Tag: health

safe insect repellent

Safe insect repellents that work

We’re at the peak of the tick and mosquito season, as our weather is at its warmest this month. And we are about to start the height of flea season. The warming climate is predicted to expand the habitat of ticks and mosquitos. So insect repellent is definitely needed. But which insect repellents are safe and effective?

Many of my patients who know of my caution in using products containing potentially harmful chemicals have asked me to suggest a safe insect repellent that will provide protection. It is important, for starters, to recognize that there is no perfect and completely safe way to prevent insect bites. However, all repellents are not created equal and you do have options for less toxic approaches.

This is what I usually share when I get asked about bug sprays.


Which ingredients are safe (and at what levels)

My go-to for any products containing chemical ingredients is the Environmental Working Group or EWG. A couple of months back, I shared my thoughts on sunscreen and much of my recommendations came from the research and advocacy of the EWG.

According to the EWG, DEET (at less than 30%), Picaridin (at 20%) and IR3535 (at less than 20%) are the safest, most effective ingredients. All three are found in insect repellents that live up to extensive EPA regulations with data to back up efficacy and safety claims. Here’s a quick primer on all three ingredients:



This is probably the ingredient you’ve heard of the most. It is rated as very effective in repelling a wide range of mosquitoes, ticks and other bugs. DEET has been used extensively and is a sensible choice for all-day protection. However, it often shows up in repellents at what are considered unsafe levels. DEET has a strong smell, can irritate the eyes and in rare cases can induce neurological damage. The incidents of nervous system damage most often occur after high exposures to DEET. And it’s even been known to melt plastic at these levels!

However, this is why less than 30% concentration is advisable. And really, you can be protected with just 10% for a couple of hours (then reapply). DEET isn’t perfect – but it has a long history of use and minimal safety concerns when used at appropriate levels. The EWG states that it’s a “reasonable choice” when weighed against the consequences of a life-changing disease, with few cases of toxicity in 60 years on the market. But it’s not the only choice you have.



Repellents containing picaridin have been shown to be effective against mosquitos and ticks from eight to 14 hours at a 20% concentration. It’s not an ingredient as widely used as DEET, so the number of studies is fewer…but it evaporates from the skin more slowly than both DEET or IR3535 and may repel bugs for longer periods. Other pros include very low inhalation toxicity, virtually no skin irritation and no stinky odor.

I wish Picaridin had more time on the market (it’s quite new) but it is promising. I also like that at very low concentration, this ingredient can provide minimum of five hours of protection. So you may get what you need with a product that has just 5-10%.



With a long presence on the European market, IR3535 provides similar or slightly less efficacy than DEET or Picaridin against mosquitoes. However, it is twice as effective against deer ticks. At the recommended 20% concentration, you’ll get eight hours of mosquito protection and at least six hours of tick protection. But IR3535 can be very irritating to the eyes.

Otherwise, this could be a good choice but I’d recommend against purchasing brands containing added sunscreen (products using IR3535 often have this). Sunscreens require more frequent application…and combo products would overexpose you to the insect repellent.


Do essential oils and botanicals work

In short, they can. However, there is no way to know how effective they are or for how long. In relying on them, you’re likely heading outdoors with a false sense of security that could put you at greater risk than if you were using nothing at all. Repellents that rely on essential oils or botanicals are classified technically as a minimum-risk pesticide – meaning they undergo no significant testing of efficacy. An essential oils/botanical label can say that the substance repels mosquitoes and ticks, but they can’t say it will protect you from Lyme, Zika or any other vector-borne disease.

safe-insect-repellentEssential oils and botanicals mixtures can be made at home or purchased ready-made. They do offer SOME protection to be sure. But they also evaporate more quickly from the skin. You’ll have to apply more frequently, and again, you’ll get zero protection from some specific illnesses.

They can irritate the skin – or you may find that you are allergic to a specific essential oil or botanical. They are never recommended for young children, due to lack of research. The EWG recommends avoiding all botanically-based repellents if you like in a high-risk area for disease or need long-lasting protection except one: Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus. Repel and Cutter brands have well-known products with Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus as the active ingredient. But again, the protection time is much shorter than DEET or the other chemicals mentioned earlier.

In light of diseases such as Zika and Lyme, the consequences of ineffective repellents can be severe. It’s important to use one that you know works well. Essential oils have no standardized oversight, such as EPA regulations. You may be taking a chance in using them.


How else to repel insects

Thankfully, there are many other tactics for keeping insects at bay aside from what you apply to your body.

For starters, avoid the dusk and dawn in the US, when mosquitoes are the worst. Clear your yard of places where mosquitoes like to breed (particularly any place with standing water). Mosquito netting works well for many spaces such as tents, strollers and on the porch. Always cover up exposed skin as much as possible with long sleeves/pants – and you can spray your clothing rather than your body for some protection. This site had some other ideas you may want to try.


I had a patient recently that wore a dog tick/flea collars around his boots. He said it helps prevent ticks and bugs from getting him when he is working outside. I thought this was brilliant! And it would avoid any risk of toxicity because it isn’t touching the skin.

The bottom line is that we all have to protect ourselves, particularly if we are outside for a long time and in an area prone to insect-born illnesses. The good news is that we have safe insect repellents that are effective. We’ve just got to know the facts and choose our protection wisely!

Dr. Sharman


Photo credit: ID 137875252 © Elizaveta Galitskaya | Dreamstime.com

what to look for in a good sunscreen

What to look for in a good sunscreen

Sunburns hurt – and hurt you long-term. So sunscreens are an imperative…and knowing what to look for in a good sunscreen is important.

The good news:  The FDA is finally proposing big changes that address many of our concerns, and should make all sunscreens safer and more effective.

The bad news:  The changes won’t impact sunscreens you’ll be buying THIS year.

Each sunburn causes irreversible damage to your skin that accumulates over time. It adds wrinkles and brown spots, making your skin age before its time. And each burn increases the risk of skin cancers and melanoma. I recommend following the sunscreen guidelines published by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), an American activist group specializing in research and advocacy in the areas of agricultural subsidies, toxic chemicals, and drinking water pollutants.

So while many of the FDA changes aren’t being applied to products on the shelf right now, you can still use the EWG (and my) guidelines when purchasing your sunscreen products this summer. Here’s what you need to know.


Qualities of a good sunscreen

Choose the right active Ingredients

For a long time, the FDA offered no assurances that the ingredients meant to provide protection from the sun were tested for safety and efficacy. However, it has for the first time conducted and published the results of testing for the active ingredients in sunscreen to determine two things: 1) rate of absorption through the skin and 2) health impacts that may result from exposure to those ingredients.

Based on this testing, only two active ingredients have been deemed safe – titanium dioxideand zinc oxide. The FDA recommends that the other 12 commonly used active ingredients require further testing.


Select an appropriate SPF rating

You’ll notice sunscreen on the market with a listed sun protection factor (SPF) of over 100 these days. However, bigger is not better. The FDA found that higher SPFs do not show additional benefit – and may provide a false sense of security. To counter this, the agency proposes limiting products’ SPF claims to 60+. Previously, the FDA had suggested a cap of 50+. This is what the Environmental Working Group (EWG) recommends. I do as well, and also recommend going no lower than SPF 30.


Include broad-spectrum protection

You should look for sunscreens that offer what’s termed “broad-spectrum” SPF protection. This means that the sunscreen protects against both UVA and UVB rays. It’s a way of indicating the magnitude of overall protection offered by a sunscreen. All sunscreens provide UVB ray protection but not all are “broad-spectrum” or provide UVA protection. You need both.

The FDA is proposing new test that changes the method used to evaluate sunscreens’ broad-spectrum UVA protection. The EWG has found that 25% of SPF products would not pass with the new testing without changes to formulation.


Understand water resistant/water proof/sweat resistant

Labels can get confusing! But just know that no sunscreen is actually water proof or sweat resistant. Sunscreen labeling is not allowed to use either term. However, water resistant is allowable provided that the manufacturer specifies how long it lasts while swimming or sweating. So choose water resistant but make sure you reapply every two hours at a minimum (more often if you are toweling off, which removes sunscreen).


Pick the right application

Spray applications are on the rise – but in general, I do not recommend them. First, there is the concern that users miss many parts of their bodies with sprays, resulting in inadequate coverage. Second, there is concern that inhaling sprays could cause health issues, particularly if some chemicals make it deep into the lungs.

As well, the FDA is making several proposals around sprays to better protect consumers, including banning sunscreen/bug repellent combination products. My advice is to stick with lotions to ensure better coverage and zero inhalation risk.


Chemicals to avoid in a sunscreen

Sadly, sunscreens have always had carcinogens that people were unaware of. Many have been removed over the years, but a couple are still out there in products on the shelves this year. You should avoid products containing either oxybenzone or retinyl palmitate.

Oxybenzone is a potentially hormone-disrupting chemical that is readily absorbed through the skin in large amounts. It has been detected in bodily fluids including breast milk, amniotic fluid, urine and blood. Some people have had an allergic reaction to this chemical. It is found in two-thirds of sunscreens on the market today. Children are at an event greater risk to harm from oxybenzone because of higher absorption and accumulation of it within the body.

Retinyl palmitate is form of vitamin A that may harm sun-exposed skin. It has the potential to speed up the development of skin cancer. Enough said!


Protection and prevention

Besides selecting the right sunscreen, you can do a great deal to protect your skin simply by covering your skin and getting in the shade. If you must be outside, wear clothing and a wide-brimmed hat to cover as much of your skin as you can. Don’t forget about your eyes too! You’ll want sunglasses that block at least 99 percent of UV light.

The shade is your friend – particularly between 10 am and 4 pm when UV rays are the strongest. Taking a break if you are outside for extended time and giving your skin a “rest” from sun exposure is always a good idea. This will also help you avoid heat stroke, which is common this time of year.

Finally, steer clear of tanning beds and sun lamps. They are just so bad for us. Both can cause serious long-term damage to your skin and contribute to skin cancer.


Long-term how you know your skin is ok?

In adulthood, we should all make sure to schedule an appointment annually with our Dermatologist to do mole and skin checks. By checking your skin each year, a physician can determine if there are any major changes in your skin that could be precancerous. And your physician can counsel you on sun exposure and whether or not you are getting too much.

Please be safe this summer…and take care of your skin!

Dr. Sharman