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Your Ultimate Guide to Finding the Right Insect Repellent

Your Ultimate Guide to Finding the Right Insect Repellent

, by Aussie Pharma Direct, 14 min reading time

Insect repellents are not merely accessories for your outdoor excursions; they are essential tools for safeguarding your health and well-being. Insect bites can do more than just leave you scratching uncomfortably; they can transmit diseases that pose significant risks to human health.

In this blog post, we'll guide you through what you need to know about insect repellents, helping you understand the various types, active ingredients, and application methods so that you can choose the most suitable repellent for your specific needs and preferences.

The different types of insects that transmit diseases or cause discomfort

Before we delve into the details of choosing the right insect repellent, it's crucial to understand the enemy we're up against. Insects come in all shapes and sizes, and while many are harmless, there are those that can transmit diseases or simply make your outdoor experience less enjoyable, such as:

1. Mosquitoes

Mosquitoes are perhaps the most infamous among disease-transmitting insects with symptoms that range from mild to life-threatening. They are responsible for spreading diseases like malaria, dengue fever, Zika virus, and Ross River virus, which is prevalent in Australia, especially during the warmer months. 

2. Ticks

Ticks may be small but they have a big reputation for causing trouble. They are notorious for transmitting Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and other tick-borne illnesses. In Australia, the paralysis tick (Ixodes holocyclus) is notorious for transmitting toxins that can cause paralysis or severe allergic reactions. It's commonly found in bushland and coastal regions, and it can be relentless near water bodies. 

3. Flies

Flies, including biting midges, sandflies and the Australian bushfly (Musca vetustissima), can be a real nuisance, leaving painful bites and causing discomfort, especially if you’re in regions with wetlands, lakeshores, or coastal areas, including in rural and outback areas.

4. Ants

While ants in Australia aren't typically disease carriers, they can be relentless pests during picnics, outdoor meals, or camping trips in national parks and nature reserves. Certain species, like the aggressive bull ant, can deliver painful stings.

5. Bees and wasps

For individuals with bee or wasp allergies, the presence of these insects can be life-threatening. While repellents may not deter them, if you're allergic to bee or wasp stings, it's crucial to be cautious and aware of your surroundings, especially in areas where these insects are prevalent.

Know the active ingredients in insect repellents

  • DEET (N,N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide) - DEET is one of the most widely used active ingredients in insect repellents. It works by confusing the insect's sense of smell. DEET interferes with the insect's ability to detect carbon dioxide and lactic acid, which are chemicals emitted by humans and animals when they breathe and sweat. Without these cues, insects have difficulty locating potential hosts. 
  • Picaridin (Icaridin) - Picaridin insect repellent is another effective synthetic repellent. It creates a barrier on the skin's surface that confuses the insects' olfactory receptors, however it does not kill them. Like DEET, picaridin interferes with the insect's ability to locate and land on a human or animal host. 
  • IR3535 (Ethyl butylacetylaminopropionate) - IR3535 is a synthetic compound that disrupts an insect's ability to detect the scent of a potential host. It works by confusing the insect's odour receptors, making it difficult for them to locate and target humans or animals as a source of food.
  • Natural alternatives (Essential oils) - Many people prefer natural alternatives to synthetic repellents because of health risk concerns. Essential oils such as citronella, lemon eucalyptus, lavender, and peppermint are often used in natural insect repellents.

While natural alternatives may be preferred due to their perceived safety and eco-friendliness, their efficacy can vary, and they may need to be reapplied more frequently than synthetic repellents.

The effectiveness of different repellent ingredients

Effectiveness of insect repellents can vary depending on the type of insect being targeted and the active ingredient used.

Repellent ingredient

Effectiveness against insects

Duration of protection

Protection by concentration

Notable features

DEET (N,N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide)

Highly effective against mosquitoes, ticks, flies, gnats, and chiggers. 


Particularly known for mosquitoes and ticks.

4 to 8+ hours (varies with concentration)

- 5% DEET (about 90 minutes)


- 25% DEET (about 5 hours)

Insect repellent with DEET is preferred for regions with mosquito-borne diseases or tick exposure. 


Concentrations up to 30% available.

Picaridin (Icaridin)

Effective against mosquitoes, ticks, flies, and gnats. 


Popular alternative to DEET.

4 to 8 hours

5 -10% Picaridin

Mild odour and feel; suitable for mosquitoes in various destinations. Concentrations typically 5-20%.

IR3535 (Ethyl butylacetylaminopropionate)

Effective against mosquitoes, ticks, flies, and chiggers. 



Several hours (varies with concentration)

Based on research, products containing IR3535 could offer up to 6.5 hours protection from Culex mosquitoes

Not as well known as DEET or picaridin but still offers reliable protection against various insects.

Natural alternatives (Essential oils)

Varies by essential oil; effective against mosquitoes, midges, ticks, sand flies, or other specific insects.

1 to 4 hours (depending on oil and formulation)


Good Riddance Insect Repellents can offer up to 5 hours protection

Concentrations vary by product and essential oil

Natural, plant-based options with varying scents. 


Reapplication may be needed.

 

Safety considerations

Safety is a crucial aspect when it comes to the use of insect repellents, particularly concerning vulnerable populations such as children, pregnant individuals, and those with sensitive skin. Here are safety considerations for insect repellents and recommended concentrations for different age groups and skin types:

1. Children

Children generally have smaller body sizes and different metabolic rates compared to adults. This means that the concentration of active ingredients in repellents can have a more significant impact on a child's body relative to their weight and size, potentially increasing the risk of side effects.

Recommended concentrations:

  • For infants under 2 months - It is generally not recommended to use insect repellents on infants under 2 months old. In fact, it is advisable to avoid applying repellent directly on their skin. Instead, consider alternative methods to create a bug-free environment. Diffusing natural mosquito repellent oils, such as citronella or lavender, can help keep the area insect-free without posing any harm to the baby. Additionally, using candles infused with essential oils can serve as an excellent alternative.
  • For children 2 months to 2 years - Repellents with a low concentration of DEET (around 10% or less) or picaridin (5-10%) are often recommended. Parents should consult with a paediatrician before using synthetic repellents on infants and young children.
  • For children over 2 years - Repellents with concentrations up to 30% DEET or picaridin are typically considered safe, however, it's advisable to use the lowest effective concentration and apply it sparingly to avoid overexposure.

2. Pregnant women

Pregnant women are generally advised to minimise exposure to unnecessary chemicals during pregnancy to reduce any potential risks to the developing foetus. When applied to the skin, the chemicals from synthetic repellents can be absorbed into the bloodstream, potentially leading to systemic exposure.

Recommended concentrations:

  • Pregnant individuals can use repellents with DEET, picaridin, or IR3535 following the product's label instructions. Using lower concentrations is generally advisable, such as DEET concentrations of 15-30% or picaridin concentrations of 5-10%.
3. Those with sensitive skin:

Individuals with sensitive skin may be more prone to skin irritation or allergic reactions when using insect repellents. It's essential to choose products that are formulated to be gentle on the skin.

Recommended concentrations:

  • For those with sensitive skin, it's advisable to use repellents with lower concentrations of DEET, picaridin, or IR3535. Concentrations around 10% or lower are typically suitable. Additionally, consider using repellents that are specifically labelled as "gentle" or "sensitive skin" formulations.

Still have some worries? Your next best alternative is to use natural insect repellent

Despite the recommendations above about the concentrations for DEET use, the safest and the most reliable option for protection would be to use natural insect repellents.


Natural repellents such as that of Good Riddance Sensitive are often recommended for these vulnerable groups, such as young children, pregnant women, and those with sensitive skin, due to their perceived safety and generally milder formulations.

Environmental impact

The potential environmental impact of insect repellents, particularly when they enter water bodies, is a matter of concern due to their chemical composition and the potential harm they can cause to aquatic ecosystems.

Potential environmental impact

  • Water contamination - Insect repellents can find their way into water bodies through various means, including direct application, runoff from treated surfaces, or when washed off the skin or clothing during outdoor activities. Once in water bodies, these chemicals can accumulate and persist, potentially affecting aquatic life.
  • Toxicity to aquatic organisms - Some active ingredients commonly found in insect repellents, such as DEET and picaridin, can be toxic to aquatic organisms. These chemicals can disrupt the life cycles of aquatic insects, fish, and other species, leading to imbalances in ecosystems.

How to choose the right insect repellent for you

Choosing the right repellent for your specific needs involves considering several factors, including your destination, activity level, and personal preferences. Here's a step-by-step guide to help you make an informed decision:

1. Identify your destination and insect threats - Different regions and seasons may have varying risks

2. Consider the type and duration of outdoor activities you plan to engage in:

  • Camping or hiking - Activities involving extended time outdoors may require longer-lasting protection.
  • Outdoor sports - High-intensity activities may necessitate a repellent that can withstand sweat.
  • Casual outdoor activities - Short walks or picnics may require less robust repellency.

3. Familiarise yourself with the active ingredients in repellents and their effectiveness against specific insects

4. Think about your personal preferences and any specific concerns:

  • Sensitivity - If you have sensitive skin, opt for repellents formulated for sensitive skin or natural alternatives known for gentler ingredients.
  • Chemical-free - Some individuals prefer chemical-free or natural repellents for environmental or health reasons.
  • Fragrance - Consider the scent of the repellent; some people prefer natural aromas from essential oils.
5. Select the appropriate concentration based on your needs:
  • Low concentration - Suitable for shorter outdoor activities with minimal insect exposure.
  • Moderate concentration: Offers protection for most outdoor activities; suitable for general use.
  • High concentration - Ideal for extended outdoor adventures in areas with high insect activity or disease risk.
6. Before purchasing, read product labels for specific recommendations on usage and reapplication intervals. Additionally, check for any age restrictions or precautions for children, pregnant individuals, or those with sensitive skin.

 

7. For individuals with sensitive skin or those trying a new product, it's advisable to perform a patch test on a small area of skin before full application to check for any adverse reactions.

Enhance your protection and minimise the chances of insect encounters

Using insect repellent is undoubtedly effective in reducing the risk of insect bites, but it's important to remember that it may not be completely foolproof on its own. Combining multiple preventive measures, including using insect repellent, wearing appropriate clothing, and following the tips mentioned above, can significantly reduce your risk of insect bites and the associated health risks, especially when travelling to regions with known insect-borne diseases or high insect activity.


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