(CNN) — Welcome to bug season, when mosquitoes, ticks and other creepy crawlers make even the bravest mom or dad hesitant to let the kids go outside. Not only are insects annoying, they can carry diseases such as West Nile virus and Lyme disease.
But what’s the best way to ward off these pests? A new report, released Wednesday by the Environmental Working Group, finds that no one bug repellent works against every insect, but your best bets are those products made with active ingredients registered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Scientific tests have shown that four registered chemicals provide a high level of protection from a number of bug bites, according to the EWG report: Picaridin, IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus (and its synthetic derivative known as p-Menthane-3,8-diol, or PMD) and DEET.
These chemicals are found in many of the popular products on your drugstore shelves. Despite DEET’s reputation as a harmful substance, the EWG researchers found it to be the most effective and the least toxic of all four chemicals.
“We found them all to be safe, especially if people don’t overdose on the product,” said David Andrews, lead author on the study and a researcher with EWG. “And these chemicals do protect people against a lot of rather nasty insects.”
And that’s important because insect-borne illnesses are on the rise. The West Nile virus, which is carried by mosquitoes, infected more than 5,600 Americans last year, and 286 people died from the virus, according to the CDC. A report this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association noted that the virus, which had been declining over the past few years, spiked in 2012, especially in Texas.
By analyzing the epidemic in Dallas County, Texas, researchers found serious West Nile outbreaks begin early, after unusually warm winters. They also seem to be concentrated in one area every year. The virus migrates around the country, so health officials say it’s very important to be aware if your area is being affected.
Same goes for Lyme disease. Incidences of the tick-borne illness have more than doubled over the last 15 years, according to the CDC. Although the disease is transferred to humans through the bite of a deer tick, that tick is only found in 13 Northeastern states from Virginia to Maine, and in the upper Midwest, mostly in Wisconsin and Minnesota. If you live in those states, it’s best to take precautions.
“You need to know the insects that exist where you live and what works best against them,” Andrews said. “No need to spray repellents for, let’s say, ticks, if they’re not prevalent in your area.”
Although these four chemical repellents are effective, they need to be used correctly, the EWG warns. Consumers must follow the basic instructions to make sure that they don’t overexpose their skin. For instance DEET, when used correctly, is an excellent repellent, but overuse has been found to cause neurological problems in some people.