Whether it’s the time of year or just your part of the country, you may have reason to apply mosquito repellent before heading outside. You may be fine spraying or rubbing repellents on yourself, but is it safe to use mosquito repellent on your baby?

In most cases, yes. However, there are do’s and don’ts. Here’s what to know before reaching for the repellent.

What is mosquito repellent?

Mosquito repellent, or insect repellent, prevents bites from biting bugs, including fleas, ticks, mosquitos, and chiggers. Insect repellent won’t protect against insects that sting, like bees, wasps, and hornets. You can find repellent in different forms, like liquids, sprays, aerosols, creams, or sticks, as well as those made from chemical and natural ingredients.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the following products and devices are not considered effective as insect repellents:

  • wristbands that have been soaked in chemical insect repellents
  • taking garlic or vitamin B-1 by mouth
  • ultrasonic devices that emit sound waves
  • bird or bat houses
  • bug zappers

In addition to being uncomfortable, mosquito bites can be dangerous. More than 1 million people across the globe die annually from mosquito-borne diseases, which include malaria, West Nile, Zika virus, Chikungunya virus, and others.

Is a mosquito repellent with DEET safe for babies?

DEET is a chemical often used as an active ingredient in mosquito and insect repellents. It’s absorbed through the skin, but repellents with DEET have been tested and approved as safe for children. But it’s still important to follow a few precautions.

Check the label when you’re shopping, as the percentage of DEET will vary from one product to another. It could be anywhere from 4 to 30 percent, but amounts higher than 30 percent aren’t believed to be more effective. At concentrations above 30 percent, the chemical can be toxic.

So why the varying amounts? The American Academy of Pediatrics notes that studies have shown that products with higher levels of DEET offer protection from biting insects for longer periods of time. They don’t work better — they just last longer. A product with 10 percent DEET will offer protection for about two hours, while one with 30 percent will last about five hours. For small children and babies, it’s best to use a lower dose and reapply it as necessary.

If you’re using a repellent that contains DEET, you should know that allergic reactions are rare, but still possible. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people who experience a reaction to products with high levels of DEET have had skin rashes, irritation to the skin and mucous membranes, and blisters.

Best practices for using DEET with children

DEET is toxic if it’s swallowed, so follow these best practices if you use a chemical repellent containing this ingredient:

  • Don’t let kids under age 10 apply repellent by themselves.
  • Make sure repellents are stored out of your children’s reach.
  • Go outside before applying, and follow directions on the product label. Consider spraying the product onto your hands first, then gently rubbing it on your baby’s exposed skin.
  • Use only enough repellent to cover any exposed skin. You can also use it on clothing, socks, and shoes, but it shouldn’t be applied under your baby’s clothes. Don’t overapply, and don’t use on broken skin or cuts.
  • Because DEET shouldn’t be inhaled, avoid using it on your baby’s face.
  • Don’t apply repellent with DEET to your baby’s hands. Otherwise, they could rub their eyes or accidentally get it in their mouth.
  • When you’re finished outside, wash your baby’s skin well with soap and water, and make sure to wash your baby’s clothing too.

Mosquito repellents with DEET aren’t recommended for babies under 2 months old. To protect babies 2 months and younger, use mosquito netting over the infant carrier or stroller. For all ages, if the weather allows, protect their skin with long pants, long-sleeved tops, and socks.

Is there an alternative to mosquito repellents with DEET?

Repellents containing either picaridin or oil of lemon eucalyptus can also protect against mosquito bites. However, the oil, which is known as P-menthane diol, is a plant-based repellent that shouldn’t be used on children under 3.

Picaridin is used in mosquito repellents around the world. It’s an alternative to DEET and available in mosquito repellents in concentrations between 5 and 10 percent.

Products considered natural insect repellents usually contain essential oils. They may be moderately effective when used properly (which means they’ve been applied liberally to all exposed skin), but you should understand that they will not work as well as chemical products containing DEET or picaridin.

Additional tips

  • Don’t use products that are sunscreen-insect repellent combinations. Sunscreen should be reapplied every two hours, but insect repellent may not.
  • If you’re outside with your baby in the evenings, keep your little one covered up with long sleeves, pants, and socks to help prevent bites.
  • Avoid standing water, which is where mosquitos breed.
  • Avoid scented lotions, which may attract mosquitos.