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The most effective mosquito repellent available in the United States today is DEET. DEET was developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1946, and has been an approved active ingredient in insect repellents since 1957. DEET is applied to the skin and forms a vapor barrier around your skin that blocks mosquitoes' ability to sense your presence.
Contrary to popular belief, the concentration of DEET in a product does not correlate to how well the product repels bugs. Rather, it indicates how long the repellent is effective. The higher the concentration, the longer it will work. Lower Concentration DEET products, in the 5-10% range, will last for two to four hours, and are well-suited to people who will be out of doors for a limited amount of time.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that products used on children contain no more than 10% DEET. More concentrated products (20-100%) are good for people who will have prolonged exposure to areas with lots of insects, and for those people who are especially prone to bites. Hunters, fishermen and hikers are most likely to need these higher concentrations. Insect repellent for a day or evening at the beach probably needs to be no greater than 10%, unless you are in an area with a high risk for malaria, yellow fever or dengue fever.