Should Babies Wear Insect Repellent?


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Dec 03, 2023

Should Babies Wear Insect Repellent?

The safest, most effective strategies for protecting babies from mosquitoes and ticks When you shop through retailer links on our site, we may earn affiliate commissions. 100% of the fees we collect

The safest, most effective strategies for protecting babies from mosquitoes and ticks

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Just like adults and kids, babies need protection against the bites of mosquitoes and ticks. But a baby’s sensitive skin means that choosing an insect repellent for them requires a bit of extra care.

Repellents containing deet, for example, are often very effective—and make up many of the recommended products in CR’s insect repellent ratings—but using them on young children does mean taking some additional precautions.

“We want to prevent infants, children, and others from getting potentially life-threatening or life-altering insect-borne illnesses, but there also is concern about the possibility of toxicity from applying this chemical,” says Sophie J. Balk, MD, an attending pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore and a professor of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, both in New York City.

And other active ingredients—including some that might sound less scary, such as oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE) and various essential oils—are not better options. Still, there are plenty of safe and effective repellents you can use on babies, as well as other strategies to help protect them from biting bugs.

Here’s what to consider when you’re choosing an insect repellent for your baby.

• When Is a Baby Old Enough for Insect Repellent?• What About Natural or Homemade Repellents?• Which Insect Repellent Should You Choose for Your Baby?• How Do You Apply Repellents to Babies Safely?• What Else Can You Do to Protect Babies from Biting Bugs?• Why Is Protecting Babies From Bug Bites Important?• How Should You Treat Bug Bites on Babies?

The Environmental Protection Agency, which reviews safety and efficacy data on most insect repellents, places no official age restrictions on any of the repellents it oversees, with one exception: OLE.

While CR’s tests have found that certain products with that ingredient are a good choice for adults, some have warnings on their labels saying they shouldn’t be used on children under age 3. That’s because OLE’s safety hasn’t been well studied in this age group. Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics also say repellents containing OLE shouldn’t be used on children under 3. That means they are a no-go for babies.

While there are no official age restrictions on other EPA-registered repellents, parents may still want to be cautious with the youngest babies. “Parents of newborns and premature infants should be especially careful when deciding whether to apply deet or other chemicals on their child’s skin,” Balk says. “If feasible, they could consider postponing a trip or a hike to a hazardous area until the child is older.”

You might think that using a “natural” or DIY insect repellent made with essential oils is safer than one made with a synthetic chemical. But repellents made with essential oils have been generally less reliable than EPA-registered repellents in CR tests. None are recommended by CR because they don’t offer long-lasting protection, according to our tests.

And they can cause problems, says Sheilagh Maguiness, MD, president of the Society for Pediatric Dermatology, because they can trigger allergic reactions and even phototoxic reactions, which is when a substance reacts with UV light to cause a rash or a condition similar to a sunburn. Citrus botanical ingredients, in particular, she says, can cause an itchy rash and dark spots that can take time to fade when products with them are applied to the skin and then the skin is exposed to sunlight.

There are three key factors to keep in mind.

1. Pick a safe, effective repellent that’s registered by the EPA and does not contain OLE. These will mostly be products made with deet or picaridin. Both ingredients have been used safely for decades by millions of people, and deet, in particular, has been studied extensively. In 2017 the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a federal public health agency, concluded that given the widespread use of deet and the small number of serious problems reported, the risks are likely quite low. Similarly, studies of thousands of calls to Poison Control Centers about exposure to products containing deet and picaridin (often accidental) show that for deet, children and babies were actually less likely to experience severe effects than adults, and for picaridin, none of the reported exposure caused a severe effect.

2. Choose the lowest effective concentration. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends using relatively low concentrations of deet on babies. Balk advises deet concentrations no higher than 30 percent for any infant or child—the highest concentration you’ll find in CR’s ratings—and using lower concentrations for shorter periods of time outside (an hour or two as opposed to a whole day, for example). The same general principle applies to other insect repellent ingredients as well, such as picaridin.

That’s in large part because the skin of a baby differs from an adult’s in key ways, Maguiness says. “Infant skin is actually quite a bit thinner than adult skin,” she says. “That by itself makes it more prone to absorption.” In addition, a baby’s skin-to-weight ratio is much higher than an adult’s. That means the concentration of a chemical they may have in their body after it’s absorbed through the skin could be much higher than it would be for an adult.

3. Avoid aerosol sprays. These repellents, which generally come in pressurized metal spray cans, can be inhaled or end up in a baby’s eyes, Maguiness says. Instead, you should look for nonpressurized pump sprays, lotions, or wipes. And remember that as with medicine, cleaning products, and more, insect repellents should always be stored securely out of reach of babies, kids, and pets.

Here are a few nonaerosol, non-OLE repellents that provided at least 3 hours of protection against mosquitoes in our tests (listed in alphabetical order).

Keep these tips in mind:

You can minimize the need for repellent by combining it with other strategies. This includes postponing spending time in especially buggy areas. Other options for preventing bug bites include:

Just like adults, babies can contract dangerous diseases from mosquitoes and ticks. The most common in the U.S. are, from mosquitoes, West Nile virus and, from ticks, Lyme disease. But there are several other diseases that, although rare, pose particular risks to babies and children, says Erin Staples, MD, PhD, a medical epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

La Crosse virus, for example, is a mosquito-borne disease reported occasionally in the upper Midwest, southeastern, and mid-Atlantic regions of the U.S. Severe cases occur most often in children under the age of 16 and, in less than 1 percent of cases, the disease can be deadly. Anywhere from a few dozen to more than 100 confirmed cases are reported in the U.S. each year, though the CDC notes that many more cases likely go undiagnosed and unreported.

Eastern equine encephalitis (EEE) virus is reported even less frequently than La Crosse virus, but Staples says it should still be on a parent’s radar. “It’s thankfully rare but it’s one of our deadliest mosquito-borne diseases here domestically,” she says. “Young children and older adults seem to be more particularly affected.” It occurs mainly in Atlantic and Gulf Coast states. EEE kills about 30 percent of people who contract it, and those who survive often live with permanent neurological problems. There are an average of 11 cases reported in the U.S. each year.

Keep an eye on local alerts from your health department. If a mosquito-borne disease like La Crosse or EEE is reported in your area, that means it’s time to be extra careful about taking mosquito bite prevention measures for your baby (and for yourself).

When it comes to ticks, Staples says Powassan virus is of particular concern for young children. Powassan virus, which most commonly occurs in the Northeast and Great Lakes region and is spread to humans primarily by blacklegged ticks, can also be fatal. And even if infants aren’t spending time outdoors in tick-infested areas, she says cases have occurred in which a parent or even a pet may have brought in a tick that was then transferred to an infant.

“It’s very important to remind parents to perform tick checks as soon as they come in and check their pets also,” Staples says.

And while children under age 5 are some of the least likely to contract Lyme disease, cases can and do occur in very young babies, according to a 2019 study in the journal Pediatrics.

Finally, take special care if you’re traveling with your baby to an area of the world where malaria is endemic. Most deaths from malaria occur in young children, Balk says.

To treat an itchy bug bite, Balk recommends first applying a washcloth soaked in cool water, which can help calm the itch. “Your pediatrician may recommend using an over-the-counter hydrocortisone steroid cream that also decreases itching,” she says.

An oral antihistamine like children’s Allegra or Zyrtec may also be a good option, particularly for babies who are hypersensitive to bug bites, Maguines notes. Check with your pediatrician about dosages.

She also suggests trying a hydrocolloid patch on bug bites. These adhesive bandages, which are designed to retain moisture, promote healing and have the added benefit of helping to prevent scratching.

Scratching at a bite can lead to an infection. If a bite shows signs of infection, such as spreading redness or swelling, yellow crusting, or pus, consult your pediatrician.

Catherine Roberts

Catherine Roberts is a health and science journalist at Consumer Reports. She has been at CR since 2016, covering infectious diseases, bugs and bug sprays, consumer medical devices like hearing aids and blood pressure monitors, health privacy, and more. As a civilian, her passions include bike rides, horror films and fiction, and research rabbit holes. Follow her on Twitter @catharob.

1. Pick a safe, effective repellent that’s registered by the EPA and does not contain OLE. 2. Choose the lowest effective concentration. 3. Avoid aerosol sprays.