Most bug bites are harmless, yet kids who play outside are prime targets for the itchy bites of mosquitoes, ticks and chiggers. To spare your child from the irritation and possible illness that can result, protection is key.

“For most children requiring an insect repellent, I would suggest DEET,” says Dr. Weldon James of Mercy Clinic Family Medicine Union. “It’s good for mosquitoes, black flies, midges, fleas, mites and ticks.”

DEET, the active ingredient in many name-brand insect repellents, is effective, but some parents worry about its safety for young children. James puts those fears to rest with some basic advice: “DEET should be used carefully and only as directed. It should be applied once daily to children older than 2 months of age. It can be applied to both skin and clothes.”

When using insect repellant on a child, apply it to your own hands first and then rub them on your child, avoiding the eyes and mouth and using the repellent sparingly around the ears, he says. Do not apply repellant to children’s hands since children may put their hands in their mouths, and don’t apply repellant to skin under the clothing. If repellant is applied to clothing, wash the treated clothing before the child wears it again.

“For babies younger than 2 months and those who want a more natural repellant, dryer sheets can repel mosquitoes,” James adds. “You can put an unused dryer sheet near your baby or in your pocket to make sure there is some level of protection.”

Dr. Denise Kung, a pediatrician with St. Louis Pediatric Associates at St. Luke’s Hospital, agrees that DEET is safe if used properly. She notes that it is the only repellent known to protect against ticks.

“DEET is a neurotoxin and is absorbed, to an extent, through the skin,” Kung explains. “It does not kill insects—rather, it repels insects. It should be washed off once it’s no longer needed.”

In very high concentrations, DEET could be harmful, Kung adds, although the risk when used as directed is believed to be relatively low. DEET is dangerous if ingested, but the American Academy of Pediatrics states that DEET (in concentrations of 30 percent and less) is safe for topical use on children older than 2 months.

“Avoiding outdoor activities during the times of day when insects are the most active—early morning and evening—helps,” Kung says. “If you are going to be outdoors during these times, use an insect repellent spray. Get dressed in whatever you will be wearing outdoors (including socks and shoes) and then apply the repellent. Repellant on clothing will help repel insects but won’t be absorbed through the skin.”

James notes that parents should choose the type and concentration of repellent to be used by taking into account the amount of time that a child will be outdoors, exposure to mosquitoes and the risk of mosquito-transmitted disease in the area.