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Is it safe to use insect repellent while I'm pregnant?

Expert Answers

Lori Wolfe
Genetic counselor

Yes, when used as recommended, most insect repellents are considered safe during pregnancy. Since there are different types of active ingredients (pesticides) in insect repellents, remember to read the label carefully.

Use caution with any product that contains the chemical DEET (N, N-ethyl-m-toluaminde or m-DET), as some people are sensitive to it and can experience harmful side effects. But most people won't have any adverse effects when they use DEET as recommended on the label.

DEET is the most effective and best studied product on the market, and is very good at preventing mosquito bites and keeping ticks from attaching. In the majority of animal studies, even at levels toxic to the pregnant mother, no increase in birth defects was noted. (When any insect repellent is applied directly to the skin, about 5 to 10 percent of the pesticide will be absorbed into your bloodstream and can reach the baby. In most cases, this level results in a very low exposure for your baby.)

Limited human studies have also found no increase in birth defects. And when DEET was used as recommended, no other problems were noted with babies' survival, growth, or development in the first year of life.

In order to minimize exposure, always use a product with the lowest concentration of DEET needed for your protection. Products containing higher levels of DEET last longer but don't provide greater protection. When possible, apply the pesticide to your clothing rather than directly to your skin.

Some insect repellent products contain citronella oil. This essential oil is considered a safer alternative to DEET products and may have some effectiveness in repelling insects. Although the data is limited, there's no known harm from applying small amounts of citronella products to your skin or from using these products on your clothing.

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