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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 or picaridin.

    DEET (diethyltoluamide) is a commonly used broad-spectrum ingredient that is effective against mosquitoes, biting flies, fleas and ticks. In most situations, an insect repellent with up to 10 per cent DEET will prevent mosquito bites. In higher-risk areas (where malaria, Ross River virus, Barmah Forest virus and dengue fever occur), products with 15–30 per cent DEET should be used.

    DEET can be safely applied to cotton, wool and nylon, but may damage spandex, rayon, acetate and pigmented leather. DEET can dissolve plastic and vinyl (e.g. sunglasses frames or watch bands).

    Picaridin is a newer insect repellent ingredient, and is odourless and less sticky when compared to DEET. It may be more pleasant to use, and does not dissolve plastic. Studies have found picaridin to be as effective as DEET; however, it is not as long-lasting and will need to be reapplied more often. Products containing 10 per cent picaridin will prevent mosquito bites in most situations.

    Using insect repellents safely with children

    Read the entire label before use – look carefully at the level of DEET or picaridin in the product (see tables below), and use the repellent only as directed by the manufacturer.

    • Roll-on preparations are preferable to sprays.
    • Apply sparingly to exposed skin.
    • 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.
    • Store repellents out of the reach of children.
    • 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.

    The following tables provide only a selection of the many suitable repellents available from pharmacies and supermarkets.

    Insect repellents suitable for use in children in low-risk areas

    Brand and description Active ingredient Strength
    Aeroguard Odourless Protection   Picaridin 9.5%
    Black and Gold personal insect repellent DEET 3%
    RID Medicated Insect Repellent Kids + Antiseptic repellent DEET 7%
    RID Medicated Insect Repellent Low Irritant + Antiseptic repellent DEET 10%

     Insect repellents suitable for use in children in high-risk areas

    Brand and description Active ingredient Strength
    RID Medicated Insect Repellent Tropical Strength + Antiseptic repellent DEET 19.5%
    RID Medicated Insect Repellent Antiseptic + Chamomile + Vitamin E repellent DEET 16%
    Aeroguard Tropical Strength DEET 19.1%

    Avoiding mosquito bites

    Mosquitoes are attracted to dark colours, so light-coloured clothes covering to the wrists and ankles should be worn to reduce the possibility of being bitten, especially in areas where malaria is common. When travelling overseas to high-risk areas, it is a good idea get expert medical advice before starting your trip.

    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 drain containers when they are not being used.
    • Change water in bird baths and watering troughs at least once a week.
    • Seal and cover cesspools and septic tanks so that mosquitoes can't lay eggs.
    • Fill large holes in trees with sand or mortar.
    • Remove excess vegetation from garden ponds and stock with fish.
    • Do not over-water the garden.

    Key points to remember

    • DEET and picaridin are the most effective insect repellent ingredients. 
    • Insect repellents with up to 10 per cent DEET or picaridin are suitable for most situations, but use strengths of 15–30 per cent in high-risk areas.
    • Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for the safe use of insect repellents.

    For more information

    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-derived ingredients like melaleuca oil and citronella may provide some protection against mosquitoes, but they are not as effective as DEET or picaridin.

    Can I use insect repellents on my baby?

    Insect repellents should not be used on babies under three months old – instead keep them in a pram covered with netting in areas where mosquitoes are a problem. In older children, follow the instructions on the repellent bottle but always discontinue use if any skin irritation occurs.

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

    Reviewed May 2018.

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

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


This information is intended to support, not replace, discussion with your doctor or healthcare professionals. The authors of these consumer health information handouts have made a considerable effort to ensure the information is accurate, up to date and easy to understand. The Royal Children's Hospital Melbourne accepts no responsibility for any inaccuracies, information perceived as misleading, or the success of any treatment regimen detailed in these handouts. Information contained in the handouts is updated regularly and therefore you should always check you are referring to the most recent version of the handout. The onus is on you, the user, to ensure that you have downloaded the most up-to-date version of a consumer health information handout.