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What’s the deal with DEET? (And why you might want to avoid it)


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Summer is synonymous with backyard barbecues, wine nights on the patio, and yoga in the park. Want to know how to instantly kill the vibe in any of those scenarios? Mosquitos (literal buzzkill, am I right?).

But before you hose yourself down with bug spray, you might want to consider what ingredients you’re using to keep those stage-five clingers at bay—namely, DEET. The insect-repelling chemical is one of the most common ingredients in bug sprays, but about one-third of Americans avoid using products that contain it, according to a 2018 Consumer Reports study.

So what’s the deal? We teamed up with Thermacell, a spray-free mosquito repeller, to get to the bottom of what exactly this mystery ingredient is and why so many people dislike using it on their skin.

Keep reading for the deets on DEET, plus tips for having a mosquito-free summer.


What is DEET?

First up, what exactly is this stuff? Its chemical name is N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide (which explains the need for a nickname), and it works by making it difficult for mosquitos and other biting bugs to smell humans (hence the distinctive smell of most bug sprays).

Think of it like a spray-on invisibility cloak—which sounds pretty cool, but also comes with downsides. According to Kyle Adelman, senior marketing manager at Thermacell, most DEET dissenters dislike its oily, sticky texture, the necessity of reapplying so often (in order to, you know, stay invisible), and the fact that it can damage certain fabrics.


What are the alternatives?

If you’re not down with DEET (or just don’t like the smell of insect repellants), you have a few options. 1. Resign yourself to getting eaten alive (10 out of 10 would not recommend). 2. Use alt-products like tiki torches or citronella candles (which studies show don’t work that well, and still don’t smell great). 3. Opt for Thermacell, a DEET-free, non-spray device (which FYI is a best seller on Amazon).

“Instead of stopping mosquitoes on your skin, Thermacell stops them in flight,” Adelman explains. “We use heat to activate a repellent that creates a 15-foot zone of protection. This will cover you and those around you.” So instead of an invisibility cloak, you get a whole invisibility globe.

The coolest part? The repellant ingredient in Thermacell is allethrin, which is a synthetic copy of a natural repellent found in chrysanthemums. Short of carpeting your backyard in flowers—which honestly would look lovely and would definitely smell better than a candle or a spray, but I digress—Thermacell is a much less labor-intensive option for creating a mosquito-free zone.

And since it’s spray-free, the only reason you’d have to shower after your outdoor soiree is if it was extra hot outside or if you spilled wine toasting to a DEET-free summer.

In partnership with Thermacell

Top photo: Stocksy/Dimitrije Tanaskovic

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