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Is Bug Spray Safe for Baby and Toddlers?

Insect repellent spray to her motherDr. Amy and the Baby Pibu team share what bugs sprays and insect repellent are all about- what they are made of, how to apply it, and other safety tips. So, is bug spray safe for baby and toddlers? The short answer is – yes. Remember that bugs such as mosquitos and ticks carry diseases that can impact our health. Such mosquito-borne and tick-borne diseases include Zika Virus, West Nile Virus, encephalitis, malaria, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and Lyme disease. Studies have shown that DEET, a common ingredient used to repel these insects, can help prevent and ward off these diseases.

Per the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Environmental Protection Agency EPA), insect repellents with DEET, picardin or IR3535 can be used in children 2 months old and older.

  • DEET, also known as N,N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide, is one of the most active – and well-known – ingredients in bug spray or insect repellent. This chemical is a great defense against biting insects, and according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, is safe to use on children two months and older. The concentration doesn’t affect the potency of the product but how long it lasts. A 10% concentration offers about 2 hours of protection. For your baby or toddler, you want to choose a product that has a DEET concentration less than 30%; something in the 10-20% range should work well. Anything higher than 30% is too much for your child. Plan to apply products with DEET once a day and avoid repeated applications to limit exposure.
  • DEET Alternatives: While DEET is considered the best solution against biting insects, there are other options available – repellents containing chemicals such as picardin and pemethrin. Picardin was developed and introduced into the European market first. In 2005, the CDC recommended picardin as something that worked as well, similar to a low-dose DEET product. Picardin has been available in the U.S. since 2005. Maximum concentration of Picardin is 20% and it can last up to 8 hours. Pemethrin, for example, kills ticks on contact but isn’t recommended for applying to skin. Rather, it’s best used on clothing or tents and camping gear.
  • Natural repellents: For parents who prefer to go DEET and chemical-free, there are natural products available. You can find repellents made with lemongrass, eucalyptus, citronella, cedarwood and other natural oils. Often, these products are not as strong, so reapplication may be needed. None of the natural oil remedies are recommended for children under 2 months, and oil of lemon eucalyptus (known as P-methane diol or PMD), a plant-based repellent, shouldn’t be used on children 3 years and under. As with any product, even if it’s natural, always check for ingredients and age restrictions.
  • How to apply? You want to be careful when applying any type of insect repellent. Do it in an open area (for example, not in your car before you get to the park) so not as much is inhaled by you or your child; likewise, don’t apply near food. You want to lightly cover your child’s clothing and exposed skin, but never spray into your child’s face and avoid any cuts or skin irritations. Instead, apply a bit on your hands and dab on your child’s face. Unlike sunscreen, you shouldn’t reapply, nor should you spray any repellent under your child’s clothes. Finally, it’s best not to mix bug sprays or repellents with sunscreen. Sunscreen calls for reapplication while repellent should not, and it is thought that ingredients such as DEET can lower the effectiveness of sunscreen. If you use both, it is recommended that the sunscreen is applied first and then the insect repellent.
  • Make sure you wash it off when you come inside. When you and your child come inside again, change his clothes, putting his outside outfit in the laundry, and it’s always a good idea to bathe him with soap so the repellent doesn’t linger. You wouldn’t want your child sitting around with sunscreen on their skin; follow the same guidelines for insect repellent.
  • Other tips to ward off the bugs: Aside from repellents, there are other things you can do to help your child avoid these less-than-friendly friends. For example, dress your child in loose-fitting, light-colored clothing when playing outside; bright colors and large prints are more likely to attract insects. Have your child wear socks and shoes instead of sandals, which protect him from possibly stepping on biting insects. And, avoid scented lotions or fragrances as those can attract bugs. Finally, if your child is prone to insect bites, you may want to avoid areas like gardens or creeks where bugs like to hang out and try to stay inside in the early morning and dusk hours when bugs are the most annoying.

One last reminder is to check the labels and read the active ingredients to make sure you are using the right product on your child.

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