DEET graphicWhat Is It?

DEET, formally known as N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide, is a chemical that is used in bug sprays, wipes, in clothing repellents, and in repellents for pets. DEET is one of the most effective bug repellents and also repels ticks.[1]

Insect repellents are regulated as pesticides in the United States because their active ingredients are pesticides, including DEET.[2]

The Health Concern

DEET is absorbed quickly through the skin,[3] and when mixed with some sunscreen chemicals, it was found to be absorbed even more quickly.[4]

Large doses of DEET have been linked to skin blisters, seizures, memory loss, headaches, stiffness in joints, shortness of breath,[5] and skin irritation.[6] DEET is a documented neurotoxin, meaning it can negatively impact the nervous system.[7],[8] When mixed with permethrin, another pesticide, animal studies show the mixture can cause the death of neurons in the brain,[9] and disease in the offspring of exposed adults.[10]

In the environment, DEET breaks down slowly in soil and extremely slowly in sediment, meaning it sticks around longer than it should.[11] DEET has been detected in groundwater, surface water, and drinking water.[12] DEET is somewhat toxic to some aquatic life.[13]

How to Avoid It

  • Read labels. Look for DEET listed under “active ingredients” on bug repellent product labels.
  • Look for plant-based alternatives with bug-repelling oils like citronella, clove, lemongrass, lemon eucalyptus, thyme and neem. Make sure to buy commercially prepared products or consult an essential oils specialist to ensure that all essential oils are properly diluted. Some people are sensitive to essential oils, so do a small patch test and consult an expert. Learn more about natural bug repellent oils here.
  • Skip products containing both sunscreen and bug spray, as the mixture may increase your skin’s absorption of the chemicals.
  • Reduce your exposure to mosquitos by staying indoors when mosquitos are the worst (at dawn and dusk), covering up with thick fabrics and long plants and sleeves, and using mosquito netting.
  • Be aware that in addition to DEET, there are other harmful ingredients in bug repellents. Read more in our full-length report on bug spray.
  • Choose MADE SAFE certified products. DEET is not permitted in our process.
Zika and Other Mosquito-Borne Illnesses: We urge people to stay informed of the changing information around this epidemic, the areas impacted, and if you reside in one of those areas, any changes in advice as they become available. If you think you might be at risk or are experiencing symptoms of an insect-borne illness, heed the advice from the CDC, WHO, and your doctor.
*MADE SAFE does not test for efficacy. We examine ingredients for human health and environmental harm. For efficacy studies on plant-based repellents, see our full-length bug spray report.

[1] Environmental Protection Agency, EPA. (1998). R.E.D Facts: DEET. Retrieved from https://www3.epa.gov/pesticides/chem_search/reg_actions/reregistration/fs_PC-080301_1-Apr-98.pdf

[2] Environmental Protection Agency, EPA (2017). What is an insect repellent? Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/insect-repellents/what-insect-repellent

[3] Beyond Pesticides & National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides. (2002). DEET. 22(2). Retrieved from https://www.beyondpesticides.org/assets/media/documents/pesticides/factsheets/deet.pdf

[4] Chen, T., Burczynski, F. J., Miller, D. W., & Gu, X. (2010). Percutaneous permeation comparison of repellents picaridin and DEET in concurrent use with sunscreen oxybenzone from commercially available preparations. Die Pharmazie, 65(11), 835. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21155391

[5] Abou-Donia, M. B., Wilmarth, K. R., Jensen, K. F., Oehme, F. W., & Kurt, T. L. (1996). Neurotoxicity resulting from coexposure to pyridostigmine bromide, DEET, and permethrin: Implications of gulf war chemical exposures. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, 48(1), 35-56. doi:10.1080/009841096161456

[6] Beyond Pesticides & National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides. (2002). DEET. 22(2) Retrieved from https://www.beyondpesticides.org/assets/media/documents/pesticides/factsheets/deet.pdf

[7] Beyond Pesticides & National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides. (2002). DEET. 22(2). Retrieved from https://www.beyondpesticides.org/assets/media/documents/pesticides/factsheets/deet.pdf

[8] Corbel, V., Stankiewicz, M., Pennetier, C., Fournier, D., Stojan, J., Girard, E., . . . Lapie, B. (2009). Evidence for inhibition of cholinesterases in insect and mammalian nervous systems by the insect repellent DEET. BMC Biology, 7(1), 47. doi:10.1186/1741-7007-7-47

[9] Abdel-Rahman, A., Shetty, A. K., & Abou-Donia, M. B. (2001). Subchronic dermal application of N,N-diethyl m-toluamide (DEET) and permethrin to adult rats, alone or in combination, causes diffuse neuronal cell death and cytoskeletal abnormalities in the cerebral cortex and the hippocampus, and purkinje neuron loss in the cerebellum. Experimental Neurology, 172(1), 153-171. doi:10.1006/exnr.2001.7807

[10] Manikkam, M., Tracey, R., Guerrero-Bosagna, C., & Skinner, M. K. (2012). Pesticide and insect repellent mixture (permethrin and DEET) induces epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of disease and sperm epimutations. Reproductive Toxicology (Elmsford, N.Y.), 34(4), 708-719. doi:10.1016/j.reprotox.2012.08.010

[11] Environmental Protection Agency, EPA. (2012). Estimation Programs Interface Suite™ for Microsoft® Windows, v 4.11. Available at https://www.epa.gov/tsca-screening-tools/epi-suitetm-estimation-program-interface

[12] Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, (ATSDR). (2017). Toxicological Profile for DEET (N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxprofiles/tp185.pdf

[13] Environmental Protection Agency, EPA. (2012). Estimation Programs Interface Suite™ for Microsoft® Windows, v 4.11. Available at https://www.epa.gov/tsca-screening-tools/epi-suitetm-estimation-program-interface