What is DEET? What You Need to Know
, by Aussie Pharma Direct, 8 min reading time
, by Aussie Pharma Direct, 8 min reading time
Insects play a vital role in ecosystems, but their presence can sometimes turn our outdoor adventures into a nightmare. Mosquitoes, ticks, flies, and other pesky bugs can not only ruin a perfectly good picnic but also pose health risks. In such moments, you might have had an insect repellent shoved to your face and you notice the word “DEET” on it. Then you might wonder what exactly DEET is, and how it shields you from those relentless insect bites.
In this post, we'll delve into what DEET is, shedding light on its history, chemical properties, mechanisms of action, effectiveness, safety considerations, and alternatives.
First things first, DEET stands for N,N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide. It's a mouthful, we know! But you can simply call it DEET. It was developed by the United States Army in the 1940s as a chemical compound to protect soldiers from insect-borne diseases during World War II. Since then, it has become the gold standard in insect repellents, widely used in both military and civilian applications.
Now, let's get a bit technical (but not too much, we promise). DEET is a synthetic compound with a chemical formula of C12H17NO known for its long-lasting effectiveness in repelling a variety of insects, including mosquitoes, ticks, and flies. It's typically a colourless or slightly yellow liquid with a faint odour.
DEET is relatively soluble in organic solvents like acetone, ethanol, and ethyl acetate, however, it is only sparingly soluble in water, which is why it is commonly formulated with other ingredients when used in insect repellent products.
It all lies in the chemical structure. Generally speaking, DEET works by masking the scents and odours that attract insects to humans. When applied to the skin or clothing, it creates a vapour barrier that confuses and repels insects. This disruption in their ability to locate and land on a potential host makes DEET an incredibly effective repellent.
DEET's chemical structure is somewhat more complex. It consists of three main parts:
Repellents containing up to 20% DEET:
For everyday outings or those moments when you're enjoying the outdoors during peak mosquito activity around dawn or dusk, products containing less than 10% DEET are your go-to option. They provide around 2 hours of protection, giving you a solid buffer against those persistent biters. If you opt for a product with 20% DEET, you can extend that protection to approximately 4-6 hours.
Repellents containing >20 - 80% DEET:
If your outdoor activity involves extended exposure to insects, like those long fishing or camping trips, products containing 40-80% DEET provide a whopping 8-12 hours of protection. But there's a catch: you should limit the use of high-DEET products to times when you'll be out for an extended period. Applying them too frequently can potentially lead to skin irritation.
Now you have also heard or read somewhere that DEET has its own set of side effects that are harmful to human health. DEET is generally considered safe when you use it as directed but there are some potential side effects and adverse reactions to be aware of.
Does DEET cause cancer?
The question of whether DEET (N,N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide) causes cancer has been a subject of research and debate. There is so far, no conclusive evidence to suggest that DEET is a human carcinogen, meaning that there is no definitive proof that DEET causes cancer in humans.
For children older than two months, it is generally considered safe to use DEET-based repellents, but it's important to choose an appropriate DEET concentration, and to not apply it more than once a day. Seizures may happen in small children who have been exposed to DEET over extended periods, particularly in high concentrations. Lower concentrations, typically less than 10%, are recommended for younger children.
For pregnant women:
DEET is generally considered safe for pregnant women when used as directed. There is no substantial evidence to suggest that DEET poses a significant risk to pregnant women or their developing babies when applied to the skin as an insect repellent.
If you have any concerns about using DEET-based insect repellent on young children or if you’re pregnant, you can explore alternative insect repellents with different active ingredients that are natural and plant-based.
If you're concerned about the potential health effects of DEET or prefer natural alternatives for insect repellent, there are several options worth considering, and one of them would be using natural insect repellents. They are derived from plant-based ingredients that have the same effect in repelling insects and are often favoured for their gentler formulations.
These natural alternatives can be a great choice for those seeking DEET-free options, however, it's essential to understand their effectiveness may vary, and they may need more frequent reapplication than synthetic repellents. Ultimately, it’s all on you to consider your specific needs and circumstances when choosing the right repellent for you.