Everything You Need to Know About Bug Sprays for Kids and Toddlers, According to Pediatric Health Experts

published Jul 14, 2023
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Side view portrait of black mother and daughter hiking together and using bug spray
Credit: SeventyFour/Getty Images/iStockphoto

As much fun as outdoor summer adventures are for the whole family, no matter where you live, it’s likely the time when bugs are most active — and hungry. And nothing ruins a vacation, a beach day, or a hike like itchy, uncomfortable bug bites and stings — especially when those bites are on kids. (This magic mosquito bite salve helps!)

If you want to keep your whole family bite-free throughout the warmer months, make sure you’re using a repellent that’s safe for kids and toddlers. We talked to pediatric health experts to get the low-down on what’s safe to use on children, what to avoid, and how to best apply it, so you can enjoy your summer sans itching and scratching.

Is bug spray safe to use on kids?

First and foremost, yes. As long as they’re over 2 months old, bug spray is totally safe for kids and babies, according to Dr. Sarah Evans, assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Medicine and Public Health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Evans notes that, when used properly, bug spray (aka insect repellent) is safe and an important part of keeping kids healthy when they play outdoors. “This is especially true as climate change is expanding the habitat and active season of insects that spread disease, like ticks and mosquitos.” 

The best way to make sure kids are totally safe from bug bites? Don’t let them apply it themselves, Evans recommends. Apply it on kids outdoors or in a well-ventilated area to reduce the risk of breathing it in. “Only apply repellent to exposed skin and not under clothing. If applying it to the face, put it on your hands first and avoid areas around the eyes and mouth.”

Is DEET safe for kids?

While many parents, and people more generally, avoid DEET — the human-made active ingredient in many insect repellents — at all costs for fear of adverse reactions, contrary to popular belief, it isn’t actually unsafe when used correctly. “People are sometimes surprised to learn that DEET is safe for kids and highly effective when used properly,” Evans notes. She recommends that parents look for products that contain no more than 20 to 30% DEET, which provides a full day of protection against bugs — and also to avoid products with higher concentrations which aren’t actually more effective, and can cause skin irritation.

Dr. Maya M. Mahood, a pediatrician and mom herself, says that although parents may fear using DEET on their children, serious complications are incredibly uncommon, as long as it’s used as directed. 

When using DEET, Mahood says it should not be ingested (swallowed or breathed in), so it should be avoided on body parts that children may put in their mouths (like a baby’s hands); to avoid inhaling fumes when using sprays, parents can spray their hands and wipe the repellant on children’s skin. While she agrees it shouldn’t be applied under the clothes, in certain situations, some people might choose to apply it to the outside of the clothing itself to ward bugs off.

Additionally, she suggests products containing DEET be applied no more than once a day, and should be washed off once indoors with soap and water, and clothes with DEET on them should be laundered immediately after wearing them. Although it’s fine to use on the skin, it’s dangerous if ingested, so be sure to store repellents containing DEET away from young children.

What to look for in bug sprays for kids and toddlers

The most important factors when it comes to kid-safe bug sprays are active ingredients, concentration, and proper application. Evans says these are the ingredients parents should look for specifically, as they’ve been shown to be safe and effective when used properly.

  • Contains 20 to 30% DEET
  • Contains 20% Picaridin
  • Contains Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus (only use on kids 3+, as it hasn’t been tested on younger children)

Mahood notes that repellents with 30% or less of DEET often brand themselves as “family-friendly,” and recommends OFF! Family Care Insect and Mosquito Repellent because it contains only 15% DEET, and is safe when used correctly. 

Aside from bug sprays, Evans shares her best tips for avoiding bug bites altogether.

  • When feasible, cover exposed skin by wearing long sleeves and long pants.
  • In areas where ticks may be present, wear light colors that make it easier to spot ticks and do thorough tick checks after spending time outdoors.
  • Stick to the center of trails and avoid brushing up against vegetation where ticks may be.
  • Stay indoors from dusk to dawn when many biting insects are most active.
  • Place mosquito netting over strollers or in sleeping areas, which can be effective.
  • Eliminate standing water on your property where mosquitoes breed, along with tall grasses, wood, and debris piles that make for great tick habitats.

What to avoid in bug sprays for kids and toddlers

First and foremost, Evans says to never use products that combine insect repellent and sunscreen. “These combination products can increase absorption through the skin and sunscreen needs to be reapplied much more often than bug spray, leading to higher exposures.”

Otherwise, avoid products that come in pressurized aerosol spray cans, as they can increase inhalation exposures for young kids. Instead, she suggests using sticks, lotions, or pump sprays. Additionally, she says not to opt for repellent methods that aren’t clinically proven to deter insects, like bracelets, ultrasonic devices, and essential oils.

To learn more about keeping your family safe from insect bites, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advice page here.