Is It Safe To Use Insect Repellent During Pregnancy?

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Insects and bugs are a natural part of our environment, so it’s not possible to stay away from them. While some insects are harmless, others can be dangerous and should be avoided with insect repellents. However, you may be confused if you should use insect repellent when pregnant since some of the components in the repellents may harm you or your baby. So, we have answered your questions and included more information about insect repellents to help you out.

What Are Insect Repellents?

Insect repellents are sprays, oils or lotions that, when applied to skin, clothes or bed nets, prevent the insects from biting (1). They reduce the likeliness of bites from mosquitoes, spiders, flies or ticks, and thereby lower the chances of serious diseases such as malaria, Zika virus, West Nile virus or Lyme disease caused by these insects. Since these illnesses are very harmful to you and your baby, it is essential to use insect repellents to prevents the bites.

Is It Safe To Use Insect Repellent When Pregnant?

Yes, insect repellents are considered safe during pregnancy when you use them as recommended. Most insect repellents contain an active chemical, DEET (N, N-diethyl-meta-toluamide), which is an effective insecticide and safe to use in limited quantities (recommended concentration of DEET is 35% – 50%) (2).

What Kind Of Insect Repellents Are Safe For Pregnant Women?

Insect repellents registered under the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are safe to use as directed.

1. DEET:

This is an active ingredient found in most common insect repellent brands. In use for many years, DEET is most effective against ticks and mosquitoes. Most repellents, available in the form of spray, oil or lotion that can be applied on skin or clothing, have around 10 to 25% DEET. A preparation containing 25% of DEET will protect you up to 10 hours while lower concentrations offer protection for shorter a duration (3).

2. Picaridin:

It is as safe and effective as DEET when used in the same concentrations. It works against mosquitoes, biting midges and chiggers. A preparation with up to 20% picaridin will protect against insects at least for four to eight hours. It is present in repellents from brands such as Cutter, Avon, Go Ready, Sawyer, Walgreens and Repel (4).

3. IR3535:

Used in the European continent for many years, IR3535 is known to work on mosquitoes and black-legged ticks. Most studies show that up to 20% of IR3535 in a preparation will protect against mosquitoes for around four to six hours. However, there are few studies about its usage and effects on human pregnancy. So check with the doctor before using it (4).

4. PMD (para-menthane-3,8-diol):

This is a synthetic version of lemon eucalyptus oil, and is as effective as smaller concentrations of DEET. It offers protection against mosquitoes, gnats, and flies. A preparation with around 10% PMD provides up to two hours of protection (5) (6).

5. 2-undecanone (methyl nonyl ketone):

It is a chemical derived from plants of rue, cloves, ginger, and bananas. It is primarily used in the flavoring and perfumery industries, and also as insect and animal repellent. It is also used as dog/cat repellent or a training aid. Preparation with 8% of this chemical will protect you from mosquito bites for three to five hours (7).

6. Botanical oil mixes:

Some of the high-performing repellents are made of plant oils including geranium, coconut, cedar, soybean, lemongrass, castor, rosemary and peppermint oil. However, they are not as effective as other repellents since they do not work in areas with insect-borne diseases. Also, citronella diffusers are more effective compared to citronella candles in keeping the insects away (8) (9).

Be careful when using an insect repellent, whether it is DEET or a milder, herbal equivalent of it when you are pregnant.

Precautions While Using Insect Repellents In Pregnancy

The following safety precautions minimize the risk of any adverse reactions to insect repellents (10):

  • Apply repellents as directed on the label. Apply only on the exposed skin or clothes but not under clothing.
  • Do not use on wounds, cuts and irritated skin.
  • Do not apply on face, mouth or eyes. Avoid spraying directly on the face. Instead, spray some repellent on your hand and apply to the face.
  • Avoid excess application, as that won’t give you better or prolonged protection.
  • If you experience any reaction, quit using it and wash it off immediately. Check with your doctor after that.

Unnecessary use of chemical-based repellents should be avoided to prevent any complications during pregnancy.

Can Use Of Insect Repellents During Pregnancy Cause Birth Defects?

There aren’t many supporting studies indicating that the use of mosquito repellents can cause birth defects in babies. However, one study states that a birth defect in boys, referred to as hypospadias (where the opening of the penis is on the underside but not at the tip), was common in the case of women who used mosquito repellents during the first trimester, although the reliability of the research was questionable. Studies on women who used DEET showed adverse results but not greatly. More research linking pregnancy and use of insect repellents is essential to come to a firm conclusion (3).

What Are The Side Effects Of Insect Repellents On Pregnant Women?

When not used as directed, insect repellents can have a few possible side effects including (11):

  • Though very rare, high concentrations might affect the central nervous system leading to seizures and headaches. Therefore, apply on a small area and test for any allergic reaction.
  • Picaridin irritates the skin but not as much as DEET.

A safer alternative to the chemical-based repellents are the natural or organic repellents made from plants.

Natural Insect Repellents During Pregnancy

Natural insect repellents might be better for those who have sensitive skin and want to reduce the exposure to chemicals. Some safe alternatives include (12) (13):

  • Mosquito nets and meshes
  • Burning lemongrass, citronella, lavender or eucalyptus candles
  • Earthen lamps with neem oil to keep the insects away.
  • Cut small pieces of garlic and sprinkle around the living area outdoors.
  • Place holy basil (Tulsi) plant, close to the window, to prevent mosquitoes and insects from entering inside.
  • Catnip plant is also useful as it contains a component called Nepetalactone, which is known to be ten times stronger than DEET (14).

Next, we answer a few more related queries for you.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Are there any risks to my baby if the father uses insect repellents?

There is no research pointing at risks to the baby if the father uses insect repellents before or at the time of conception. Exposures that men have are unlikely to increase the risks of pregnancy (3).

2. Can I apply DEET or any other insect repellent under my clothes?

You should not apply DEET or any insect repellent under your clothes as it leads to skin irritation (15).

3. How often should I reapply a repellent?

Reapply the repellent as directed. Follow the instructions to know how frequently you need to apply it. Check for conditions such as perspiration, rain or high humidity that might warrant additional repellent application. Do not reapply if you are not bitten (16).

4. Why do pregnant women attract more insects/mosquitoes?

Pregnant women attract more insects or mosquitoes due to two reasons. One explanation is expectant moms breathe heavily and release more carbon dioxide that attracts insects/mosquitoes. Another is that the lactic acid released with sweat tends to attract the insects (17) (18).

Using a limited amount of insect repellents during pregnancy is considered safe. Repellants registered under US EPA are relatively safe, including DEET, PMD, or botanical oil mixes. However, note that you should apply only the recommended amount and wash it off immediately if you experience any discomfort or burning sensation on your skin. Opting for natural methods is safer, such as mosquito nets, burning lemongrass, or using the catnip plant. Most importantly, you should find ways to protect yourself from mosquitoes and insects by cleaning the surroundings.

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Dr. Mamta Sahu

(DGO)
Dr. Mamta Sahu works as a consultant at various hospitals in Delhi and also manages her private practice in Noida. With over 18 years of experience in gynecology and obstetrics, she specializes in high risk pregnancies, adolescent health, fertility treatments, and menopausal problems. In Noida, she started a "Preventive Care For Young Women" program that addresses  nutrition and lifestyle disorders,... more

Rebecca Malachi

Rebecca is a pregnancy writer and editor with a passion for delivering research-based and engaging content in areas of fertility, pregnancy, birth, and post-pregnancy. She has been into health and wellness writing since 2010. She received her graduate degree in Biotechnology and Genetics from Loyola Academy, Osmania University and obtained a certification in ‘Nutrition and Lifestyle in Pregnancy’ from Ludwig... more