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The ABCs of insect repellents

Being “eaten by mosquitoes” is an unpleasant experience, regardless of your age. The first line of defense is therefore to protect yourself with physical barriers. A mosquito net is ideal for babies and young children in strollers or who are placed to play at a specific location at a park. Take the time to adjust it properly and inspect it regularly to detect any openings or tears that could allow an insect to pass through.

How to protect yourself from insect bites

It is recommended to wear long, loose, light-coloured clothing. Avoid tight-fitting clothes because mosquitoes are often able to bite through the fabric into the skin. Mosquitoes are less attracted to lighter colors, and are also easier to spot on them, and therefore can be swatted off more quickly.

Forget being fashionable and adopt the new anti-mosquito trend: tuck your pant legs into your socks and your shirt into your pants, because mosquitoes can easily sneak under loose garments!

Experts also recommend staying inside in the morning and at the end of the day, times when mosquitoes are often most active, but this isn’t always possible and some biting insects are active all day!

How to choose the right insect repellent

Despite these measures, sometimes an additional line of defense is welcome. You can then use an insect repellent. This is a product that keeps insects away from you for a while to prevent them from biting. They are generally available as a spray, cream, lotion or gel for application onto the skin (and sometimes to clothing).

DEET

DEET is probably the best-known insect repellent that is applied to the skin. The duration of its repellent effect increases with the product’s concentration: a product that contains 30% DEET will repel for a longer duration (approximately 6.5 hours) than a product that contains 10% (approximately 3 hours). Therefore, more concentrated products are recommended for people 12 years of age or older, as their longer effect means that they do not have to be reapplied often. For children under 12, the following guidelines should be followed:

  • Children aged 2 to 12 years: Use a product with a DEET concentration not exceeding 10%, and limit the number of applications to three per day.
  • Children aged 6 months to 2 years: Use a product with a DEET concentration not exceeding 10%, and limit the number of applications to one per day.
  • Babies under 6 months: All products containing DEET are not recommended.

Since a product containing 10% DEET will only have a short-term effect, young children will not be protected for as long a duration as adults using this product. What other options are available to them?

Icaridin

Icaridin (also called picaridin) is an insect repellent whose effectiveness and health safety are recognized by the World Health Organization. Like DEET, the duration of its repellent effect is longer with higher concentrations. The duration of protection for 20% icaridin is estimated to be similar to that for 30% DEET. In Canada, 20% icaridin products can be used from the age of six months. The Canadian Pediatric Society recommends these repellents as the first choice for children 6 months to 12 years of age.

Soybean oil

Soybean oil, lemon eucalyptus oil and lemongrass are other repellents available in Canada. They are not as effective as DEET and icaridin. Lemongrass products have a very short-lasting effect (about 30 to 120 minutes) and eucalyptus oil is not recommended for children 3 years of age or younger. Some people consider these insect repellents to be safer because they come from "natural products", but as with any product applied to the skin (whether insect repellent or other), some people have a low tolerance for them, including redness and itching at the site of application.

How to properly apply insect repellent

Regardless of the product chosen, you must follow its rules for application:

  • Apply a thin layer of repellent to all exposed skin. With young children, it is recommended to avoid applying in on the hands, because they risk getting the product into their eyes or mouth.
  • Never apply repellents near your eyes or mouth and avoid using aerosol or pump products on your face.
  • Apply aerosol products outdoors or in a well-ventilated area, away from food.
  • Some aerosol repellents can be sprayed onto clothes or mosquito nets.
  • Before applying a repellent, make sure the skin is healthy (e.g., no cuts, scratches, skin conditions like eczema or sunburn).
  • If you also need sunscreen, apply it first and wait about 20 minutes before applying the repellent. Avoid products containing both sunscreen and repellents.

Beware of allergic reactions

Repellents repel mosquitoes and some may repel ticks, but they offer no protection against bites from wasps or other biting insects that can cause a severe allergic reaction. People with allergies should always carry at least two devices with them to inject epinephrine (e.g.,  Epipentm, Allerjecttm) , especially if the nearest hospital is more than fifteen minutes away1.

Age groupType of repellentProtection timeAdvice
Children under 6 monthsNoneNALong clothing + mosquito netting on stroller or crib
Children age 6 months to 2 years
Product with 20% icaridin or less7 hours or lessApply according to the length of exposure
Product with 10% DEET or less3 hours or lessApply up to once a day
Product with lemon eucalyptus2 hours or lessAvoid
Children age 2 to 12 years
Product with 20% icaridin or less7 hours or lessApply according to the length of exposure
Product with 10% DEET or less3 hours or lessApply up to 3 times a day
Eucalyptus citron2h ours or lessAvoid on children age 3 and under
Apply up to twice a day
Individuals 12 and older
Product with 20% icaridin or less7 hours or lessApply according to the length of exposure
DEET 10 % ou moins3 hours or less
Eucalyptus citron2 hours or lessApply up to twice a day
Pregnant or nursing women
Product with 20% icaridin or less7 hours or lessApply up to twice a day
Product with 20% to 30% DEET6 hours or less

1 https://www.cps.ca/en/documents/position/preventing-mosquito-and-tick-bites

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