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Are insect repellent and sunscreen a bad combination?

Phil Bethell sprays on mosquito repellent during a stop at the Greenwood, La., tourist center in 2002. If he were using sunscreen and repellent, it would be a good idea to apply the sunscreen first (and reapply it later).
Phil Bethell sprays on mosquito repellent during a stop at the Greenwood, La., tourist center in 2002. If he were using sunscreen and repellent, it would be a good idea to apply the sunscreen first (and reapply it later).
Mario Villafuerte/Getty Images

If you spend time outside, especially in warm weather, you may find yourself needing both insect repellent and sunscreen. We know that sunscreens are safe for everyday use, but the issue becomes thornier when mixing repellent and sunscreen.

In general, you can use insect repellent and sunscreen together. It's best to apply sunscreen before repellent. That's in part because repellent should be applied less generously than sunscreen.

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Don't put repellent on your face or on babies. Instead, spray it on other parts of your body and even your clothes, though not on skin that's covered by clothing. Be careful of spraying it near cuts and on your hands, which can lead to it spreading to sensitive areas, like your eyes or nose.

The repellent should contain instructions for application, and it's important not to stray from them. You should also wash off the repellent after you're done with your outdoor activities.

Many insect repellents contain DEET, which has been controversial in the past, but it is safe to use in small doses, such as repellents containing 10 percent to 25 percent DEET [source: Illinois Department of Health]. DEET works by confusing insects' sensors, preventing them from landing and biting (although they may still be seen nearby). Children, especially small children, should avoid repellents with greater than 10 percent DEET.

In general, you shouldn't suffer any negative effects from reapplying sunscreen. In fact, it might be necessary if using it in tandem with repellent. But insect repellent should not be reapplied more than instructed, particularly if it contains DEET.

Now let's look at combination insect repellents/sunscreens.

Many of the big outdoor products companies, like BullFrog and Coppertone, sell combination insect repellent/sunscreen products. These lotions may be suitable for shorter periods spent outside. But they may cause some complications, as we'll soon discuss.

It's safe to use these combination products once, but it's better to reapply with a sunscreen-only product so as not to increase your exposure to DEET. Also, sunscreen containing oxybenzone, a common ingredient, can enhance the skin's absorption of DEET, something you should avoid [source: Graedon and Graedon]. Following some studies, oxybenzone has been connected with cell damage, hormone disruption and other problems [source: Sutton]. And insect repellent can reduce a sunscreen's sun protection factor, or SPF, by 33 percent [source: A.D.A.M./New York Times].

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DEET alternatives, such as products containing various plant oils, do exist, but they're generally less effective [source: Fradin]. Picaridin and oil of lemon eucalyptus are considered to be among the better DEET alternatives, but young children shouldn't use repellents containing oil of lemon eucalyptus [source: Tugend].

You don't need insect repellent to avoid bugs. Being indoors or sitting on a screened patio can protect you, as can malaria bed nets if you're sleeping in a mosquito-prone area. Even a fan can be sufficient to deflect mosquitoes. Long sleeves, pants and a hat also help, as can avoiding wearing brightly colored clothing. In addition, consider altering your outdoor activity to avoid peak mosquito feeding times -- around sunrise and sunset.

Finally, you can also use permethrin or buy clothing pretreated with it. Permethrin is a pesticide used to treat clothing and should only be used in areas where disease-carrying insects are plentiful. Do not put permethrin directly on your skin. The Illinois Department of Health recommends permethrin for use against ticks [source: Illinois Department of Health].

If you use an insect repellent, take a shower afterward so that it doesn't linger on the body. And wash any clothes to which you applied repellent or permethrin.

For more information about staying safe outdoors, look over the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

Sources

  • "Wrinkles Prevention." ADAM/New York Times. Dec. 30, 2008.http://health.nytimes.com/health/guides/symptoms/wrinkles/prevention.html
  • American Mosquito Control Association. "Frequently Asked Questions."http://www.mosquito.org/mosquito-information/faq.aspx
  • Fradin, Mark S. "Mosquitoes and Mosquito Repellents: A Clinician's Guide." Annals of Internal Medicine. June 1, 1998. http://www.annals.org/cgi/content/full/128/11/931
  • Graedon, Joe and Graedon, Teresa. "Which first, insect repellent or sunscreen?" Los Angeles Times. The People's Pharmacy. Aug. 24, 2009. http://www.latimes.com/features/health/la-he-pharmacy24-2009aug24,0,7106754.column
  • Illinois Department of Public Health. "DEET Insect Repellents." March 28, 2007. http://www.idph.state.il.us/envhealth/deetfacts.htm
  • Sutton, Rebecca. "CDC: Americans Carry Body Burden of Toxic Sunscreen Chemical." Environmental Working Group. March 2008.http://www.ewg.org/analysis/toxicsunscreen
  • Tugend, Alina. "A Mosquito Magnet Looks for Relief." New York Times. June 10, 2006. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/10/business/10shortcuts.html
  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (FDA). "Beware of Bug Bites and Stings." June 19, 2008. http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm048022.htm
  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (FDA). "Insect Repellent Use and Safety in Children." April 30, 2009. http://www.fda.gov/Drugs/EmergencyPreparedness/ucm085277.htm

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