Should we mix mosquito repellents and sunscreens?

MosquitoRepellents_childarm_webbCombining mosquito repellents with sunscreens, as well as other cosmetics, sounds like a great idea but perhaps it isn’t to best way to protect ourselves from exposure to both the sun and mosquitoes.

There are formulations that combine mosquito repellents with various skin moisturizers but the most common combination formulations contain sunscreen and repellents. A combined formulation make sense given that Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer anywhere in the world. Even the Cancer Council have their own “Repel Sunscreen” formulations.

Combined formulations but conflicting risks

As well as questions regarding the efficacy of these formulations, there have also been some questions regarding their safety. Do they lessen the protection against the sun? Do they lessen the protection against mosquitoes? Do they increase the potential risk of toxic reactions to mosquito repellents?

One study found that the inclusion of mosquito repellent in sunscreen actually reduced the sun protection factor of the sunscreen. In 2009, I published a paper in Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health that investigated the efficacy of combined sunscreen and insect repellent formulations. The key finding was that no loss of protection from mosquito bites was provided by these combined formulations when compared to low and high dose “mosquito repellent only” formulations. The finding supported previous studies that indicated sunscreen does not reduce the efficacy of insect repellent. However, where we went further was to try and provide some guidelines for use of these products to maximise mosquito bite protection but also to minimise any potential adverse reactions to repellents.

I've provided plenty of deail of how to choose and use mosquito repellents in the "beating the bite" guidelines freely available for download

I’ve provided plenty of detail of how to choose and use mosquito repellents in the “Beating the Bite” guidelines freely available for download

This issue of conflicted use was highlighted in a review of sunscreen labelling recommendations and combination sunscreen/insect repellent products that outlined concerns that “the application of a combination product too frequently poses the risk of insect repellent toxicity, whereas application too infrequently invites photodamage”.

Could combined formulations raise potential over exposure to mosquito repellents?

It is important to note that many published studies and reviews have shown that DEET does not pose a significant health concern (see here too). A recent review of safety surveillance from extensive humans use reveals no association with severe adverse events. In short, if a DEET-based mosquito repellent is used as recommended, there are no major concerns for health risk.

What if the use of a combined repellent and sunscreen formulations results in the application rate of repellent above and beyond recommended rates?

How much repellent are you using with sunscreen?

The recommended use of sunscreens and repellents are quite different. As well as the frequency of reapplications (sunscreen every two hours; repellent reapplication is determined by the “strength” but may be up to four hours for mid-range formulations), the quantity used will vary. Mosquito repellents require a thin application over all exposed skin to provide effectiveness. When the applications rates providing effective protection in mosquito repellent studies are compared to those for sunscreen use (i.e. approximately 30ml applied across the forearms, legs, torso and back 20 minutes before going outside and reapplied every two hours), application rates for sunscreens are approximately 3-5 times greater.

Are you using repellent when you don’t need to?

It is interesting to note the differences in the use pattern of sunscreen and mosquito repellent use. In many instances, nuisance-biting mosquitoes will generally be more active during periods when sun exposure risk is low (e.g. late afternoon, evening and early morning). However, as I pointed out in this paper on mosquito repellent use to reduce the risk of dengue, protection against these day-biting mosquitoes could call for the use of both products simultaneously. There is also no doubt that under some circumstances in coastal regions of Australia, mosquitoes can be out and about biting in shaded environments (places like mangrove forests and coastal swamp forests) during the day.

The Yellow Fever Mosquito, Aedes aegypti (Photo: Stephen Doggett)

The Yellow Fever Mosquito, Aedes aegypti (Photo: Stephen Doggett)

What should you do?

I’m not aware of any review in Australia to reconsider the registration or recommendations surrounding the use of combined mosquito repellent and sunscreen formulations. In most instances, the advice provided by local authorities is simply to “follow label instructions”.

Combined mosquito repellent and sunscreen formulations are not recommended by the CDC. It is worth noting that also in Canada, combined sunscreen and insect repellents are not recommended. It is suggested to apply the sunscreen first, then the insect repellent over the top. The only problem is that as repellent will generally last longer than sunscreen, you end up alternating application of the two products.

We tested the idea that repellents should be applied first and then sunscreen over the top. While testing the efficacy of sunscreen wasn’t in the scope fo our study, we found that the efficacy of repellent (as measured by the duration of protection) was actually reduced. The reduction, we concluded, was probably due to physical disruption of the original mosquito repellent application during subsequent sunscreen application.

It should be noted once again that repeated reviews have concluded that DEET-based repellents pose a very low risk of adverse health impacts. However, if you were to take a cautious approach, if there is a risk of possible adverse reaction to repellents, this may be more likely to happen when using high dose DEET-based repellents (e.g. “tropical strength” repellents that may contain over 80% DEET) in combination with sunscreen. If you want to lower the risks as much as possible, using a low-dose DEET-based (e.g. containing less than 10% DEET), or picaridin-based, repellent will more closely align the recommended reapplication times of the two products.

If you’re looking for sunscreen advice, visit the Cancer Council website here.

The full reference for our 2009 paper is below:

Webb, C. E. and Russell, R. C. (2009) Insect repellents and sunscreen: implications for personal protection strategies against mosquito-borne disease. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, 33: 485–490.