An insect repellent (also commonly called “bug spray“) is a substance applied to skin, clothing, or other surfaces which discourages insects(and arthropods in general) from landing or climbing on that surface. Insect repellents help prevent and control the outbreak of insect-borne(and other arthropod-bourne) diseases such as malaria, Lyme disease, dengue fever, bubonic plague, and West Nile fever. Pest animals commonly serving as vectors for disease include insects such as flea, fly, and mosquito; and the arachnid tick.

Synthetic repellents tend to be more effective and/or longer lasting than “natural” repellents.[10][11] In comparative studies, IR3535 was as effective or better than DEET in protection against mosquitoes.[12] Other sources (official publications of the associations of German physicians[13] as well as of German druggists[14] suggest the contrary and state DEET is still the most efficient substance available and the substance of choice for stays in malaria regions, while IR3535 has little effect. However, some plant-based repellents may provide effective relief as well.[10][11][15] Essential oil repellents can be short-lived in their effectiveness, since essential oils can evaporate completely.

A test of various insect repellents by an independent consumer organization found that repellents containing DEET or picaridin are more effective than repellents with “natural” active ingredients. All the synthetics gave almost 100% repellency for the first 2 hours, where the natural repellent products were most effective for the first 30 to 60 minutes, and required reapplication to be effective over several hours.[16]

For protection against mosquitos, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued a statement in May 2008 recommending equally DEET, picaridin, oil of lemon eucalyptus and IR3535 for skin.[17] Permethrin is recommended for clothing, gear, or bed nets.[10] In an earlier report, the CDC found oil of lemon eucalyptus to be more effective than other plant-based treatments, with a similar effectiveness to low concentrations of DEET.[18] However, a 2006 published study found in both cage and field studies that a product containing 40% oil of lemon eucalyptus was just as effective as products containing high concentrations of DEET.[19] Research has also found that neem oil is mosquito repellent for up to 12 hours.[15] Citronella oil’s mosquito repellency has also been verified by research,[20] including effectiveness in repelling Aedes aegypti,[21][22] but requires reapplication after 30 to 60 minutes.

More recently, in 2015, Researchers at New Mexico State University tested 10 commercially available products for their effectiveness at repelling mosquitoes.[23][unreliable source?] On the mosquito Aedes aegypti, the vector of Zika virus, only one repellent that did not contain DEET had a strong effect for the duration of the 240 minutes test: a lemon eucalyptus oil repellent. All DEET-containing mosquito repellents were active.

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  • Children may be at greater risk for adverse reactions to repellents, in part, because their exposure may be greater.
  • Keep repellents out of the reach of children.
  • Do not allow children to apply repellents to themselves.
  • Use only small amounts of repellent on children.
  • Do not apply repellents to the hands of young children because this may result in accidental eye contact or ingestion.
  • Try to reduce the use of repellents by dressing children in long sleeves and long trousers tucked into boots or socks whenever possible. Use netting over strollers, playpens, etc.
  • As with chemical exposures in general, pregnant women should take care to avoid exposures to repellents when practical, as the fetusmay be vulnerable.

Some experts also recommend against applying chemicals such as DEET and sunscreen simultaneously since that would increase DEET penetration. Canadian researcher, Xiaochen Gu, a professor at the University of Manitoba’s faculty of Pharmacy who led a study about mosquitos, advises that DEET should be applied 30 or more minutes later. Gu also recommends insect repellent sprays instead of lotions which are rubbed into the skin “forcing molecules into the skin”.[25]

Regardless of which repellent product used, it is recommended to read the label before use and carefully follow directions.[26] Usage instructions for repellents vary from country to country. Some insect repellents are not recommended for use on younger children.[17]

In the DEET Reregistration Eligibility Decision (RED) the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported 14 to 46 cases of potential DEET associated seizures, including 4 deaths. The EPA states: “… it does appear that some cases are likely related to DEET toxicity,” but observed that with 30% of the US population using DEET, the likely seizure rate is only about one per 100 million users.[27]

The Pesticide Information Project of Cooperative Extension Offices of Cornell University states that, “Everglades National Park employees having extensive DEET exposure were more likely to have insomnia, mood disturbances and impaired cognitive function than were lesser exposed co-workers”.[28]

The EPA states that citronella oil shows little or no toxicity and has been used as a topical insect repellent for 60 years. However, the EPA also states that citronella may irritate skin and cause dermatitis in certain individuals.[5] Canadian regulatory authorities concern with citronella based repellents is primarily based on data-gaps in toxicology, not on incidents.[29][30]

Within countries of the European Union, implementation of Regulation 98/8/EC,[31] commonly referred to as the Biocidal Products Directive, has severely limited the number and type of insect repellents available to European consumers. Only a small number of active ingredients have been supported by manufacturers in submitting dossiers to the EU Authorities.

In general, only formulations containing DEET, icaridin (sold under the trade name Saltidin and formerly known as Bayrepel or KBR3023), IR3535 (3-[N-Butyl-N-acetyl]-aminopropionic acid, ethyl ester) and Citriodiol (p-menthane-3,8-diol) are available. Most “natural” insect repellents such as citronella, neem oil, and herbal extracts are no longer permitted for sale as insect repellents in the EU;[why?][citation needed]this does not preclude them from being sold for other purposes, as long as the label does not indicate they are a biocide (insect repellent).

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