The best ways to stop insects from biting this summer

Consumer Reports

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Summer’s insects can be more than annoying—they can also make you sick. Ticks carry Lyme disease and mosquitoes spread serious illnesses such as West Nile virus. Bill Gates has even declared the mosquito to be "the deadliest animal in the world" because it spreads malaria, which is linked to more than 700,000 deaths a year. While few of those deaths occur in the U.S., several other tropical, mosquito-borne diseases are heading this way, including dengue fever and a new worry this year, Chikungunya virus, or ChikV. It's now in the Caribbean and can cause fever, severe joint pain, and a crippling arthritis.

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So how do you keep the bugs from biting? Our tests over the years have found that certain insect repellents, especially those with the chemical deet, can help keep mosquitoes and ticks away. But our safety experts worry that the products might pose risks to people and the environment.

“Deet and other chemical-based repellents should be used only if other safer methods don’t work for you,” Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., executive director of the Consumer Reports Food Safety & Sustainability Center, said. “People should first try safer ways of avoiding bugs, such as wearing protective clothing and avoiding scented products when outdoors.”

For mosquitoes

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    Stay inside or in screened-in areas during mosquito hours.
    The bugs like to come out during sunrise and sunset, and in early evening.
  • Cover up. During mosquito heavy hours, put on long sleeves, long pants, socks, and closed-toe shoes.
  • Plug in a fan. It will help you keep cool and keep mosquitoes from landing on you when you’re outside on your deck or patio because the insects are not very efficient flyers, even in wind speeds of as low as 5 mph.
  • Buy outdoor LED or yellow bug lights. Use them on your porch and around your house because they won’t attract pests like other lights might.
  • Light citronella candles or tiki torches. These standbys work as mild insect repellents.
  • Keep mosquitoes from breeding in your yard. Dump out any water-filled containers, such as birdbaths, tires, wheelbarrows, and wading pools. Clear away decaying leaves and ivy on buildings and on the ground, because mosquitoes like cool, dark places to rest during the day.

For ticks

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    Wear light-colored clothes.
    They can help you spot ticks. Also stick with long sleeves, long pants, and closed-toe shoes. Tuck your pants into socks, wear boots, and pull your hair back into a hat.
  • Check your clothes and skin for ticks when you get inside. They have to be on you for at least 36 hours to transmit Lyme disease. Even if you see no ticks, it’s smart to shower and wash your clothes, or at least toss them into a dryer to kill any ticks.
  • Inspect pets, too. Always examine your animals for ticks after they come into the house from being outside.
  • Keep your lawn mowed. And try to let as much sun into your yard as possible. Ticks prefer long grasses and shady spots.
  • Consider putting up a fence. One way to keep the ticks away is to prevent deer and other large animals that can carry them from wandering around on your property.

For both pests

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    Try a plant-based repellent first.
    Examples include Repel Lemon Eucalyptus ($8) (which has a synthetic version of a naturally occurring chemical) and Natrapel or other products that contain 20 percent picaridin (a chemical similar to a compound in black pepper). In our 2010 tests (ratings chart below), both worked for at least 7 hours, though the Repel product has since been reformulated with less of the active ingredient and so no longer appears in our ratings chart. The risk of side effects for both is low, but the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says not to use the Repel product on kids younger than 3.
  • When you use deet, keep levels low. If a product with 15 percent deet keeps bugs away for 8 hours or more, as our tests found, one with 98 percent deet has to be even better, right? Actually, no. Off Deep Woods Sportsmen mini pump spray (98 percent deet) is claimed to provide maximum-strength protection for up to 10 hours. But products with 95 percent or more deet have been linked with serious side effects, including seizures, slurred speech, and coma. It can also cause eye irritation and allergic reactions. Our experts recommend using no more than 30 percent deet, ever. If you’re, say, on an overnight camping trip and need long-term bug protection, reapply a product with 15 percent deet (such as Off FamilyCare Smooth & Dry spray) and use it sparingly. Each application will protect you from mosquito and tick bites for at least 8 hours.
  • Think twice about using deet if you’re in a high-risk group. Children, seniors, and people with weakened immune systems should use deet only with extra caution. The American Academy of Pediatrics says not to use it at all on infants younger than 2 months.
  • Apply repellents outdoors, and only to clothing or exposed skin. Wash repellents off before you go to bed, and wash clothes before you wear them again.

What not to do

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These products either don’t work well or aren’t worth the risks:

  • Products with more than 30 percent deet, such as Jungle Juice 100. The potential side effects aren’t worth it.
  • Off Clip-on, a device that attaches to your waistband or belt and uses a fan to circulate a repellent around your body. The active ingredient, metofluthrin, can pose risks to your nervous system, and our tests found that it didn’t work very well anyway.
  • Wristbands with repellent claims.
  • Garlic or vitamin B1 pills.
  • Devices that give off sound waves designed to keep insects away.
  • Backyard bug zappers. (They might actually attract mosquitoes.)
  • Also avoid tight clothes (which mosquitoes can penetrate), dark
    clothes (where ticks can hide), and strong scents, which may attract pests.   

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Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction, in whole or in part, without written permission.

How do mosquitoes find their way to us? Find out how these bugs can detect where you are and see what is in the future for insect repellents.

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