Dr. Sunil - Is It Bad For You? Approved by Dr. Sunil

Is Bug Spray Bad For You?

Also Known As: insect repellent



Short answer

Bug spray is safe and effective when used properly, but can cause nasty side effects if swallowed, inhaled, or applied to the skin in high concentrations.



Long answer

Bug spray is used to protect against bites from mosquitoes, black flies, ticks, and many other insects that carry diseases. These include Lyme, encephalitis, West Nile virus, dengue fever, and malaria-- the consequences of which are much more severe than an itchy bump. But how safe are bug sprays overall?

The active ingredient most commonly used is DEET, or N,N-diethyl-m-toluamide. When applied directly to the skin, DEET can cause redness, itchiness, and hives-- not unlike a mosquito bite itself. To avoid this, you should spray the product onto your clothes instead of your skin. If DEET is swallowed, it can cause symptoms ranging from stomach irritation, nausea and vomiting, to hypotension and bradycardia (low blood pressure and low heart rate, respectively). The latter may be more of a concern with small children, so be sure to store the bottle out of reach.

Other forms of bug spray use pyrethrin as their active ingredient. This too can cause problems when used incorrectly. If inhaled, it can result in coughing and trouble breathing, and vomiting, seizures, and tremors if swallowed. Pyrethrin is generally seen in cheaper versions of repellent, and should be a second choice to DEET. Bug sprays with DEET are relatively safe when used sparingly and as instructed, and do a great job of protecting you against potentially life-threatening diseases. So, while it may seem like it does more harm than good, just remember: as long as you use it properly you have nothing to fear.

Possible short-term side effects

  • itchiness (if applied to skin)
  • redness (if applied to skin)
  • hives (if applied to skin)
  • coughing (if inhaled)
  • difficulty breathing (if inhaled)
  • nausea (if swallowed)
  • vomiting (if swallowed)
  • hypotension (if swallowed)
  • bradycardia (if swallowed)

Possible long-term side effects

  • burns / scarring (excessive use on skin)

Ingredients to be aware of

  • deet
  • pyrethrin


  • prevents diseases carried by insects

Healthier alternatives

  • citronella picaridin

Thank you for your feedback!

Written by Lindsay
Published on: 12-29-2015
Last updated: 12-10-2016

Thank you for your feedback!

Written by Lindsay
Published on: 12-29-2015
Last updated: 12-10-2016

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