Insect repellents (often called bug spray) can help protect you from mosquito and tick bites. Insect bites can cause several health problems, from itchiness and irritation to potentially serious diseases.
Mosquitoes can bite at any time of the day, but they tend to be more active at dawn and dusk. Ticks are often found along trail edges, mostly in wooded areas or tall grass.
Around the world, mosquito and tick bites can lead to a range of diseases, including malaria. Here in Canada, West Nile virus and Lyme disease are the only real health concerns. For most Canadians, the risk of getting these illnesses is very low, and the risk of serious health effects is also low.
Your best protection is to prevent bug bites in the first place. Cover exposed skin with clothing as much as possible, or use insect repellents that have been approved by Health Canada. Approved Health Canada products have a Pest Control Product (PCP) registration number on the product label.
Safety tips: Protect yourself from bug bites
Besides using an insect repellent, you can reduce your risk by taking the following steps:
- Stay inside. When possible, avoid being outdoors at dawn or dusk, when mosquitoes are most active.
- Get rid of standing water. Mosquitoes develop in standing pools of water, so remove water from pool covers, saucers under flower pots, pet bowls, and wading pools on your property. Empty and clean bird baths twice a week, and regularly clean eavestroughs to prevent clogs that can trap water.
- Control mosquitoes. See our fact sheet on Mosquitoes to learn more about controlling them.
- Wear long clothes. Wear long-sleeved shirts, full-length pants and closed shoes if you are outdoors when mosquitoes are active or where ticks might be found.To help keep ticks away from your bare skin, you should also tuck your shirt into your pants and pull socks up over your pant legs.
- Wear light colours. Wear light-coloured clothing, which will help make you less attractive to mosquitoes and allow you to see ticks more easily.
- Seal holes in screens and doors. Make sure you have screens on your windows that do not have any tears or gaps. Make sure doors are tight fitting.
- Check clothes and pets for ticks. When returning from areas where ticks may be found, check your clothes and your entire body for ticks. Check pets often too.
- Get immunized. Do you plan to travel to tropical areas where serious mosquito-borne diseases like malaria are common? See your doctor or visit a travel clinic several weeks before you go to get vaccinated. See Travel health for more information.
Choosing an insect repellent
Choose a product that meets your needs. For example, if you plan to be outdoors for a short period of time, choose a product with a lower concentration of repellent and re-apply only if you need a longer protection time.
Only use products that have a Pest Control Product registration number and are labelled as insect repellents for use on humans. Never use a product labelled as an insecticide on your body!
Registered insect repellents containing DEET can be used safely when applied as directed. Health Canada completed its latest review of DEET products in 2002, which was supported by the Canadian Paediatric Society.
The higher the DEET concentration in the repellent, the longer it provides protection. While this is true for protection against both mosquitoes and ticks, DEET repels mosquitoes for a longer time than for ticks. To get protection from ticks, look for a product that specifies use for ticks.
Health Canada has approved the following concentrations for different age groups. Prolonged use should be avoided in children under the age of 12.
- Adults and children over 12: Up to 30% concentration of DEET may be used. One application of 30% DEET should be effective for six hours against mosquitoes.
- Children aged two to 12: Up to 10% concentration may be used, applied up to three times daily. One application of 10% DEET should be effective for three hours against mosquitoes.
- Children aged six months to two years: Up to 10% concentration may be used, applied no more than once daily. One application of 10% DEET offers three hours of protection against mosquitoes.
- Children under six months: Do not use personal insect repellents containing DEET on infants under six months of age. Instead, use a mosquito net when babies are outdoors in a crib, playpen or stroller.
Sunscreen and insect repellents
Combination skin moisturizer and insect repellent products are not approved by Health Canada. Instead, separate sunscreen and personal insect repellents can be used safely at the same time.
Follow the instructions on the package for how to apply each product. Apply the sunscreen first, then the insect repellent.
Products with the active ingredient P-menthane 3,8-diol are registered in Canada. They provide up to two hours of protection against mosquitoes and up to five hours against blackflies, but should not be used on children under three. These products can be applied up to two times a day.
Soybean oil, 2% blocker repellent is a personal insect repellent that provides protection for 3.5 hours against mosquitoes and for up to 8 hours against blackflies. There are no age restrictions or limitations on frequency of use with these products.
In 2004, Health Canada completed a review of citronella-based insect repellents that are applied directly to the skin. There was a lack of safety data to support continued registration. But since Health Canada did not identify any health risks, citronella-based personal insect repellents will remain on the market until a final decision is made.
Registered products containing citronella protect people against mosquito bites for 30 minutes to two hours. These products should not be used on infants and toddlers. Certain products containing citronella have a limit on the number of applications allowed a day. Read the product label before using.
Not recommended for protection
The following products are not recommended for a variety of reasons. They may not be very effective or long-lasting, and may be harmful to human health:
- electronic or ultrasonic devices
- electrocuting devices, like bug zappers
- wristbands, neckbands and ankle bands that contain repellents
- odour-baited mosquitoe traps
- citrosa houseplants
- vitamin B1 taken orally
- skin moisturizer and insect repellent combination products
Safety tips: Using insect repellents
- Always read the entire label carefully before using and follow all directions. This includes restrictions for use on children and the maximum number of applications allowed a day.
- Apply only a small amount of repellent, and only on exposed skin or on top of clothing. Do not use under clothing. You do not need a lot for it to be effective. Repeat applications only as needed and directed on the product label.
- Try not to get repellent in your eyes. If you do, rinse them immediately with water.
- Do not use the repellent on open wounds, or if your skin is irritated or sunburned.
- Avoid breathing spray mists and never apply sprays inside a tent. Use only in well-ventilated areas. Do not use near food.
- When using a spray, do not spray directly onto your face. Spray on your hands first and then apply to your face.
- Wash treated skin with soap and water when you return indoors or when protection is no longer needed.
- Keep all insect repellent containers out of reach of children and pets.
- Always supervise the application of insect repellents on children.
- Avoid applying repellent to children's hands to reduce the chance of getting the repellent in their eyes and mouths.
- If you suspect that you or your child is reacting to an insect repellent, stop using the product immediately, wash treated skin, and get medical help. When you go to the doctor, take the product container with you.
- If you are concerned that you might be sensitive to a product, apply the product to a small area of skin on your arm and wait 24 hours to see if you have a reaction.
How we protect you
All pesticides must be registered before they can be imported, sold, or used in Canada. Health Canada does a lot of testing and scientific review on products before registering them. We only register a pesticide when it works well to control a pest. We also have to be reasonably certain that it won't cause harm to human health, future generations, or the environment.
The Public Health Agency of Canada works with a number of partners to reduce the risk of exposure to West Nile virus. The Committee to Advise on Tropical Medicine and Travel (CATMAT) recommends to the Public Health Agency of Canada how to prevent and treat infectious diseases and other health hazards that Canadian travellers may run into outside Canada.
For more information, contact the Health Canada Pest Management Information Service at 1-800-267-6315.
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