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What is an Insect Repellent?

Did you know that insect repellents are pesticides? According to pesticide law, a pesticide is any substance or mixture of substances intended for:

  • preventing;
  • destroying;
  • repelling; or
  • mitigating any pest. (Mitigating means reducing the effect of something.)

​People often think of the term pesticide as referring only to something that kills insects, but "pesticide" is a broad term and includes products that don't kill anything, such as insect repellents. Products labeled as repellents are not designed to eliminate pests. For example, in the case of the skin-applied repellents, the product makes people less attractive to the pest.

Types of Insect Repellents 

Insect repellents applied to the skin are often what we think of when we want to avoid insect bites. These are the most broadly useful, since they stay with you regardless of your movements. Other types of repellents that EPA registers include:

  • Clip-on products that have a pad with the repellent and a fan or other mechanism that disperses the repellent near your body.
  • Spatial repellents use a heating mechanism to disperse repellent in an outdoor area. Examples of dispersal mechanisms for spatial repellents include:
    • Lanterns.
    • Torches.
    • Table-top diffusers.
    • Candles.
    • Coils.

Note that both stationary and wearable spatial repellents are for outdoor use only, unless the label specifically states they can be used indoors. Read the label to understand any limitations such as:

  • The area they cover.
  • The effect of wind on their use.
  • Whether or not the repellent needs to build up in an area before mosquitoes will be repelled effectively.

To be registered by EPA, these products must have safety and effectiveness data, which EPA evaluates before allowing them on the market.

Other products on the market, such as devices that rely on sound waves, are not registered by EPA, so no safety or effectiveness data are available, and EPA does not know if they will be effective against mosquitoes. They may be subject to certain regulatory requirements as "devices." Read more about regulation of devices.

See information for travelers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on protection from mosquitoes, including locations where Zika transmission has occurred in the United States and other areas.

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