As a mom or dad, you most likely want to protect your child from the discomfort of insect bites and the more serious risk of exposure to mosquito- or tick-borne diseases. But applying insect repellent to your sweet child can be an intimidating prospect. There are so many factors to consider: your outdoor environment, the time of day you will be outside (mosquitoes bite most during early morning and evening), the length of time you will be outside (different repellents last for different lengths of time), the resources available to you, the types of repellent ingredients that work for you and your family, and even your child’s body chemistry (mosquitoes love me, but hardly touch my sister). For most parents, the ultimate goal lies in discovering the balance between limiting your child’s exposure to ingredients that you’re not comfortable with, but still keeping your child bite-free.
Regardless of what you choose, a few smart tips for any option are:
- Dress your baby in light-colored (and lightweight) clothing that covers as much of their skin as possible. Avoid bright or dark colors and floral patterns. Don’t overdress your baby to avoid bug bites, though—heat stroke is even less fun than bug bites.
- Do not apply bug spray to a baby’s hands (it will inevitably end up in their mouth).
- Avoid your child’s eyes and mouth, as well as cuts or irritated skin. To apply bug repellent to your child’s face (use discretion for this, taking into account your environment and the type of repellent you choose), spray onto your hands first and then gently wipe or pat your hands on your child’s cheeks, chin, and forehead.
- Apply repellent sparingly and only to exposed skin (not areas beneath clothing).
- Wash your child’s skin with soap and water when you return indoors.
- Although I’ve never used one, or seen one, you can also buy mosquito nets fashioned specifically to fit over strollers.
- If you’re sitting outside, try lighting citronella candles nearby.
- Do not use insect repellents on infants younger than two months.
Insect repellents fall into three main categories: repellants that contain DEET or picardin, natural repellents formulated without chemicals, and homeopathic repellents that you can make at home with a variety of essential oils.
The repellents that most reliably repel mosquitoes and ticks are those that contain DEET. A newer option is picardin, which is odorless, colorless, and has a lighter feel on the skin than DEET. The U.S. Center for Disease Control recommends picardin, but the American Academy of Pediatrics has not yet given it the official stamp of approval, pending long-term follow-up studies. According to a 2004 report published by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (The actual report can be read here: http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/consultations/deet/health-effects.html), adverse reactions to DEET are rare. Some websites report that DEET has caused neurological problems and even death in a few cases. The details of these cases, as found in the report, show that the majority of reactions occurred in response to ingestion of DEET or “heavy/frequent” applications of DEET. None occurred in response to the recommended application directions (i.e., no more than once per day and only for limited amounts of time; washed off after returning indoors). Using a repellent with DEET or picardin can be a controversial topic, but there are several ways to use it wisely.
- Never use DEET (or any repellent) on an infant that is younger than 2 months
- After two months of age, choose a repellent that’s between 10-30% DEET. Higher percentages of DEET do not indicate that the repellent is “stronger”; rather, the higher number indicates that it will last longer. For example (according to babycenter.com), a 7% DEET product will last for about two hours, while a 20% DEET product will last for up to four.
- Apply DEET-containing repellents no more than once per day.
- Don’t use sunscreen that includes DEET. Sounds like an easy way to save time, but the FDA (responsible for regulation of skincare products and drugs) encourages frequent application of sunscreen, while the EPA (responsible for regulation of insecticides) discourages re-application of DEET.
There are a number of options for DEET-free insect repellents. Most are made with a varying combination of essential oils and an ingredient such as witch hazel, rubbing alcohol, or carrier oils for ease of application. The best tip for these is to try different options and see what works for you and your family. Repellent labels are required to list appropriate age of use, but be sure not to use a repellent containing oil of lemon eucalyptus on a child that is less than three years of age.
California Baby’s Baby Bug Repellent contains essential oils of citronella, lemongrass (not the same thing as oil of lemon eucalyptus), and cedar. According to Environmental Working Group’s extensive database of products, California Baby’s repellent (http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/product/91503/California_Baby_Bug_Repellent_Spray/) has the best rating possible: 0 (very low health concern) out of 10 (containing extremely toxic ingredients). (EWG’s Skin Deep website is a great resource for information about anything you can apply to your skin or hair.) Other natural repellents with ratings of 0 are Lafe’s Organic Baby Bug Repellent and Burt’s Bees Outdoor Herbal Insect Repellent.
The final option for repelling insects is to make your own repellent. Essential oils that seem to work best are eucalyptus, lavender, citronella, geranium, clove, lemongrass, rosemary, tea tree, cajuput, catnip, and mint. I’ve read that vanilla extract worked well for at least one mother. For a base, try water, witch hazel, vegetable glycerin, a combination of the three, or something similar. Try Googling “natural bug repellent recipes” and you’ll have a wealth of options to choose from.
Good luck and happy repelling! I’m curious though: What products have you discovered that work well for you and your family?