How to properly apply insect repellent

Having the yard of your home filled with the buzzing of mosquitoes, gnats, and other such pests is both a source of annoyance – and a potential health risk to your family. These insects plant upon your skin irritating bites, the constant scratching of which can leave you with sores that make you susceptible to various kinds of infection; add to that the fact that mosquitoes (in particular) are carriers of some of the world’s most dangerous diseases, including Malaria, Dengue fever, and the West Nile River virus. Fortunately, there are many ways you can protect you and your loved ones from these airborne assailants, and turn your domains into a bug-free zone; one of the most obvious is the application of a good insect repellent. Read on as we explore how to do this in the correct manner, and thus achieve the best results when it comes to warding off pests.

About insect repellents

First, though, a word about insect repellents and just how they work. Mosquitoes and other airborne pests feed on human blood; that, in fact, is what they are doing when they bite our skin. The mosquitoes require this protein-rich meal to sustain themselves and to help their budding offspring grow into strong, healthy specimens. But how do they detect the presence of this nutritious food source? It turns out that mosquitoes are drawn to us by the smell of certain chemicals in our sweat and other skin secretions – as well as by the heat emitted by our bodies. Mosquito repellents effectively neutralize these mosquito attractants ­– they contain chemicals that mosquitoes cannot bear to be around. The most common active ingredient by far in mosquito repellents – and the most potent at warding off insects – is a synthetic chemical known as DEET, or N, N-Diethyl-meta-toulamide. For best results in repelling mosquitoes, you are advised to apply a formula containing at least 20 percent DEET as it’s active ingredient.

Be warned, though, that despite its effectiveness at repelling mosquitoes, DEET is not exactly harmless to the other creatures that are exposed to it – us humans! DEET is thought by many to be toxic to homo sapiens, and the children of our in particular – as well as harmful to the natural environment generally – so if this fact bothers you, then you may want to try one of the many, all-natural, eco-friendly repellents now out there on the market. These contain as their active ingredient such ‘natural’ substances as citronella oil, lemongrass, lavender or rosemary essential oil, and the like. In spite of their safety, they are not as powerful as DEET, however, so it is up to you to decide if the trade-off in protection against mosquitoes is worth it.

How to apply insect repellents to your skin

But regardless of what formulation you decide upon, what is the proper way to apply insect repellent? This may seem like a trivial question to ask, but actually following the correct set of techniques in applying your chosen repellent can make all the difference in how well you are protected against insects. Note: most repellents come in the form of an aerosol or spray, and the tips and pointers contained here assume that your repellent is as well. For roll-ons and lotions, much of the same advice is also applicable, however.

First of all, read the instructions on your bottle: these will advise you on whether you need to shake your bottle before applying it to your skin, and for how long. If you are lucky, it will also recommend what is a safe distance from your skin and clothing to hold your aerosol as you spray yourself with it. If it doesn’t, a good rule of thumb is to hold the bottle about 15-20 centimeters from your skin.

Next, proceed to spray all areas of exposed skin – and clothing, if you like – using a slow, sweeping motion, leaving no area unchecked. Don’t overlook easily to forget spots like the elbows and knees. To avoid excessive odors and greasy residues, apply just enough repellent to cover those areas and no more.

Facing the fact

When it comes to your face – and your children’s face – you must exercise extreme caution and control. You don’t want to get any repellent in your eyes or mouth. To do this, spray repellent on the palm of your hand first, then rub on your face. A light covering of your entire face – including around the ears, but avoiding the eyes and mouth altogether – is what you should be aiming for.

What NOT to do

Generally speaking, it is OK to apply mosquito repellent together with sunscreen; in most cases, though, you should apply the sunscreen BEFORE you cover your skin with insect repellent. Be sure to check the instructions on your repellent of choice for any extra information, though.

Next, don’t apply repellents to areas of skin that are sun-burnt, or contain sores or open wounds – or you risk aggravating those conditions.

Thirdly, it is not a good idea to spray you and your loved ones with mosquito repellent inside, in enclosed spaces, lest you inhale potentially toxic fumes. Always apply repellent outside.

When it comes to DEET-based insect repellents, there are certain materials this substance does not react well with, and which you should avoid applying on or around. These include spandex, rayon, acetate, many plastics, leather, painted or varnished surfaces, as well as certain others. Always look at the precautions that come with your can of repellent to determine where it is and is not safe to use your formula.

How often does insect repellent need to be re-applied?

If you are planning to spend a lot of time outdoors, then be sure to choose a long-lasting product that doesn’t need to be re-applied at very short intervals. As a rule, the higher the percentage of active ingredient contained in the product, the longer lasting the repellent, and the less frequently it needs to be re-applied (the amount of active ingredient in the product is NOT a measure of how powerful it is).

Insect repellent for kids

Very important! Keep insect repellent well out of the reach of your little ones, and certainly, don’t let them apply it on their own. Follow the same ‘hands first’ technique that you do when applying repellent to your own face. First spray repellent on the palm of your hand, then rub onto the skin of your children.

Applying insect repellent to clothing

You might not have realized, but mosquitoes can also bite through clothing that is not particularly tightly woven. If you don’t want to wear thick woolen jumpers and pants outside in the middle of summer, then one solution is to apply insect repellent to your clothing. Spray shirts, trousers, shoes, socks, and hats – instead of underneath – and you should be well protected against bugs. Be sure to wash all of your treated clothing before you put it on again.

Remember, if DEET is the active ingredient in your chosen repellent, then there are certain materials it is not recommended to spray it on or around. See above for a list of the main ones.

Applying repellent to your tent, bedding and mosquito nets is another good idea when you are out on extended camping trips – although nowadays you can also buy versions of these products that have been pre-treated with repellent.


Main editor

Expert in mosquito control and the main website editor at Karen started InsectCop to help people get rid of mosquitoes. But now she gives advice an all things pest control.

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