The rain, rain, rain that we’ve experienced in New Jersey this summer has been quite a hassle for several reasons. One of those reasons is an even peskier than usual number of mosquitoes. I’ll usually allow myself a few mosquito bites rather than put on bug repellent, but this year, I’ve sprayed myself down a few times.

The Environmental Working Group has released a review of common bug spray ingredients that focuses on the efficacy and safety of each. Often the EWGs reviews target specific products, like with their sunscreen guides or their pesticides on produce guides. They advise which brands or products are safest to use or eat.

EWG’s Guide to Bug Repellents is different. They started with the premise that when it comes to bugs, no repellent is right every time. They also took into consideration that preventing illnesses caused by bug bites like West Nile Virus and Lyme disease may sometimes warrant the use of bug repellents.

They spent 18 months finding the answer to the question, “What are the safest and most effective ways to prevent bug bites and the diseases they may transmit?”

There’s an Avoiding Bug Bites tip sheet that summarizes the most useful information. The sheet starts with “As your first line of defense, cover up with long pants and sleeves,” and moves on to advice about bug repellents when long clothing* just isn’t enough. It then gives quick guidelines for what are the best ingredients to use when you’ll have short or long term exposure to bugs, combating getting bitten by bugs that carry specific diseases, and a warning against using any bug repellent on infants 6 months and younger.

The conclusions they came to in their fact-finding investigation at times surprised even them. Here’s how they sum up their findings.

  • The bad news: There's no sure, completely safe way to prevent bug bites. All bug repellents have pros and cons. 
  • The good news: Some repellents are effective and relatively low in toxicity, provided you take precautions when using them, particularly on children.
  • The surprising news: Among the four repellent chemicals EWG found to be top picks is DEET, which is widely used but much maligned. DEET's safety profile is better than many people assume. Its effectiveness at preventing bites is approached by only a few other repellent ingredients. As they explain: "DEET isn't a perfect choice nor the only choice. But weighed against the consequences of Lyme disease and West Nile virus, we believe it is a reasonable one."
For specific details from the review, you can click on the parts of the review with the information you’re looking for.
* Just a personal anecdote. This past July 4, I had on long jeans in a very light material that I rolled up a bit at the ankles. I used bug repellent on my feet and ankles. They were fine. My right upper thigh however had six or seven bites surrounded by a huge bruise. I had gotten bitten right through my jeans. Sometimes even in your own yard, long clothing won’t be enough if the bugs are bad enough. 


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Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.

Environmental Working Group's guide to bug spray ingredients
This EWG guide explains the common ingredients in bug sprays and gives lots of informational tips on which ingredients are most effective in various situations.