Begone, Bugs

pregnant woman in the summer in article about pregnancy safe bug sprays
binabina/E+/Getty Images

Everything You Need To Know About Pregnancy-Safe Bug Sprays

Experts explain the risks and benefits of using insect repellents.

We may receive a portion of sales if you purchase a product through a link in this article.

Are you expecting a new baby this summer? Congratulations, and sorry about all the sweating. While you’re enjoying weekend cookouts and days by the water, you’ll want to know which pregnancy-safe bug sprays are OK to douse yourself in to keep the mosquitos away. There’s no perfect product out there that’s guaranteed to keep bugs at bay and be totally safe in pregnancy; instead, experts say you need to understand the risks of using bug spray versus not using it, and deciding what you’re most comfortable with.

Can I use DEET while pregnant?

DEET is the active ingredient in most bug sprays, and it’s super effective at repelling ticks and mosquitoes according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). When using a DEET bug spray, the NIH says about 10% of the chemical on your skin enters your bloodstream, which you share with your baby when you’re pregnant. That’s why some experts will tell you it’s not a safe chemical to use on your body while pregnant.

Some studies have found DEET to be safe in pregnancy, while others have found it to be unsafe, citing animal studies that found using bug sprays caused permanent damage to fetuses, and linked the sprays to neurological conditions like schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s, says Dr. Jill Rabin, M.D., OB-GYN at Northwell Health.

Rabin does not recommend using DEET products during pregnancy. “Elements in bug sprays such as DEET and picaridin are hormone disruptors,” she explains. “These can disrupt the hormones important in making sure, number one, that the baby is health and the pregnancy proceeds and doesn’t run into problems like infection or preterm labor.”

Black Lollipop/E+/Getty Images

On the other hand, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says DEET-based sprays are safe for use in pregnancy. “In general, there are no particular bug sprays that are not advised [for use in pregnancy],” says Dr. Carley F. Befeler, M.D., family physician at Bayfront Health. “The main goal is to keep pregnant women from getting bitten by mosquitoes. All of the mainstream bug sprays that you see are approved. The EPA says that DEET is safe for children and pregnant women.”

It all comes down to what you are most comfortable with, what your trusted medical provider advises, and what you are dealing with in your region: what are the insects and diseases you are facing in your area specifically? And if you do feel bug sprays (with or without DEET) are necessary, there are tips to using them safely during pregnancy — opting for low DEET concentration products, avoiding DEET during specific trimesters, and applying bug spray cautiously — covered in-depth below.

Is DEET safe to use during the first trimester?

While studies are neither here nor there on DEET’s safety, there is one that suggests pregnant people should steer clear of DEET in the first trimester specifically. “There’s one study that looked at when the mother applied DEET early in pregnancy, there were a number of baby boys that were born with the birth defect where the opening of the penis is on the underside (called hypospadias),” says Rabin. “That study wasn’t conclusive that DEET was the cause of the hypospadias, but it wasn’t just like one baby had hypospadias — there were a number of newborns who had it.”

Befeler says there are no official recommendations from any medical authorities about not using DEET in the first trimester, and says it’s important for pregnant people to do what they can to avoid mosquito bites. “We know that things like Zika and West Nile can affect a growing fetus early in the pregnancy,” she says.

What bug spray can I use while pregnant?

If you’re not sure how to feel about DEET and would rather just avoid it altogether, you might start noticing alternate active ingredients in bug sprays, like picaridin or essential oils. Picaridin is a chemical used to repel flying insects like ticks and chiggers. Rabin says picaridin hasn’t been studied in humans, so there’s no data about its safety in pregnancy.

mrs/Moment/Getty Images

Natural insect repellents that use essential oils instead of chemicals haven’t been studied for their safety either, says the NIH. However, the organization does specify that these sprays are not recommended to be used in areas where there’s a chance of insects carrying disease. In those regions, they want you to stick with chemical-based bug sprays they know will keep bugs away.

“Natural products are not vetted by FDA, the CDC doesn’t comment on them. The NIH doesn’t comment on them usually except to say they haven’t been tested. There are many things that grow on a tree or in the ground that can be toxic, especially during pregnancy,” says Rabin.

If it feels like there’s no such thing as a totally pregnancy-safe bug spray... you’re not wrong. Both Rabin and the NIH recommend choosing sprays with the lowest percentages of DEET or picaridin available. Poison Control says 30% DEET is the highest recommended concentration, but formulas as low as 5 to 7% are available. You may just need to reapply them more often — Poison Control says a 5% DEET spray should offer protection for around 90 minutes, compared to a 25% DEET formula, which repels bugs for up to five hours.

How to apply bug spray

Bug sprays are also safer when applied carefully, according to both the NIH and Rabin. They advise pregnant people to:

  • Use insect repellents only when needed.
  • Apply the spray only to exposed skin or clothing, not to skin that’s under clothing.
  • Keep bug spray away from cuts, abrasions, or other broken skin.
  • Only apply insect repellents outdoors in well-ventilated areas to avoid breathing them in.
  • Use bug spray on your face only if absolutely necessary, and to apply it by spraying it on your hands and rubbing it on instead of spraying it directly onto your face.
  • If you are also using sunscreen, apply the sunscreen first and then the insect repellent.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly after applying the bug spray, and wash your clothes and shower off the insect repellant as soon as you’re out of the buggy area.

Ways to repel insects without bug spray

With some uncertainty surrounding whether bug spray is safe to use in pregnancy, you could opt for other methods of keeping bugs away, Befeler says, like:

  • Staying indoors during mosquito-y dawn and evening hours.
  • Wearing protective clothing that covers your skin.
  • Keeping a fan pointed in your direction to blow insects off course.
  • Using citronella candles, coils, and diffusers to repel mosquitoes.
  • Investing in a few bug-zapping lights or lanterns.

If you’re not sure which bug sprays are safest to use during your pregnancy, talk to your provider about the risks of insect-borne illnesses in your area and what products they usually recommend to their patients. And hey, if you were looking for a reason to stay inside during the summer heat, now you have one.


Dr. Jill Rabin, M.D., OB-GYN at Northwell Health and professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell

Dr. Carley F. Befeler, M.D., family physician at Bayfront Health