chemicals in consumer products, the overwhelming majority of these products contain mostly natural ingredients. Unfortunately, in a test of 18 commercially available insect repellents, Consumer Reports determined that most of the botanical-based products were "middling or worse" at repelling mosquitoes [source: Consumer Reports]. Naturopathic repellents like citronella oil -- extracted from a perennial grass native to Asia -- peppermint oil and catnip have been shown to be far less effective at warding off mosquitoes than DEET.

All is not lost for parents who want to protect their kids using synthetic chemical-free repellents. Two botanical ingredients have proven their worth in bug sprays.

First up is soybean oil. Not only is this ingredient safe for use in cooking and as an ingredient in foods, it works as an effective mosquito repellent as well. Clinical studies have found that bug sprays containing a 2 percent concentration of soybean oil prevented mosquitoes from biting for between 1.5 and 7.3 hours, depending on the study [source: Cox]. That's as effective as low concentrations of DEET.

Another contender for best botanical insect repellent ingredient is geraniol, a naturally occurring alcohol found in a number of essential plant oils. Though it's found in extracts that have proven unreliable in combating mosquitoes, it appears that removing it from oils like citronella make geraniol much more effective in repelling insects. There is one big drawback: Geraniol has been found to act as a skin irritant, which makes it a flawed, though effective, mosquito repellent [source: Cox].

The predominant botanical ingredient found in DEET alternatives is lemon eucalyptus oil. The ingredient is also known by its chemical name, PMD. Tests of PMD show that it's capable of preventing mosquito bites for around two hours after an application, which puts it on par with about 7 percent concentration DEET in effectiveness [source: Rutledge and Day].

Ironically, while the American Academy of Pediatrics considers DEET safe, it has yet to issue an opinion on the safety of lemon eucalyptus oil-based insect repellents for children because of dearth of studies on it [source: CDC]. The CDC warns against using it on kids under age 3 [source: WebMD].

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