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August 5, 2004

How effective are DEET Repellents?
by Barb Ogg, PhD, Extension Educator

Repellent products containing DEET (diethyl toluamide) are highly effective against mosquitoes, biting flies, ticks and chiggers. Recent research suggests that DEET does not actually repel the insects. Instead, the DEET jams the blood-seeking insects’ antennae which is the organ these insects use to locate you.

Mosquitoes and other biting insects follow plumes of CO2, body odors and moisture gradients that humans give off as they breathe and sweat. As it gets close, the insect’s antennal sensory receptors are seeking the final airborne chemicals that will lead it to you.

But, as the insect gets close, the regions of the antenna that locate you become jammed by the DEET molecules. The insects cannot find you, even though you’re right in front of them. This explains why you may see mosquitoes near you, even after you have used a DEET repellent. They’ve tracked you down, but just can’t find you for the final dive.

DEET repellents are available in many formulations, not just aerosol sprays. Look for pump sprays, lotions, sticks, creams, gels and impregnated towelettes.

How effective are they? Using medical entomologists to test repellents, Consumer Reports reported results of a study in their May 2003 issue.

Product Mosquito Protection

  • 3M Ultrathon - 13 hours of Protection
  • Off! Deep Woods for Sportsmen - 13 hours of Protection
  • Muskol Ultra 6 hours - 8 hours of Protection
  • BugOut - 7 hours of Protection
  • Sawyer Controlled Release - 6 hours of Protection
  • Cutter Unscented - 5 hours of Protection
  • Off! Skintastic with Sunscreen SPF 30 - 4 hours of Protection
  • Cutter Skinsations - 2 hours of Protection
  • Avon Skin So-Soft Bug Guard/Sunblock - 1 hour of Protection (contains no DEET)

Ultrathon is the same product the US military uses. Ultrathon and Off! Deep Woods for Sportsmen had the same level of protection, but Off! Deep Woods has three times as much DEET (100 percent) than Ultrathon. Developed by 3M, Ultrathon contains a polymer, a molecule that keeps the repellent on the skin rather than being absorbed into the body or evaporated into the air.

In this study, repellents using plant oils (citronella, soybean, coconut and geranium) provided little protection.

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