Insect Repellent Ingredients: Are They SAFE?

Bug sprays are essential to enjoying the outdoors; especially where there’s a high mosquito population. But, have you ever wondered what’s actually in those bug sprays and insect repellents that keep mosquitos, flies, fleas and ticks from harming us by transmitting deadly diseases? And, are you concerned about how those insect repellent ingredients can affect your health after exposure as well as the environment? We’ll answer all those questions right here.

Because we’re full-time RVers, we spend the majority of our time outdoors. Whether it’s enjoying a hike, paddle and bike ride or just sitting around the campfire, we’re exposed to lots of unwelcome insects, such as mosquitos. And, they want nothing better than to ruin our outdoor experience by inflicting discomfort and diseases. That means we need a way to ward them off through the use of insect repellents and bug sprays.

But, before we start spraying, slathering on, balming, and sticking on anything that is labeled ‘insect repellent’, ‘bug spray’ or ‘mosquito repellent’, we need to first, learn about what’s actually in them.

Mosquitos are vicious and there’s no better way to prevent them off than using a good mosquito repellent that actually works. These will help protect against viruses such as Zika, West Nile, Dengue, Chikungunya, Malaria, Yellow Fever, and Encephalitis. 

Mosquito DEET-Free Insect Repellents Spray - Mosquito

However, mosquitos aren’t the only bug out there that can hurt or even try to kill us. Ticks can carry debilitating diseases such as Lyme or Rocky Mounted Spotted Fever. And fleas can transmit Typhus and the Plague to humans with one tiny bite. While that small bug bite may appear harmless, that itchy welt he leaves you with may have serious consequences days, weeks, months and even years later.

But, here’s the million dollar question. What should you be more afraid of? The diseases these injecting, biting and stinging insects can transmit OR the actual ingredients found in these insect repellents and bug sprays?

Insect Repellent Ingredients-3

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Concerned About Insect Repellent Ingredients? Are they SAFE?

Through countless studies, scientists and chemists have formulated ways to prevent mosquitos and some insects from landing on and hurting you through the use of chemicals.

Now, when you hear the word chemicals, your eyes may widen in deep concern if you’re health-conscious. But, in the world we live in today, the need for chemicals is important in some applications to daily life.

So, while the use of chemicals can be beneficial in these regards, it’s important to understand what these bug repellent ingredients are and how they can adversely affect our health. 

Insect Repellent Ingredients - DEET

What is DEET?

DEET or diethyltoluamide is short for the scientific chemical combination, N, N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide. For the past 50 or so years, DEET is the most common active insect repellent ingredient in insect repellents. Products containing DEET are applied to clothing or skin to provide protection from many nasty vector-borne mosquitoes, ticks, fleas, chiggers, leeches and many biting insects.

How DEET works

How DEET works is it disrupts a mosquito’s ability to detect carbon dioxide which is how they find us. Mosquitos, for example, are attracted to human smell such as perspiration.

But, DEET actually masks human smells therefore, bugs like mosquitos, ticks, and fleas find us less appetizing. Know that products containing DEET repels insects. DEET does not kill them.

Health Concerns

The U.S. EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) has approved DEET for personal topical use. But, be aware that there are health concerns around using DEET products. Those may cause irritation of the skin, rashes or allergic reactions. Also, do not spray any products containing DEET close to your eyes or you may experience irritation or other uncomfortable symptoms to the eyes.

And something I just learned, you may want to think twice about drinking alcohol while using DEET products. Especially those that have high concentrations of DEET. Alcohol in the human body may cause more of the DEET to absorbed into the skin.

So, enjoying your cocktails outdoors, you may want to think twice about spraying mosquito repellents containing DEET directly onto your skin. I guess picking one or the other is your option if you’re concerned.

Lastly, per the EPA, there have been reports of persons having respiratory conditions, neurological issues and seizures.

So, it’s best to monitor usage and always test a small area furthest from your mouth and nose as possible. Products containing DEET should not be applied more than once daily. I also suggest that after coming in from being outside, showering thoroughly to remove the product from your skin is a no-brainer.

And, DEET should never be used on children’s faces, the inside of any clothing that directly touches, on cuts, abrasions or open wounds or young children’s hands. As a matter of fact, all of those precautions should be taken no matter what age.

Other Concerns

DEET products have unpleasant odors and it’s greasy after applying. It’s also been known to damage and degrade plastics and some fabrics such as rayon, spandex and vinyl. So, those like us who have imitation leather or vinyl furniture in their RV should make certain wipe your skin off before coming into contact with it. This includes even your plastic frame eyeglasses, cellphones and cases, etc.

Check out these products containing DEET and more information about them below:

For more information regarding DEET, check out National Pesticide Information Center’s Fact Sheet on DEET.

Insect Repellent Ingredients - PICARIDIN


Picaridin is the newer kid on the block when it comes to insect repellent ingredients. While first created in the 1980’s and used in Australia and Europe, Picaridin wasn’t brought to use in the United States until 2005. Picaridin is a synthetic compound that mimics the powerful natural oils from the plants that produce black pepper. 

Since, Picaridin products have become popular in the insect repellent market because it doesn’t have a chemical odor or leave a greasy or sticky residue. It also does not damage, degrade or discolor fabrics, plastics, metals or painted substances. I guess you could say that it may have less toxic effects.

How Picaridin works

How Picaridin works, when applied according to proper instruction, is it creates an invisible barrier that repels mosquitos.

Many users have found it just as effective as bug sprays containing DEET. But considering it’s not been on the market as long as DEET, there’s still much research being done on how it affects long-term human health.

Health and Other Concerns

The EPA has determined Picaridin is okay to use on adult skin, the Center for Disease Control does not suggest use on infants. Personally, any chemical of such, I wouldn’t recommend using it on children under two years of age. And even then, with strict discretion. And Picaridin should be kept away from the eyes as it may cause slight to moderate irritation.

As of yet, because of its’ newness to the insect repellent market usage, the EPA hasn’t determined that Picaridin is a human carcinogen. That said, common sense practice and proper applications should always take precedence. 

Should you have concerns about the environment, Picaridin is found to be toxic to fish. And, if there is Picaridin present in ground water, it may affect algae and small plant growth which affects the food chain. However, it’s not toxic to birds or wildlife.

Some notable product brands containing Picardin are Repel Smart Spray, Cutter Advanced, and Sawyer Premium.

For more information regarding Picaridin, check out National Pesticide Information Center’s Fact Sheet on Picaridin.

Check out these products containing Picaridin and more information about them below:


Choosing which is better, products made with DEET or Picaridin, is like picking a football team to win the Super Bowl. All in all, it’s personal preference in which active insect repellent ingredients work for you and your family as well as health concerns. You may have to try different applications to see which insect repellents work better in different outdoor environments. But also, they may have different reactions to different mosquitos or bugs in different parts of the country or world.

If you’re undecided in which to use, DEET or Picardin, you may want to check out article: Picaridin vs DEET: Which Is the Best Insect Repellent.

Insect Repellent Ingredients - PERMETHRIN


Permethrin is an actual insecticide in the pyrethroid family. Pyrethroids are synthetic chemicals that mimic natural extracts from the chrysanthemum flower. You may recognize the chemical name as it’s found in product to eliminate and kill head lice and nits (eggs). Though Permethrin is an insecticide, it can repel mosquitoes too.

How Permethrin works

Unlike DEET and Picaridin, Permethrin works much differently as it kills insects shortly after contact instead of just making them fly away or jump off. Permethrin is highly toxic to insects as it causes paralysis and death. However, it’s safe to use around humans and pets because we are much bigger and metabolize the chemical quicker.

That said though, Permethrin is not a topical spray, lotion or cream that you apply to your skin. Allow me to repeat that.

Permethrin is an application predominently for outerwear. It’s important to not apply Permethrin to the inside of your clothing or anything that touches the skin. You should really only use it on the outer parts of clothing such as boots, trousers, outer socks, tents and backpacks.

Any products that contain Permethrin are generally used for applying on clothing for up to 6 hours. It even can offer protection even after multiple laundering.

Permethrin is NOT a topical spray for skin!

Check out these products containing Permethrin and more information about them below:

Health And Other Concerns

There are a few health concerns regarding the usage of products containing Permethrin you  should be aware of before applying.

Permethrin can cause irritation of the nose, throat and lungs. It can present symptoms like dizziness, headaches, fatigue, muscle weakness, nausea and vomiting. And repeated applications can present skin rashes and itchiness, skin redness and tingling as well as some feeling of pins and needles.

When applying permethrin, try not to get it on your skin as it could inflict an allergic reaction. And don’t allow your skin to touch others.

Thoroughly wash your skin with warm water and soap. And make certain to launder all clothing, towels, blankets and bed linens in hot water with laundry detergent before next use.

Regarding environmental impact, know that Permethrin is highly toxic to bees and other beneficial insects. It’s also highly toxic to fish and other animals that live in either salt water or fresh water habitats. However, though Permethrin is not as toxic to birds, some aerosol products containing permethrin may also contain harmful ingredients to birds should they inhale or ingest it.

For more information regarding PERMETHRIN, check out National Pesticide Information Center’s Fact Sheet on PERMETHRIN.

Mosquito DEET-Free Insect Repellents Spray

Insect Repellent Usage Tips

Do not spray insect repellents or apply any bug spray in or near your eyes, in your nose or around your mouth. We also advise not applying bug repellents to open cuts or sores.

If soap and water aren’t available, we suggest keeping a small packet of baby wipes close by to remove insect repellent ingredients or residue off of your hands and fingers.

Mosquito repellent products or bug sprays will last for the season; maybe longer when you store them properly and avoid exposing them to extreme temperatures. If you notice any change in odor or appearance or damage to any packaging, replace bug sprays, mosquito and insect repellents with a new product.

Both, DEET and Picaridin are stable chemicals. While DEET may have prescribed expiration dates listed on the personal mosquito repelling products, insect repellents containing Picaridin typically don’t expire.

Most mosquito or insect repellent sprays, balms, creams or lotions will not damage clothing, I do highly recommend washing any clothing that may have mosquito repellent residue before wearing them again.

When you’re outside, it’s best to wear long trousers, socks that cover the ankles and long sleeve shirts. According to our friends at Mosquito Joe, if you don’t want to become a mosquito’s next meal, try wearing lighter, more subdued hues such as white, pastels, light tan, khaki and light grays.

Spraying your clothing with bug repellent will help prevent mosquitos from biting through the cloth. But also, doing so helps mitigate or eliminate skin contact to the insect repellent ingredients.

Most importantly, keep all insect repellents and products containing toxic chemicals and flammable ingredients away from direct flame or campfires. And lastly, keep all insect repellents, bug sprays and any repellent products out of reach of small children. Always supervise kids and even teens when spraying or applying.

Wrapping up our insect repellent ingredients information guide

We hope all of this information and these tips help educate you on what you need to know about what and how you apply insect repellent products. Knowing what’s in them will guide you into proper application, timing and where.

Your takeaway in this article are DEET and PICARIDIN repel mosquitos, ticks, fleas and other unwanted insects. But PERMETHRIN immobilizes insects on contact not allowing them to even get a chance to bite or sting you. If used as directed by the manufacturer and the EPA, they all are safe and effective.

So, don’t hide inside your RV or tent when those pesky mosquitos come out. So, GO OUTSIDE! Enjoy the reason why you’re camping!

Insect Repellent Ingredients

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