Should you use DEET on kids?

Disclaimer: This post does not constitute medical advise but is a summary of information gathered from the EPA, The American Associate of Pediatrics, CDC, and the National Pesticide Information Center.  This information was gathered through publically available information (referenced below) on the topic of DEET as it pertains to application both on adults and children.  

Each year, as I gather my camping, hiking, and climbing supplies, I struggle with the question of whether or not I should bring along “serious” bug repellent or if I should stick to the more “natural” stuff that may or may not do its job.  In my mind, the serious stuff has DEET in it – and my perception is that DEET is bad.  The alternative – the natural stuff – usually smells better but doesn’t always keep the nasty biters away.

So this year I decided to really do some research to find out.  What exactly do the pediatricians recommend for children and what are the truths behind the usage and effectiveness of insect repellents?  After a quick search on the standard government research sites and the AAP website, here are some of the basics:

1.  The EPA has tested the efficacy of multiple bug repellent chemicals. . .DEET, Picaridin, Permethrin, and Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus.  Other products/ingredients work to a lesser degree. These are by far the most effective. DEET, Picaridin & Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus are the most effective/tested.  Permethrin should only be used on clothes not skin and soy bean oil works but is less effective.

2. Bug repellants containing DEET are similar to sunscreen – the higher the concentration of DEET (like the number on sunscreen), the longer it lasts. Use products with less than 30% DEET as more than that has not been proven more effective.  The CDC explains it best:

DEET is an effective active ingredient found in many repellent products and in a variety of formulations. Based on a 2002 study (Fradin and Day, 2002. See Publications page.):

• A product containing 23.8% DEET provided an average of 5 hours of protection from mosquito bites. 
• A product containing 20% DEET provided almost 4 hours of protection 
• A product with 6.65% DEET provided almost 2 hours of protection 
• Products with 4.75% DEET were both able to provide roughly 1 and a half hour of protection.

Picaridin has similar numbers but for slightly less time, though effectiveness on ticks is higher at a lower concentration.  It is also odorless and has some evidence of being less of an irritant than DEET.

3.  Bug repellent (any bug repellent) should not be used on infants 2 months or younger.  No definitive studies identify what higher levels of DEET are safe to use on children so stick to that under 30% level. Here’s the full “insect repellent” write up from the American Association of Pediatrics.  Here are some of the scientific tests results for those readers that are chemists/researchers.  The CDC says not to use Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus on children under 3, but I’m not sure of the source for their recommendation. . . DEET ok, but Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus, not? The AAP doesn’t say anything about a minimum age for Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus in their original piece or their follow up.  Odd.  



  • Apply sunscreen then repellent, in that order. Do not use products that combine the two because you often need to reapply sunscreen (after swimming for example) and should not be reapplying bug repellent as often (or at all according to CDC).  
  • Do not combine different types of repellents as they may have other side effects when combined.
  • To apply on children, first apply the repellent to your hands, then apply onto your child’s face & exposed skin (avoid mouth area).  
  • Apply on clothes when possible.  
  • Do not apply on children’s hands, cuts or open wounds. 
  • Shower/wash to remove each evening.   


Here are some links to help you choose:

US EPA  Site: Search for a repellant that is right for you

Appalachian Mountain Club debate DEET vs Picaridin

Another blog post from Fodor’s on DEET vs Picaridin

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About Laura Boniello Miller

Laura Miller is a internet marketing professional and a mother of two. Her interests include sport climbing, bouldering, reading, traveling, and spending time with her family. She believes that playing outdoors is integral to health and well being, and that if your kids aren't dirty, they haven't had enough fun.


  1. Lauren says:

    Thanks for all the great info. I, too, am anti-deet…as I have seen what it can do to a plastic gps screen. This makes me a little leery of it's long term affects on my skin, among other things. Being an avid outdoors person and long term field person (with twins on the way), I am trying to prepare us to continue to enjoy both our work and playtime in the great outdoors once the twins arrive. I have been a firm believer in the use of clothing (despite how hot and uncomfortable it can be.) I love my head net and I have been known to hike with layers and a coat when the mosquitoes and no-see-ums are especially bad. Not the most efficient or comfortable…but definitely effective. Cheers, L