Insect repellents – guidelines for safe use

  • Using an insect repellent can be helpful in preventing insect bites, and most repellents now use one of two main active ingredients – DEET (diethyltoluamide) or picaridin.

    DEET is a commonly used ingredient that is effective against mosquitoes, biting flies, fleas, and ticks. DEET has been safely used around the world for many decades. DEET can be safely applied to cotton, wool, and nylon, but may damage spandex, rayon, acetate and pigmented leather. It can dissolve plastic and vinyl (e.g. sunglasses frames or watch bands). DEET has a distinct smell and can be sticky. It can also cause eye stinging.

    Picaridin is a newer insect repellent and is odourless and less sticky when compared to DEET. It may be more pleasant to use and does not dissolve plastics.

    Both products are considered safe and effective when used in accordance with the instructions on the labels.

    DEET is available in concentrations from 10 to 80 per cent. Concentrations of more than 30 per cent may be dangerous and should be avoided. Products containing 19 to 30 percent are recommended for travel to tropical areas. Insect repellents with up to 30 per cent DEET are safe to use in babies over two months old. Picaridin is available in 10 or 20 per cent formulations. To avoid potential side effects, children should use the lowest concentration and reapply as required.

    Using insect repellents safely with children

    Read the label before use – look carefully at the concentration of DEET or picaridin in the product and use the repellent only as directed.

    • Apply using roll-on or if using spray, spray onto your hand and then apply to your child.
    • Use only enough repellent to cover exposed skin in a thin, even layer. Using more repellent than what is required does not make it more effective and may increase skin irritation. Do not use on cuts, wounds or irritated skin.
    • Do not apply to areas around the eyes or mouth.
    • Do not apply to the hands or fingers of young children.
    • When returning indoors, wash repellent off skin with soap and water.
    • If you need to apply both sunscreen and repellent, apply the sunscreen first. Products combining sunscreen and insect repellent are not recommended, as sunscreen generally needs to be reapplied more often than insect repellent.
    • Store repellents out of the reach of children.

    Avoiding mosquito bites

    Mosquitoes are attracted to dark colours, so light-coloured clothes covering the wrists and ankles should be worn to reduce the possibility of being bitten, especially in areas where mosquito-borne diseases are common.

    Still water attracts mosquitoes, so keep away from dams, ponds and other sources of still water.

    To reduce possible sources of mosquitoes around the home:

    • Cover any containers that store water (including swimming pools) so that mosquitoes can't lay eggs.  Empty or remove containers when they are not being used.
    • Change water in bird baths and watering troughs at least once a week.
    • Seal and cover septic tanks so that mosquitoes can't lay eggs.
    • Remove excess vegetation from garden ponds and stock with fish.

    Key points to remember

    • DEET and picaridin are the most effective insect repellent ingredients. 
    • Insect repellents with up to 30 percent DEET or 10 per cent picaridin are suitable for most situations.
    • Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for the safe use of insect repellents.

    For more information

    • Kids Health Info fact sheet: Insect bites and stings
    • Visit the Smart Traveller website to find the latest information on regions affected by mosquito-borne and other insect-borne diseases. 

    Common questions our doctors are asked

    I've seen clothing that has been treated with insect repellent. Is it effective and safe for children to wear?  

    Outdoor and camping stores sometimes sell clothing that has been treated with a compound called permethrin. Permethrin is not a repellent, but it is poisonous to insects. Permethrin-treated clothing has been found to be effective against mosquitoes, flies, and ticks, and is considered safe for children to wear. A combination of permethrin-treated clothing and insect repellent applied to any exposed skin is a good way to protect children from insect bites in high-risk areas.   

    Are there any natural insect repellents that work well?

    Insect repellents with plant ingredients like oil of lemon eucalyptus are effective against mosquitoes, but are not as effective as DEET or picaridin. Skin sensitivity reactions are more common with natural plant ingredients.

    Can I use insect repellents on my baby?

    Yes. Insect repellents with up to 30 per cent DEET are safe to use on babies over two months old. Repellents should be used according to the instructions on the label. Repellent can be dabbed onto clothes, taking care to avoid hands and faces. Baby prams can be covered with insect netting in areas where mosquitoes are a problem.

    Developed by The Royal Children's Hospital Pharmacy department and Travel Clinic. Reviewed by Infectious Diseases department. We acknowledge the input of RCH consumers and carers.

    Reviewed February 2024.

    This information is awaiting routine review. Please always seek the most recent advice from a registered and practicing clinician.

    Kids Health Info is supported by The Royal Children’s Hospital Foundation. To donate, visit


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