ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s summer, aka an amazing time to have fun outdoorsÃ¢â‚¬”but super itchy bug bites are a total buzzkill. When insects start biting, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s sometimes hard to decide which is worse: dealing with the nibbles or exposing yourself to the chemicals in repellants. Which is why the Environmental Working Group (EWG) just released a guide to choosing and using bug repellants safely.
Dealing with pesky bites is one thing, but when youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re in an area where you risk picking up viruses or diseases from mosquitoes or ticks, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a whole different story. EWG researchers reviewed the existing scientific literature on repellants in order to report on which ingredients are the safest and most effective, says David Andrews, PhD, a senior scientist at EWG and one of the bug repellant researchers.
While thereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s no way to avoid getting bitten thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s both completely safe and completely effective, some of your best repellant options (i.e., the ones that are least toxic) work better than others, according to the report. Of course, you still have to be careful about how you use them, especially with kids.
The report lists four repellant ingredients that the EWG has deemed relatively safe. They include picaridin, IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus (which is botanically-based) and its synthetic derivative PMD, and DEET.
Yes, DEET. Past studies have shown that DEET has potentially harmfulÃ¢â‚¬”and totally seriousÃ¢â‚¬”side effects, such as neurological damage. But while the EWG report urges people to use DEET-based repellants with caution, it also explains that, when used correctly, DEET is actually safer than many other ingredients on the market.
Think you can just sidestep the issue by using clip-on bug repellants? Not so fast: These can contain ingredients that are more toxic than skin products, says Andrews. They also pose an inhalation hazard, according to the guide, as do repellant candles.
A few more tips before you start spraying:
Try Other Methods First Now you know which bug spray ingredients are safestÃ¢â‚¬”but that doesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t mean you should head to the drugstore this minute, pick up some bug repellant, and go to town. Your first step should be to take no-bug-spray-necessary precautions, like covering up with long sleeves and pants and using a fan to keep air moving (and keep bugs away), says Andrews. And instead of lighting a repelling candle, consider setting up a net around outdoor eating areas.
Double-Check the Bottle Remember: Just because the EWG found picaridin, IR3535, DEET, and oil of lemon eucalyptus/PMD relatively safe doesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t mean any product containing them is OK to use. YouÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll want to check the concentration of those active ingredients, too. Once a concentration reaches a certain point (30 percent with DEET, for example), a higher one isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t likely to be more effective and will only expose you to more of the chemical than is necessary, says Andrews. (Check out the EWG guide for the specifics on particular ingredients.)
You should also make sure to follow the bottleÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s instructions on application and reapplication to limit your exposure, says Andrews. ThatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s why itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s smart to avoid hybrid repellant-sunscreens: Since SPF needs to be applied more frequently, youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll end up overdoing it on the repellant, he says. And always wash your hands after applying repellant so you donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t accidentally consume some bug spray later.
Remember: Bug Spray IsnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t One Size Fits All Andrews also suggests consulting the EWG guide to find out which repellant is your best bet for a particular situationÃ¢â‚¬”for example, if youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re heading outdoors for a short time, you might want to use a different spray than if you were traveling out of the country, taking a camping trip, or spending time in area in which West Nile virus or tick-born illnesses are prevalent. Remember that the guidelines are different for kids and pregnant women, too, so you should look those up separately if they apply to you or your family.
One more important note: There are concerns about ongoing, repetitive use of the recommended ingredients, says Andrews, so talk to your doctor if you think you might need to use a repellant on a regular basis.
photo: Maridav/Shutterstock More from Women's Health:
Travel Tips for Your Health
The Best Ways to Soothe Summer Bug Bites
Common Insect Bites and How to Recognize Them