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Common Ingredient in Insect Repellant Can Damage Your Brain


Summertime in the United States means barefoot walks through the park, late-day bike rides with your kids, hikes through the forest preservers, and, of course, barbecues. Unfortunately, all of this outdoor fun can become unbearable if mosquitoes, ants, ticks or other insects set their sights on your arms and legs.

insect repellant

Up to one-third of the U.S. population uses DEET-containing insect repellants.

So it's not hard to understand why every year 100 million Americans use insect repellants to keep bugs away while they enjoy the great outdoors.

What you may not know is that the active chemical ingredient in most insect repellents available in the United States -- DEET -- may be harmful to your health.

DEET May Damage Your Brain

According to Duke University Medical Center pharmacologist Mohamed Abou-Donia -- who has three decades of experience researching pesticides -- DEET can impair parts of your brain.

When rats were treated with a dose of DEET equivalent to an average human dose, they had trouble with:

  • Muscle control

  • Strength

  • Coordination

With heavier use, Abou-Donia says, humans may experience:

  • Memory loss

  • Headache

  • Weakness and fatigue

  • Muscle and joint pain

  • Tremors and shortness of breath

The most severe damage comes from using DEET with other pesticides such as permethrin, or when using the chemical for extended or frequent time periods. And symptoms may not appear for months or even years.

You can read more about the various health effects DEET has on humans at the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

A Warning if You Use Insect Repellants AND Sunscreen

insect repellants and children infants

You should not use DEET-containing insect repellants on babies and infants, as their still-developing nervous systems are more susceptible to damage.

Numerous companies have come out with products that offer the "convenience" of insect repellant and sunscreen in one bottle. Well, several studies have found that mixing DEET with sunscreen increases your body's absorption of DEET. Also problematic is the fact that sunscreens are often reapplied, which would mean that the DEET is also being reapplied frequently.

Even using the products separately may be a concern, as Canadian researchers found that spraying on DEET, and then rubbing on sunscreen, increased DEET absorption the most.

What Can You do to Protect Yourself and Your Family?

To start, you can consider avoiding all insect repellants that contain DEET. There are others on the market that use only natural essential oils to repel insects, and these do not pose the potential to harm the environment or your health.

All-Natural Flea 'n Tick B Gone is an ideal alternative because it's an enzyme-based formula made naturally from plant resources that you can use as an entirely non-toxic, insect repellant for your backyard. Just mist the area and you'll be tick- and bug-free for at least three hours!

Flea 'n Tick B GoneAll-Natural Flea 'n Tick B Gone repels insects from your backyard using only natural plant resources; it contains NO DEET.

If you do decide to use insect repellants that contain DEET, look for those with the lowest concentrations (no more than 30 percent) and follow these precautions from Duke University:

  • Use insecticides containing DEET sparingly and infrequently.

  • If possible, spray it on your clothing instead of your skin.

  • If you do use it on your skin, avoid wearing it for prolonged periods of time.

  • Be wary of using insect repellant containing DEET on children. Children are more susceptible to subtle brain changes caused by chemicals in their environment and their still-developing nervous systems are more potently affected.

  • NEVER use insect repellant containing DEET on infants or babies.

  • Be aware that DEET can be present in commonly used preparations like insecticide-based lice-killing shampoos. Lice B Gone is an all-natural alternative.

  • Do not combine insecticides with each other or use them while using other medications. Even an over-the-counter medication could interact with DEET to cause toxic side effects.

  • Do not spray your yard for insects and then take medications afterward. There is a possibility that you've inhaled a small amount of the insecticide that might interact negatively with the medication.

  • Be sure to wash your skin thoroughly after spraying your yard. Lawn treatment chemicals are very strong and were not formulated to be applied to human skin.

Recommended Reading

DEET in Your Drinking Water? What Everyone Needs to Know

Why Babies Conceived in Summer Don't Do as Well in School


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