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Insect Repellents


You can lower your chance of being bitten by an insect or spider-like animal (arachnid) by using insect repellents. Mosquitoes, biting flies, and ticks can cause annoying bites and sometimes a serious disease. Mosquito bites can spread infections such as West Nile virus (a virus that causes swelling of the brain called encephalitis), Zika virus, and malaria in some parts of the world. Tick bites can cause serious diseases such as Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Bites from biting flies are painful and may cause a skin infection.

Types of insect repellents

You can buy many different kinds of insect repellents. Some work better than others. DEET provides the longest-lasting protection against mosquito bites.

Products that work the best

The insect repellents that work the best are:

DEET (N,N-diethyl-3-meta-toluamide).

This is the most effective insect repellent. A solution of 23.8% DEET provides about 5 hours of protection from mosquitoes. In Canada, DEET is available in varying strengths up to 30%. Research shows that strengths greater than 50% do not provide substantially higher protection. Unless you are in areas with a large number of mosquitoes, repellents with 10% to 24% DEET should keep most mosquitoes away from your skin. Concerns have been raised about safety, because DEET is quickly absorbed after being applied to the skin. Studies over the past 40 years haven't shown that DEET causes cancer or other illnesses. The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) and other experts suggest that it is safe to apply DEET in concentrations of 10% DEET to children 6 months to 12 years of age. It's important to read and follow all instructions on the label. DEET should also be used carefully on clothing.

Icaridin (Picaridin).

Icaridin is an insecticide that has been available for use in Europe for many years. It is available in Canada in concentrations up to 20%. It may work as well as DEET in repelling insects, and it may protect against mosquitoes for up to 7 hours. Icaridin is odourless and does not feel sticky or greasy. It is less likely to cause skin irritation than DEET. And it does not damage synthetic fabrics or plastics. The (PHAC) recommends icaridin as the preferred insect repellent for children 6 months to 12 years of age. The PHAC does not recommend the use of icaridin on children younger than age 6 months.footnote 1

Permethrin is not available as an insect repellent in Canada, but travel health clinics may be able to advise you on how to buy permethrin or permethrin-treated gear. It is used in other parts of the world to prevent insect bites. Permethrin is a plant-based insecticide that works on contact. You spray it on clothing and other fabrics, such as mosquito netting and tent walls. Permethrin should not be applied directly to the skin. When it is combined with DEET, permethrin provides even better protection against mosquitoes. Permethrin keeps working even after you wash your clothes.

This product is commonly known as lemon eucalyptus oil. When oil of lemon eucalyptus was tested against mosquitoes found in the U.S., it provided protection similar to repellents with low concentrations of DEET. It provides up to 2 hours of protection against mosquito bites. Do not apply more than 2 times a day. And do not use this product on children younger than 3 years.

Soybean oil.

Insect repellents that contain 2% soybean oil provide 1 to 4 hours of protection from mosquitoes when applied to the skin. Soybean oil is safe to use on infants and children.


IR3535 is not available as an insect repellent in Canada, but it is used in other parts of the world to prevent insect bites. This repellent is a chemical similar to the amino acid alanine. Tests have shown that it can protect against mosquito bites for up to 1 hour.

Products that don't protect against bites for long periods of time

Insect repellents that don't offer protection for long periods of time include:


This is a lemon-scented oil, derived from a plant, that repels mosquitoes. It is not as effective or as long-lasting as DEET. The product can be reapplied frequently to increase its effectiveness. Citronella can be found in lotions or in candles for outdoor use. Citronella applied to the skin provides 15 to 20 minutes of protection from mosquitoes. There is no scientific evidence that citronella candles are effective.

Other plant oils.

Other plant oils, such as lavender and geranium, provide less than 30 minutes of protection against mosquitoes. These products aren't recommended.

Products sold as repellents that don't work well to prevent bites

There are other products advertised as mosquito repellents that don't effectively prevent mosquito bites. These include:

  • Electronic (sometimes called ultrasonic) devices.
  • Electrocuting devices, which are often called "bug zappers."
  • Mosquito traps.
  • Geranium house plants.
  • Citronella candles.
  • Taking thiamine (vitamin B1) supplements.
  • Skin moisturizers that don't contain approved insect repellents.
  • Wrist, ankle, and neck bands that contain repellents, such as DEET or citronella.

How to use repellents safely

Read and follow all instructions on the label. Health Canada and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommend the following precautions for using insect repellents.

  • Apply repellents only to exposed skin or clothing as directed on the product label.

    Do not use under clothing.

  • Never apply a repellent to cuts, wounds, or irritated skin.
  • Do not apply to the eyes and mouth, and apply sparingly around the ears.
  • When using sprays, do not spray directly into your face. Spray on your hand first, and then apply to your face.
  • Do not allow your child to handle the product.
  • When using a repellent on your child, apply it to your hands and then put it on the child.

    Do not apply the repellent to your child's hands.

  • Do not spray in enclosed areas, such as inside a car.
  • Avoid breathing a repellent spray.
  • Do not use a repellent near food.
  • Use just enough repellent to cover exposed skin or clothing.

    Heavy application and saturation generally isn't necessary for effectiveness. If biting insects don't respond to a thin film, apply a bit more.

  • After returning indoors, wash treated skin with soap and water and then bathe.

    This is particularly important when repellents are used repeatedly in a day or several days in a row. Also, wash treated clothing before you wear it again.

  • If you think you or your child may be having a reaction to an insect repellent, stop using the repellent, wash treated skin, and call a poison centre (1-844-POISON-X or 1-844-764-7669).

    If you see your doctor, take the repellent with you.



  1. Committee to Advise on Tropical Medicine and Travel (2012). Statement on personal protective measures to prevent arthropod bites. Canada Communicable Disease Report, 38: 1–18. Accessed May 21, 2016.


Adaptation Date: 8/2/2022

Adapted By: Alberta Health Services

Adaptation Reviewed By: Alberta Health Services

Adapted with permission from copyrighted materials from Healthwise, Incorporated (Healthwise). This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any warranty and is not responsible or liable for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.