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Picaridin and Lemon Eucalyptus Beat DEET for Repelling Insects

Consumer Reports recruited volunteers to test out spray-on repellents made of DEET, oil of lemon eucalyptus, picaridin, a chemical called IR3535, and products made with natural plant oils. After the repellents were applied and allowed to sit for 30 minutes, the volunteers reached into a cage containing (disease-free) mosquitoes or ticks.

Two products emerged on top and were able to keep mosquitoes and ticks away for at least seven hours: products that contained 20 percent picaridin or 30 percent oil of lemon eucalyptus. Picaridin resembles the natural compound piperine, an essential oil in black pepper.

However, picaridin is not a natural compound; it’s produced synthetically in the lab. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), picaridin does not carry the same neurotoxicity concerns at DEET, although it has not been tested much over the long term. They report:2

“Overall, EWG’s assessment is that Picaridin is a good DEET alternative with many of the same advantages and without the same disadvantages.”

Lemon Eucalyptus Is a ‘Biopesticide’ Repellent

Oil of lemon eucalyptus comes from the gum eucalyptus tree, but it is p-menthane-3,8-diol (PMD), its synthetic version with pesticidal properties, that is used as an insect repellent. While the term “PMD” is often used interchangeably with lemon eucalyptus oil, know that it is different from the “pure” unrefined oil, which is typically used in making fragrances.

The pure oil is not registered with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as an insect repellant. PMD or the refined version, on the other hand, has a long history of use but only recently became important as a commercial repellent.

In 2000, the EPA registered oil of lemon eucalyptus or PMD as a “biopesticide repellent,” meaning it is derived from natural materials. Both lemon eucalyptus oil and picaridin are not actual repellents, but insteadmost likely work by masking the environmental cues that mosquitoes use to locate their target.

Side effects of both picaridin and lemon eucalyptus include potential skin or eye irritation, and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) states that picaridin should not be used on children under age 3. Urvashi Rangan, PhD, executive director of Consumer Reports’ Food Safety and Sustainability Center, said:

“They are not side-effect-free, but ‘those problems are much less severe than deet…’ Still, all repellents should be used sparingly and only for the time you need them—especially on children and older people.”

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