Mosquitos suck, so which repellent is best to deter them: Deet or Picaridin?

Whether you’re deployed or sitting on your back porch, mosquitos can ruin your time outside.

My grandfather spent World War II in the Pacific Theater, island hopping from one inhospitable jungle to the next. And though I never met him, my mom told me the stories he brought back. They weren’t of his combat, which saw him earn a Purple Heart— his statement remained steadfastly, “We were boys shooting at other boys” — but of the rank snake- and mosquito-infested wilderness. His kingdom for mosquito repellent. 

Today, we have Deet and Picaridin, two highly effective forms of mosquito repellent that I’m sure would’ve made my grandfather’s experience slightly less awful. Today, these compounds improve the lives of soldiers and civilians around the world and help fight dengue fever, malaria, and a host of other mosquito-borne illnesses and diseases. 

But to many, they’re just things we spray onto ourselves and our children when trudging through other inhospitable jungles in countries we definitely aren’t actually in. Most don’t think about the differences between the two, what they help achieve, how many people they protect, or the real difference between deet and picaridin. 

That’s where Task & Purpose’s info editors come in. Let’s get into all that and drop you some knowledge. 

What is Deet?

DEET, or diethyltoluamide, is the active ingredient in many insect repellents and was created by the United States’ Department of Agriculture in 1944 for the Army. This was following the Army’s issues with insects, mosquitos, and diseases encountered during its jungle warfare campaigns in WWII. The USDA first tested it in an agricultural setting, but it was quickly put into military use in 1946. Civilians didn’t get it until 1957. 

What is Picaridin?

Picaridin Chemical Structure.
Picaridin Chemical Structure. Jonathon Klein

Picaridin, also known as icaridin, is a synthetic insect repellent developed in the 1980s by the German company, Bayer. It wasn’t approved for civilian use until 2020 when the EU Commission confirmed it was safe. 

What’s the difference between Deet and Picaridin?

Other than their compositions, both Deet and Picaridin are very similar. Both are proven effective mosquito repellents, they’re both synthetic compounds (though they use different types of chemicals), and both work by masking a person’s odor volatility — or in laymen’s terms, it masks the smell mosquitos love so much. 

What are common mosquito-borne diseases?

How the US Army uses Deet.
How the U.S. Army uses Deet. DoD

Mosquitos are the most dangerous insects in the world, killing more than 1 million people per year around the world thanks to a host of different mosquito-borne diseases. Here are the most common. 

Dengue Fever

According to the CDC, “Dengue viruses are spread to people through the bite of an infected Aedes species (Ae. aegypti or Ae. albopictus) mosquito. These mosquitoes also spread Zika, chikungunya, and other viruses.”

Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, vomiting blood, rashes, aches, pains, eye pain, belly pain, bleeding from nose and gums, and lethargy.

Zika

The CDC states, “Zika is spread mostly by the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito (Ae. aegypti and Ae. albopictus). These mosquitoes bite during the day and night. Zika can be passed from a pregnant woman to her fetus. Infection during pregnancy can cause certain birth defects. There is no vaccine or medicine for Zika.”

Symptoms include fever, rash, headache, joint pain, conjunctivitis, muscle pain, infection during pregnancy can cause a birth defect called microcephaly and other severe fetal brain defects, Guillain-Barré syndrome, swelling of the brain or spinal cord, and a blood disorder which can result in bleeding, bruising or slow blood clotting.

West Nile

Per the CDC, “West Nile virus (WNV) is the leading cause of mosquito-borne disease in the continental United States. It is most commonly spread to people by the bite of an infected mosquito.”

Symptoms include; headache, body aches, joint pains, vomiting, diarrhea, rash, high fever, headache, neck stiffness, stupor, disorientation, coma, tremors, convulsions, muscle weakness, vision loss, numbness, and paralysis. 

Malaria

WHO guidelines say, “Malaria is caused by Plasmodium parasites. The parasites are spread to people through the bites of infected female Anopheles mosquitoes, called “malaria vectors.” There are 5 parasite species that cause malaria in humans, and 2 of these species – P. falciparum and P. vivax – pose the greatest threat. In 2019, there were an estimated 229 million cases of malaria worldwide.”

Symptoms include fever, headache, chills, severe anemia, respiratory distress in relation to metabolic acidosis, cerebral malaria, and multi-organ failure.

Chikungunya

Per the CDC, “Chikungunya virus is spread to people by the bite of an infected mosquito. Outbreaks have occurred in countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Indian and Pacific Oceans. In late 2013, chikungunya virus was found for the first time in the Americas on islands in the Caribbean. There is a risk that the virus will be imported to new areas by infected travelers. There is no vaccine to prevent or medicine to treat chikungunya virus infection.”

Symptoms include fever, headache, muscle pain, joint swelling, or rash.

Yellow Fever

The CDC reports, “The yellow fever virus is found in tropical and subtropical areas of Africa and South America. The virus is spread to people by the bite of an infected mosquito. Illness ranges from a fever with aches and pains to severe liver disease with bleeding and yellowing skin (jaundice).”

Symptoms include sudden onset of fever, chills, severe headache, back pain, general body aches, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, weakness, high fever, yellow skin (jaundice), bleeding, shock, and organ failure.

Mosquito hunters
Mosquito hunters Ilka Cole

Which is better, deet or picaridin?

Unfortunately, it’s unclear. 

Deet has been widely used all around the world since the 1950s but has a few drawbacks, including irritation and toxicity if ingested. There have also been reported neurological effects, according to the Centers for Disease Control: “There have been sporadic reports over the last several decades of an association between excessive use of repellents containing DEET and adverse neurological effects including seizures, uncoordinated movements, agitation, aggressive behavior, low blood pressure, and skin irritation.”

There aren’t those reports from Picaridin, though. As stated, its use hasn’t become as ubiquitous as Deet, nor is there data to accurately state whether it’s better or not compared to Deet. 

A mosquito.
A mosquito. Depositphotos

Other Types of Mosquito Repellent

Deet and Picaridin aren’t the only types of mosquito repellent on the market, nor are they the best for all situations—sorry, they’re no Swiss Army Knives of the mosquito repellent world

Netting

Mosquito netting is used all around the world to keep the pesky little critters out while you’re sleeping, eating, etc. It’s very useful, though a bit tedious to put together and won’t keep everything out.

Citronella

Citronella is an essential oil that’s derived from citronella grasses, leaves, and their stalks. It’s a natural mosquito repellent. 

Zappers

Everyone’s seen and heard these. They’re electrically charged lights that attract all manner of bugs and then zap the living heck out of them. 

Foggers (H3)

Foggers use atomized insecticide that falls onto your grass and trees and both kills and repels insects and mosquitos. 

Ultrasonic repellents

Listen, these are generally regarded as a load of BS. There’s no scientific evidence they work. Please don’t buy them. 

Grass

Specific types of grass are known to be natural insect and mosquito repellent, such as Citronella grasses which includes Lemon Grass.

Spraying mosquito repellent.
Spraying mosquito repellent. Depositphotos

A POGs FAQs about Deet and Picaridin

More questions? Here’s Task & Purpose’s additional brief. 

Q. Is Deet toxic?

A. Like our friends from Minnesota say, “You betcha.” Deet is toxic when swallowed. Avoid spraying directly at a person’s mouth and contact your local Poison Control if one of your children ingests it. And we can’t forget those reports of neurological effects. 

Q. Is Picaridin toxic?

A. Picaridin is classified as a pesticide, and as such, as low- to mid-grade toxicity to humans if you inhale, ingest, or spray in your eyes. It will most likely only cause mild irritation, though.

Q. Is Picaridin natural?

A. It isn’t. As mentioned above, it’s a synthetic compound created by a German biotech company in the 1980s. You won’t find it at Whole Foods. 

Q. How much is Deet compared to Picaridin?

A. Pricing will depend on application type, amount, and brand, but they’re generally the same price. 

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