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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.
But to protect yourself properly, you’ve got to get the right product. “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.”
Use permethrin products to prevent tick bites
“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.
Which permethrin products to buy
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 spaying 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.
Is permethrin safe?
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.”
When to use tick repellent
Use it whenever you’re in areas where ticks live. That’s not in the middle of your lawn. It’s in the areas that border on woods, ornamental plantings, or where leaves are built up. Ticks like shade, so wood piles, stonewalls and sheds are prime tick spots.
Use protection 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.