DEET vs Natural Repellents

To DEET Or Not To DEET

Compelling Issues Draw Consumer Attention

By David Shaw Founder, Quantum Health


When Dr. Marcus Laux's students - a group of doctors, pharmacists and researchers - arrived in the Amazon Rain Forest to study the roots of modern pharmacy, most had packed their bags with DEET based insect repellents. But by the end of the trip, all members of his expedition had switched to the natural plant oil based repellent provided by our company (Quantum Health) for field testing. According to Dr. Laux, the natural product worked just as well and is friendlier to the environment.

Classified as a pesticide by the EPA, DEET, or diethyl-meta-toluamide, can be found in most over-the-counter insect repellents. Media coverage documenting the health risks associated with it's use have prompted retailers to look for alternative repellent formulas. But not for the first time.

Five years ago, one of the first DEET-free insect repellents was brought in by a number of major drug chains. The product didn't do well and most pulled it. The buyers were forward thinking, but the public simply didn't know enough about DEET to fully take advantage of the choice being offered. Times have changed - largely due to the media's attention to the potential dangers of DEET.

Three major incidents set the presses rolling. In 1995, New York State banned products with 30% or more DEET after reviewing 44 public health studies; The U.S. Military supplies soldiers with 33% or less DEET products; and DEET is suspected of being responsible, in part, for Gulf War Syndrome.

DEET has been proven to enter the bloodstream through application to the skin, and while many people use DEET-based products without incident, others have suffered side-effects ranging from rashes and hives to uncontrollable twitching and muscle spasms to death. Children seem especially susceptible to DEET problems. In 1995 alone, the National Poison Control Center in Washington, DC. received over 6,700 reports of repellent exposure, including one death, and of the 6,700 reports, two thirds occurred in children age six and under.

The biggest media jolt came when ABC's PrimeTime Live did a twenty minute segment on DEET. The public began to pay serious attention, and companies like ours began to see very strong product movement. PrimeTime's report focused on particularly dramatic incidents that highlight the dangers. The program told the stories of Tim Christiansen, who at 26 years old died after using DEET twice one summer day in 1994; on Elijah Harrison, an 8 year old boy who's mother sprayed him with a 25% DEET product once a day for two days - he still suffers from seizures; and on workers in the Everglades National Park who experienced rashes, dizziness and numbness of the lips after using a DEET repellent.

To DEET or not to DEET? As with other products on the market today that have known health risks, the consumer must make the choice. We at Quantum Health have been marketing a non-DEET repellent, Buzz Away, since 1992 and sales have increased 10 fold since the introduction. Much of the increase is due to willingness of mass market retailers to revisit the category. Buzz Away velocities have equaled or exceeded those of DEET based repellents. It is our belief that increased consumer awareness of DEET's dangers, combined with it's unpleasant odor and feel on the skin (which outdoor lovers have complained about for years), have driven sales.

Even the EPA, which regulates the category, is aware of the problem. In an article that appeared in Natural Health Magazine, EPA toxicologist Michael Watson noted an instance "where exposure to DEET caused six cases of brain damage in girls aged one through six - and three of them died".

A significant number of books on health care also note the dangers. According to The Doctors Book Of Home Remedies For Children from Bantam Books; "DEET containing products must be used sparingly on children under ten and should never be used on children under two. Very young children run the risk of absorbing a toxic dose through the skin".

In response to the problem, manufacturers have come up with a variety of product options. The most accepted active ingredient alternative to DEET is citronella. While the Buzz Away line uses citronella and other natural plant oil extracts exclusively, companies like SC Johnson have chosen to use a low percentage DEET base. It should be noted that as with DEET based repellents, Buzz Away went through the EPA's rigorous testing for safety and efficacy.

Still, DEET based products continue to far outsell the natural alternatives. For one thing, DEET formulas work longer - most for 6 hours but some go up to 10 hours. Our product was EPA tested for 2 1/2 hours and field tested by a University of Oregon team for up to 4 hours. The consumer has to apply it more frequently. DEET based products are the more familiar and most people don't experience negative side effects. Some people attract bugs so much that only a DEET product is effective. Also, the side effects hurt children in much larger numbers than adults.

Media coverage continues to expose the dangers. Already this year, articles on DEET have appeared in Rodale's Backpacker magazine and others will be appearing in New Woman, Saturday Evening Post, Better Nutrition, Ms. Fitness and others.

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