Wednesday, November 28th 2018

Travel in Asia: What is DEET?

Written by

Rafael Bracho

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DEET is a powerful insect repellent common when you travel in Asia

Called a lifesaver by many, most argue that DEET is necessary for travel in Asia. DEET is a powerful bug repellent that has been warding off disease and potentially harmful bites for decades. However, this powerful manmade chemical has its skeptics. Nonetheless, if you have been thinking about traveling in Asia, then you should consider procuring DEET.


DEET is a slightly-yellow oil whose chemical compound is related to beer and gasoline. Known as N,N-diethylbenzamide—this insect repellent has been crucial in warding off mosquitoes, chiggers, ticks, fleas, and even leeches that are common when you travel in Asia.


Originally developed as a farm pesticide, by September 1944 USDA chemist Samuel I Gertler applied for a patent for its use as an insect repellent. Within two years, it was actively approved for military use after the end of World War II. Then it 1957, it was approved for civilian use—and it has become a staple for travel in Asia.

Heavily used in South Asia—including the Korean and Vietnam Wars—it was commonly referred to by soldiers as “bug juice”. Originally, DEET was thought to block the olfactory senses that attracted insects—especially mosquitoes. However, new evidence shows that it may work as a traditional repellent in that it is completely unpalatable to most biting insects.


Most products that are sold over the counter for travel in Asia, range from concentrations of 10% – 30% DEET, which is the maximum amount recommended for children and infants. DEET should never be used on babies under two months old. These offer roughly 3 – 6 hours of protection. Some products such as sprays or lotions can get up to 100% DEET, and these products tend to protect for up to 12 hours of protection.


DEET is estimated to have been applied to human skin over 8 billion times. It is considered to be one of the safest insect repellents with the most data backing it of any over the counter products. However, in some rare cases DEET can cause skin irritations—including some severe epidermal reactions. In other extreme cases, symptoms can include difficulty breathing, burning eyes, and headaches. A study by Cornell University linked national park employees who used DEET heavily to increased likelihood of mood disturbance, insomnia, and impaired cognitive function when compared to their co-workers who used DEET less.

Some extremely rare cases can lead to DEET-associated seizures. In 1998, the EPA reported 46 cases of DEET-related seizures—4 of which lead to death. Once again, these cases are incredibly rare. It has even been recommended for use on pregnant women in the United States the National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine. They recommend using it to protect against pests like mosquitoes that can carry West Nile virus, malaria, Dengue fever, and Zika.

It is wise to remember that if you are considering travel in Asia and you want to try DEET, then you should apply a small amount of a weaker DEET solution. Rub a little bit on your leg or arm to see if you have a reaction before you lather yourself up to protect from insect bites and disease while you travel in Asia.


The CDC recommends avoiding solutions that are stronger than 30% DEET when you travel in Asia. Apply it only to exposed skin—not under your clothing. Do not apply it over broken or irritated skin. As soon as you get back indoors, wash your skin with soap and water. If you are applying sunscreen, you must be careful because sunscreen is applied more often than DEET should be. Therefore, if you are applying sunscreen and then DEET every couple hours, you can be develop potentially harmful side effects.

The CDC recommends that you rub DEET on children’s skin—do not spray it on their skin. Be sure to keep it away from eyes and mouth, and only use a little bit around the ear area. Children should never apply their own DEET. Have an adult apply DEET to areas of the skin you wish to protect from insect bites.


Travel in Asia can be a wonderful experience, however it is wise to keep yourself protected from disease-carrying mosquitoes and other biting insects.  Don’t be caught without DEET while you travel in Asia, but be sure to test it out on a small portion of your skin to make sure there are no serious complications.

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