Are insect repellent and sunscreen a bad combination?

Insect Repellent/Sunscreen Combos

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].

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 below.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • "Wrinkles Prevention." ADAM/New York Times. Dec. 30, 2008.
  • American Mosquito Control Association. "Frequently Asked Questions."
  • Fradin, Mark S. "Mosquitoes and Mosquito Repellents: A Clinician's Guide." Annals of Internal Medicine. June 1, 1998.
  • Graedon, Joe and Graedon, Teresa. "Which first, insect repellent or sunscreen?" Los Angeles Times. The People's Pharmacy. Aug. 24, 2009.,0,7106754.column
  • Illinois Department of Public Health. "DEET Insect Repellents." March 28, 2007.
  • Sutton, Rebecca. "CDC: Americans Carry Body Burden of Toxic Sunscreen Chemical." Environmental Working Group. March 2008.
  • Tugend, Alina. "A Mosquito Magnet Looks for Relief." New York Times. June 10, 2006.
  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (FDA). "Beware of Bug Bites and Stings." June 19, 2008.
  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (FDA). "Insect Repellent Use and Safety in Children." April 30, 2009.

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