The last thing you want to bring home from a long hike or a quick dog walk is a case of Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted fever, or even a single one of the ticks that carry these (and more) diseases.
So you need a good tick repellent. Especially since the number of tick-borne diseases continues to climb in the U.S., according to the CDC. Ticks are pretty much everywhere in the U.S. right now, and the CDC says that especially in the northeast, we can expect every year to be a "bad" year for ticks.
But to protect yourself properly, you’ve got to get the right tick repellent. “Many people have the perception that anything that sucks blood can be repelled similarly,” says Thomas N. Mather, Ph.D., founder and director of the Tick Encounter Resource Center at the University of Rhode Island. But mosquitos, ticks, and fleas have different ways of finding you—“mosquitos fly to you, and ticks don’t fly, and they don’t have eyes,” he says. “So there’s no reason to think that the same product that would work for a mosquito would work against a tick.”
Which repellent to use? "We always recommend that someone wears the repellent they're most comfortable with," explains Jody Gangloff-Kaufmann, coordinator of community Integrated Pest Management at the New York State Integrated Pest Management Program. "If you have one less tick on you, there's one less chance of your getting a disease," she says.
The best tick repellent you can use: Permethrin
“Our experience and our research shows that permethrin products work best as a tick repellent. DEET works effectively against mosquitos and biting flies,” Mather says.
Some people have a hard time believing that permethrin will do the trick since you don’t apply it to yourself, you apply it to your clothes. In other words, if ticks bite you, not your clothes, why does this product work? Mather explains:
Ticks are genetically programmed to walk upward. Even if you’re just wearing shorts and a t-shirt, the tick is eventually going to encounter some of your clothes. When it does, the permethrin affects the ticks’ nervous systems. “They start stumbling around like drunken fools,” Mather says. Since they can’t fly, they have to hang onto your clothing and you if they want some food. “But when their nervous systems are disrupted, they can’t do that as well and they stumble and fall off,” he says. The chemical also causes them to die.
In one of many of Mathers’ studies—in which, by the way, participants sat in a room and had ticks placed on their shoes, their knees, and their elbows—he found that people with treated shoes and clothing had far fewer ticks than those whose clothes were untreated.
You can get permethrin onto and into your clothes in a number of ways (you just have to do a little planning ahead, as you’ll want it to dry into the clothes. So spraying it on two seconds before you hike isn’t the way to go):
Sprays. Spritz permethrin on your clothes, let them dry, and the treatment will stay in your clothes for weeks, even after you wash them. One product Mather likes, by Sawyer, stays in clothes for 6 weeks and 6 washings.
Clothes that are already treated. Some clothes already have permethrin in them. Those by Insect Shield come in workwear, hiking clothes, tech clothes—even bandanas and Buffs. BugBeWear also sells tops, bottoms, caps, and gloves.
If it’s toxic to ticks, is it OK for you? The EPA says it’s poorly absorbed through your skin. And since the agency can’t know if you applied the product correctly at home, so it says this about factory-treated clothing: It’s “unlikely to pose any significant immediate or long-term hazard to people wearing the clothing.”
Other good tick repellents
Of course, if you're wearing shorts, tick repellent on your clothing won't repel these insects from your legs. So you should use another kind of tick repellent on exposed skin, and there are a number of them that the EPA has tested. Consider products with these ingredients:
DEET. Consumers have been using this product—originally developed by the U.S. Army—for 60 years. Occasional reports of adverse effects cast doubts on this product, but EPA reviews have concluded that it's safe for use. Find out more about its history, safety, and use here.
Picaridin. This product is similar to a chemical in the black pepper plant. Consumer Reports testing found picaridin sprays to be more effective than lotions or wipes.
IR3535. This man-made compound has been tested by the EPA, but Consumer Reports testing found them less effective than products containing DEET, picaridin, or oil of lemon eucalyptus. Be aware that some products that contain this and sunscreen together don't protect you against ticks for very long, according to the EPA's excellent insect repellent finder tool.
Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus. You want a tick repellent that has oil of lemon eucalyptus formulated into it—the essential oil on its own isn't effective.
When to use tick repellent
Use it whenever you’re in areas where ticks live. And use tick repellent on yourself anywhere you’d use protection on your dog. In one survey, Mather found that close to 90 percent of dog walkers said they’d treated their dog with tick protection, but hadn’t done anything for themselves. “And they’re only about two and a half feet away from the dog on the leash!,” Mather says.
Check that no ticks got through
Even if you use repellents, it’s a good idea to check yourself for ticks. It’s a myth that they like warm, moist areas, says Mather. They just end up in the armpits or groin because that’s where clothing is binding and the ticks can’t go any farther. Regardless of why they’re there, check all over your body, especially the groin, back of the knee, and around your waistband.
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