Should You Switch to a DEET-Free Bug Spray?

DEET-Free Bug Sprays - bug jacket

With our short summers, not even mosquitos, black flies, deer flies, and ticks can keep me from enjoying warm evenings by the campfire. I’ve been avoiding DEET, but only based on a general understanding that it’s toxic. How bad is it? And if you should avoid it, what is a DEET-free bug spray that works?

Here’s my breakdown on DEET and some alternatives, looking at findings from regulators and environmental groups.

What is DEET?

DEET is a synthetic chemical pesticide that is believed to prevent bugs from smelling us (though it seems we haven’t quite figured out the details). It was developed in 1946 by the US army.

Is DEET Toxic?

What the Regulators Say

The US EPA reviewed studies submitted by DEET producers and have not identified any risks to human health or the environment, when used as directed (2002, 2014). Health Canada’s last review in 2002 came to the same conclusion.

The EPA classifies DEET as “slightly toxic” – one step above “practically non-toxic”. Some studies have linked seizures in children to DEET, but the EPA maintains that there is insufficient evidence to substantiate the link.

The US Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry indicates studies of very small sample sizes which potentially connect DEET exposure to seizures, illnesses among Gulf War veterans, skin reactions, dizziness, headaches, and nausea. Studies on 3 women found birth defects linked to DEET, but another study of 900 women found no adverse effects.

Use recommendations from Health Canada include “wash treated skin with soap and water… when protection is no longer needed.” (My question: how often do you think this happens after a few drinks around the campfire, when protection is most likely needed?) They also have maximum concentration guidelines:

  • “adults and children older than 12 years old is up to 30%
  • children aged 2 to 12 years is up to 10%
    • you can apply the product up to 3 times daily
  • children aged 6 months to 2 years old is up to 10%
    • you should not apply the product more than once a day.

For children younger than 12 years old, do not use a DEET product on a daily basis for more than a month.

For infants younger than 6 months old, do not use an insect repellent containing DEET. Instead, use a mosquito net when babies are outdoors in a crib or stroller.”

What the Environmental Groups Say

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) came to the surprising conclusion that DEET is among their top choices for insect repellant.

Canada’s Environmental Defence recommends DEET not be used on children, and nobody should use concentrations greater than 30%. (Note that increased concentrations don’t increase efficacy, but higher concentrations don’t have to be applied as frequently.)

DEET Alternatives

Other than avoiding the outdoors, you can use preventative measures to reduce the amount of repellent you need to apply – wear light coloured clothing and remove standing water from your yard. Or go all-out and get an ever-so-stylish bug suit (yes, I’m modelling one in the image for this blog!).

When you need repellent, it’s important to consider what insect you need protection from, as repellents may not be effective on all bugs. In EWG’s review, oil of lemon eucalyptus came out on top for botanical options, but can’t be used on children under 3. Environmental Defence also suggests soybean oil.

DEET-alternatives suggested by Health Canada are P-menthane 3,8-diol (related oil of lemon eucalyptus, not for children under 3), soybean oil, and citronella oil (not for infants or toddlers).

Other chemicals (Icaridin and IR3535) are available but more widely in the US. Icaridin (aka Picaridin) is approved by Health Canada and seems to be less of an irritant than DEET, but as it has not been on the market as long there are fewer studies.

There are several products with combinations of oils that get good reviews (though not tested like those registered by Health Canada). Check your local or online health/wellness shop –  you may have to look for products labelled as “Outdoors Spray” or “Nature Spray” rather than the more obvious “insect repellent.”

I’m a little less scared of DEET now, but I still don’t have much interest in using it on me, let alone my kids (maybe unless we’re somewhere with more significant insect-borne disease concerns).

DEET-Free Bug Spray Options

Here are some DEET-free bug sprays to consider:

PiActive – Active ingredient is Icaridin

Natrapel – Uses oil of lemon eucalyptus as the active ingredient (I’m waiting to hear back from them on the other ingredients as they aren’t listed).

Take a Hike – An essential oil + aloe vera based spray that looks similar to one I love but has been discontinued. I haven’t tried this, but might be my next attempt after I run out of what we have.


If you’re looking for more less-toxic product alternatives for your body and home, come on over to the Green Product Forum Facebook Group! And if you have a favourite bug spray, I’d love to hear what it is when you join!

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