Applying Insect Repellent
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The Best Tick Repellent for Humans

There has been a significant and steady increase in the number of reported tick-borne infections in the United States over the past decade. Lyme disease is the most common, accounting for 82-percent of tick-borne infections in the country.

Lyme disease is carried by hard-bodied ticks. The tick’s ever-expanding geographical range has played a role in the increase of reported cases of infection. There has also been an increase in tick-borne viruses, particularly cases of Powassan virus (POWV).

Tick repellents are a great first line of defense against ticks when outdoors, because the best protection is prevention. These sprays work by making your body unattractive to ticks and other pests, by actively killing them on contact, or serving both purposes.

Choosing a tick repellent isn’t as simple as picking any old bottle with the words ‘Tick Repellent’ on it. There are a few considerations to keep in mind when selecting the best tick spray for humans.

Application

Not all tick repellents are used in the same way. Some products are applied directly on the skin while others may only be used on clothes, shoes, tents, sleeping bags – and so on. The best repellent depends on the type of protection you need.

Use skin-applied repellent only on exposed skin

For example, you will probably need less active protection when having an evening out on the porch during tick season than you would during a weekend-long camping trip in tick territory.

There are also multiple product lines available for skin protection, including aerosol sprays, lotions, and wipes.

Who is it for?

Keep in mind that some tick repellents cannot be used on children under 3 years of age while others may be used on children as young as 2 months old. Make sure that the product you choose is age-appropriate if you have young children.

Generally speaking, you shouldn’t use tick repellents designed for humans on pets. Pets love to lick themselves and they may consume active ingredients that might be toxic when ingested. Choose tick repellents specifically designed for animals when dealing with pets.

Protection Time

This refers to how long the repellent remains active after application. The duration of toxicity can vary widely depending on the product and it’s active ingredient. Some repellents offer protection for 2 hours while others last up to six weeks with a single application. In addition, when talking about skin application, lotion-based repellents last longer than sprays.

Active Ingredients

One of the main factors that determine the effectiveness of a tick repellent is its active ingredient and the amount of the active ingredient contained in the product.

This article outlines the best active ingredients used in tick repellents for humans, based on scientific evidence.

Essential oils are often touted online as effective tick repellents but the evidence doesn’t support many of these claims.

EPA Registered

EPA registration ties into the previous point. Make sure that any tick repellent you choose is registered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The EPA regulates pesticides including skin-applied repellents and repellent-treated clothing. Using EPA approved repellents essentially means that the product has been proven to work and is safe to use.

Best Tick Repellents

You can divide tick repellents into two main categories: pesticide-based and natural repellents. Pesticide repellents obviously work the best; not only do they repel most pests, but any that do venture onto your clothing will eventually die. The goal is to make that happen before they can bite you.

A great dual protection is to use both sprays intended for clothing and sprays for your skin. However, it’s important to read the labels to know which ones are for skin application and which are for clothing and gear.

Before we dive into more information on each type and how they work, I wanted to give you the answer up front. The BEST tick repellent is to treat your clothing with Permethrin and spray DEET on your skin. Now that we know the answer, let’s read why this is the case.

Pesticide-Based Tick Repellents

Permethrin

Permethrin is both a tick killer and a repellent and is a very effective one at that. This insecticide works on contact and can kill ticks in under a minute. It is also effective against mosquitoes, spiders, and other insects. Commercial products containing Permethrin typically have less than 33% concentration.

The US Navy treats uniform with Permethrin to repel ticks and insects

Permethrin is used for treating clothing, footwear, and gear and shouldn’t be applied directly to the skin. It is a perfect repellent when spending long periods outdoors such as during hiking or camping trips. It is also a great complementary product to use along with skin-applied repellents.

Permethrin lasts for up to 6 washings and up to 6 weeks after application. The EPA considers this product generally safe for toddlers, children, nursing mothers, and pregnant women. Do not apply this product directly to your pets and instead find a product that is formulated for them.

Permethrin is easily our top pick for best tick repellent and also the best tick spray for yards. Sawyer creates the most popular product, and is the one we use any time we go outdoors in tick-infested areas.

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DEET

DEET is the most commonly used tick repellent in the United States and was developed by the U.S. Army in 1946. The EPA concludes that DEET does not have any adverse effects on humans if used as directed. The product may protect for 1-10 hours depending on the concentration.

Most commercial DEET-based products have a concentration of between 15% and 33% and are a repellent rather than a tick killer. The pesticide is also effective against mosquitoes.

These products can be used on children older than two months of age but guidelines suggest no more than 30% DEET concentration for products to be used on children.

There have been rare reports of DEET causing lesions and hives in children and adults and complaints about its strong, pungent odor. DEET can also damage rubber, vinyl, and plastic found in backpacks, cameras, clothing, glasses, and watches.

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Picaridin

Picaridin is a skin-applied repellent and most commercial products come in a 7% or 15% percent solution. There have been no reported side effects of using Picaridin and The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends this product as an alternative to DEET.

Picaridin is also odorless, non-greasy, non-sticky, and does not degrade plastic, stain fabrics, or irritate the skin. It is also as effective as DEET and is a best-selling insect repellent in Europe and Australia.

Repellents containing Picaridin include Swayer Premium, Cutter Advanced, and Repel Smart Spray. Picaridin products protect for 6-8 hours depending on concentration.

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IR3535

IR3535 is a beta-alanine which is a synthetic version of amino acid. The repellent comes in concentrations of 7-30% and protects for 2-12 hours depending on the concentration.

IR3535 has been used in Europe for more than 30 years and was recommended for use by children and pregnant women by the French Ministry of Health during the Chikungunya outbreak. This pesticide is also effective at repelling mosquitoes and compares favorably to DEET and Picaridin in terms of effectiveness. 

This repellent may be irritating to the eyes and can dissolve plastics except for polypropylene and polyethylene. You will often find IR3535 in sunscreen products although experts advise against using repellent sunscreen. You need to apply sunscreen every 2 hours or so, which could easily mean overexposure to the repellent.

Natural Tick Repellents

Please take the word ‘natural’ with a grain of salt. Although these products are derived from naturally occurring substances, most have to go through synthetic processing to derive concentrated active ingredients.

Natural, in this case, does not strictly mean a naturally occurring substance.       

2-Undecanone

2-Undecanone is an active ingredient in many commercial repellents and is derived from essential oils found stems and leaves of wild tomatoes, specifically Lycopersicon hirsutum. The most famous of these products is the brand name BioUD which is almost synonymous with 2-undecanone.

Research shows that 2-Undecanone may be just as effective as DEET for repelling ticks, so it may be a good natural alternative to DEET. The reason we still recommend DEET is because it’s recommended by the CDC.

2-undecanone, even in BioUD products, is synthetically created much as it is derived from wild tomatoes.

Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus (OLE)

Not to be confused with lemon eucalyptus essential oils.

OLE is derived from the lemon of eucalyptus oil and is chemically synthesized to create the tick repellent. The tree oil is also processed in a lab to concentrate para-menthane-3,8-diol (PMD) which is the repellent component in the tree oil.

Corymbia citriodora or lemon eucalyptus

Oil of lemon eucalyptus may need to be applied frequently as oil-based repellents generally have a short protection time.

Studies also show that OLE may also be just as effective as DEET for repelling ticks and is a great alternative for people who are looking for more natural formulations. OLE, however, has a much shorter protection time of about 2 hours.

You should NOT use these products on children under 3 years of age according to the EPA and CDC. This warning is largely because OLE has not been rigorously tested for potential dangers to children.

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Fungus

A fungus isn’t exactly your traditional repellent but you may consider having Metarhizium anisopliae and Metarhizium brunneum in your yard as natural tick repellents.

These fungi grow naturally in soil and may be found commercially under the name Met52 for lawn application.

These fungi are great for controlling tick populations outdoors and there is no evidence to suggest that other non-target bug species are at risk where the fungi grow.     

What About Essential Oils?

You have probably read about using essential oils as natural tick repellents. Some of the common suggestions include peppermint, rosemary, cedar, and lemongrass.

Unfortunately, there is little scientific evidence to suggest that these oils are effective in repelling ticks. Most of these essential oils are also not EPA approve so it is difficult to judge potential side effects, especially in high concentrations.

Clothing with Built-in Tick Repellent

What many people refer to as clothing with a built-in tick repellent is actually Permethrin-treated clothing. In the past, consumers were suspicious about these claims but recent studies reveal that Permethrin-treated clothing actually repels and even kills ticks.

The treated clothing is available in a variety of options including pants, t-shirts, hats, and socks. The clothing also works for preventing mosquito bites.

Insect Shield is perhaps the best-known manufacturer of this type of clothing. You can even send your own clothes to the company for treatment if you prefer to stick with your current wardrobe. The typical concentration of Permethrin in these clothes is 0.52-percent which the EPA says is safe for humans.

Do not spray tick repellent on clothing you are wearing. Allow the pesticide to dry before wearing the treated clothes.

You can also get a Permethrin spray to apply directly to your clothing before wearing it. Be sure to follow the product directions carefully as it shouldn’t be applied directly to the skin or ingested.

It is also a good idea to use skin-applied repellents in addition to Permethrin-treated clothing as your first line of defense. Some of these clothing retain their repellent properties for up to 60-70 washes.

Tick Repellent Accessories

Tick repellent accessories include belts, key chains, and wrist bands. There isn’t much to say about these products except that their effectiveness is questionable.

These products do not cover enough of the body to offer any serious protection against ticks or mosquitoes. A lot of these accessories are also made using essential oils as a safer alternative to insecticides. As we have already seen, essential oils are not very effective for protecting against ticks.

Checking for Ticks after Being Outdoors

It’s a good idea to check for ticks thoroughly after being outdoors especially after camping or hiking during tick season. Here are some tips on how to successfully check for ticks.

  • Do a quick search of ticks on your outer layer of clothing and gear. Pay special attention to denim as ticks can be more difficult to see on this fabric. It helps if there is someone else there to help you inspect the back of your clothing.
  • Look over every exposed skin for any signs of ticks. Feel the back of your neck and run your fingers through your hair to feel for ticks. Be sure to check your shoes as well.
  • Go to the bathroom and strip down. Pile your clothing in a corner of the room or better yet, put them in a garbage bag and tie the mouth if you have been in a known tick area. Take a good look at your body for signs of ticks, paying special attention to tick hotspots such as armpits, behind the knees, behind the neck, the groin, on the scalp, and behind the elbows. Ticks like warmer parts of the body especially if there are folds.
  • Take a shower and scrub thoroughly to remove any ticks that you might have missed.
  • Wash your clothing at the highest heat setting that your fabrics allow. Put the clothes in the dryer for at least 10 minutes at the highest heat setting allowable for your clothing. The heat should kill any ticks hiding in your clothing including eggs and nymphs.
  • Examine your vehicle, picnic basket, hiking gear, or anything else you carried with you on your trip.

What to Do With Ticks You Find

You want to get rid of the tick as soon as possible. Pick the tick up with a pair of tweezers or a paper napkin. Avoid touching the tick with your bare hands if at all possible and by all means do not crush it with your fingers. You are likely to expose pathogens from the tick’s fluids.

Flush the tick down the toilet.

Alternatively, pour some rubbing alcohol in a container or zip-lock bag and drown the tick. Seal the container or zip-lock bag in a plastic bag and dispose of it.

What to Do If Bitten By a Tick

Most tick-borne diseases show symptoms after 3-30 days so do not panic. You are not in any immediate danger.

The first thing you want to do is to remove the tick as soon as possible. To do this, take a pair of tweezers and grasp the tick as close to the skin’s surface as you can get.

Pull the tweezers upward using even, steady pressure. Avoid jerking or twisting the tweezers to avoid breaking the tick’s mouthparts in your skin.

Tweezers are the best tool for removing ticks

Put the tick in a container or zip lock bag and save it for later.

Meanwhile, clean the bite area thoroughly with antiseptic soap and water or rubbing alcohol. Inspect the bite area for any mouthparts or bits of the tick that may have broken off under the skin and try to remove them with your tweezers.

Take a picture of the tick you saved earlier and try to identify it to find out which tick it is and which potential diseases the pest may carry. Dispose of the tick or keep it sealed in case you might need to show it to a doctor. It is also a good idea to record the date of the tick bite and where you think you might have picked up the tick.

Monitor symptoms for at least a few weeks. Look out for skin rashes especially around the bite area and/or fever. Seek medical attention as soon as you develop any unusual symptoms and tell the doctor about the tick bite.

Tips for Using Tick Repellents Safely

It is encouraging to know that you can take active measures against tick bites, and by extension, tick-borne diseases. The final word from us is to use these products safely and responsibly.

Below are a few guidelines on using tick repellents safely:

  • Check the product label for an EPA registration number. This is the only way to ensure that the repellent is approved for use by the EPA.
  • Read the directions carefully and follow them.
  • Do not apply repellent to open wounds, cuts, or irritated and inflamed skin.
  • Use tick repellent sparingly. Use just enough of the product to lightly cover clothing and/or exposed skin. Do not apply repellent to the skin underneath clothing.
  • Do not spray repellent directly on to your face to avoid getting it into your eyes and mouth. Instead, spray a small amount into your palms, rub your hands together and apply a thin layer of the product to your face.
  • Do not let your children use tick repellents.
  • Do not apply tick repellent directly on your children’s skin. Instead, spray a small amount in your palm, rub your hands together, and apply a thin layer on the child.
  • Look out for any signs of irritation on you or your children and discontinue the use of the product in case of any side-effects.
  • Use sunscreen and tick repellent separately rather than using a sunscreen infused with tick repellent. Multiple applications of sunscreen could cause an overdose of the repellent’s active ingredients. Apply the sunscreen first, and then the repellent.

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