Synthetic repellents based on di-ethyl 3-methyl benzamide (DEET) are a popular method of obtaining protection from mosquitoes and yet clear evidence for a protective effect against malaria has hitherto never been convincingly demonstrated. A household randomized trial was undertaken among a study population of 127 families (25%) in an Afghan refugee village in Pakistan to compare the efficacy of repellent soap (Mosbar containing 20% DEET and 0.5% permethrin) vs. a placebo lotion. Cases of falciparum and vivax malaria were detected by passive case detection at the camp's clinic. At the end of the 6 month trial 3.7% (23 of 618) of individuals in the Mosbar group had presented with one or more episodes of falciparum malaria compared with 8.9% (47 of 530) of the placebo group (odds ratio 0.44, 95% CI 0.25-0.76). 16.7% of the Mosbar group (103 of 618) presented with vivax malaria compared with 11.7% (62 of 530) of the placebo group, and thus no effect was shown against vivax malaria (odds ratio 1.29, 95% CI 0.86-1.94). A considerable proportion of individuals (22%) had presented with vivax malaria during the 7 months leading up to the trial and thus any intervention effect would be partially masked by relapsed infections. The distribution of mosquitoes among households was broadly similar between Mosbar and placebo groups. The repellent was popularly received and very few side-effects were reported. There is a case for giving repellents more prominence in public health as a preventive measure in regions where vectors bite in the early evening or in emergency situations such as epidemics or newly established refugee camps.