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What Are the Risks of Sunscreen and Bug Repellent Together?

Applying sunscreen and bug repellent at the same time can increase your absorption of the ingredients, unless the repellent is picaridin.

If you spend time outside in the summertime, you’ll probably reach for the insect repellent. After all, you don’t want to feed bloodsuckers like ticks or mosquitoes. In addition, sunscreen can keep your skin from burning if you are out for more than a short while. But can you safely use sunscreen and bug repellent together? What are the risks?

Using Sunscreen and Bug Repellent Together:

Q. It’s summer and the “wear sunscreen” drumbeat is loud and clear.

I live in the south where local ponds and open storm drains make mosquitoes a big problem. I am more concerned about Zika, West Nile virus, and chikungunya than wrinkles and skin cancer. So DEET is my skin application of choice.

Do we know anything about the combination of sunscreens and DEET? Is there reason to suspect that using both makes either less effective or more harmful?

DEET May Boost Absorption of Sunscreen Ingredients:

A. Dermatologists have found that applying the insect repellent DEET together with sunscreen results in greater absorption of both compounds (Journal of Dermatological Treatment, Jan. 2016). According to these scientists, picaridin would be a better choice for repelling insects if you also need sunscreen (which you mostly do during the day).

Although DEET is the gold standard, picaridin is about as effective and appears less likely to cause side effects. When you use sunscreen and bug repellent containing picaridin, you absorb less of both the repellent and sunscreen ingredients such as oxybenzone. Sunscreens based on titanium dioxide or zinc oxide are not absorbed and not affected by insect repellent.

Looking for Picaridin:

You’ll find picaridin in several commercially available insect repellents. They include Sawyer Picaridin Insect Repellent, Natrapel 12-hour Insect Repellent, Repel Tick Defense and Ranger Ready Picaridin 20 Percent.

A new insect repellent ingredient was recently approved. We do not know whether or to what extent repellents made with nootkatone will interact with sunscreen compounds. 

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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  • Rodriguez J & Maibach HI, "Percutaneous penetration and pharmacodynamics: Wash-in and wash-off of sunscreen and insect repellent." Journal of Dermatological Treatment, Jan. 2016. DOI: 10.3109/09546634.2015.1050350
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