How DEET Works

Using DEET Safely

Some researchers have even tied DEET to the mysterious Gulf War Illness suffered by ­many veterans of the 1991 war. Numerous soldiers reported symptoms­ like chronic fatigue, headaches, dizziness, loss of muscle control, memory issues, and muscle and joint pain. Studies in the mid-1990s showed that a combination of pesticides, including DEET, and an anti-nerve gas agent caused similar symptoms when tested on animals and insects [source: Waters].

That said, you're probably wondering how you can use DEET safely. DEET is an important weapon in the fight against mosquito- and tick-borne illnesses, so it's definitely got its value -- you just have to make sure you use it according to the label's directions. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires companies to list precautions on their product labels. These labels provide important information on how to handle and apply the product. The following are some general guidelines about using products that contain DEET:


  • Don't use any product that has DEET and sunscreen mixed together. Unlike DEET, sunscreen requires frequent reapplication. DEET doesn't wear off as quickly as sunscreen, so you could end up with unsafe amounts of DEET on your skin.
  • Apply DEET only to exposed skin and/or clothing. Don't put DEET on skin that will be covered by clothing -- this will cause your skin to absorb the DEET.
  • Don't use DEET on any open wounds or rashes.
  • Keep DEET out of your eyes, mouth and ears.
  • Don't spray it directly on your face.
  • Avoid inhaling it.
  • Don't apply DEET near food or use it in enclosed areas.
  • Apply DEET in a thin layer -- just enough to cover your exposed skin. Avoid heavy application or oversaturation.
  • Once you return indoors, make sure you wash off the DEET with soap and water. It's especially important to do this if you plan to reapply the DEET later or the next day.

After reading all this, you might be wondering if DEET is worth the risk. But studies suggest that DEET is still the most effective insect repellent available [source: New York Times]. If you take into account diseases like malaria, West Nile or yellow fever, the benefits of DEET far outweigh the risks. But it's up to you to weigh the facts and make your own decision.