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Effective Tick Repellents & How to Use Them

by Karen Ung

It’s tick season which means we need to take precautions and be aware of the risks. The best ways to protect yourself against tick bites and tick borne illnesses are to cover up, use an insect repellent that repels ticks, and do frequent tick checks (and remove ticks as soon as possible if you’ve been bitten).

For more information on avoiding tick bites, read my story: 5 myths about ticks + 10 tick safety tips.

tick-repellents
Choose the right tick repellents to prevent dreaded ticks

Disclosure: This post contains Amazon Affiliate links. I may earn a tiny commission on purchases made through these links at no extra cost to you. Thank you for supporting our family business!

Effective Tick Repellents & Application

To use tick repellents effectively, you must do two things: 1) spray exposed skin with insect repellent containing 20-30% DEET, 20% icaridin, or 20% IR3535; and 2) pre-treat your clothing, backpack, and footwear with tick repellent containing 0.5% permethrin1

If you are unable to pre-treat gear with permethrin, apply DEET / icaridin / IIR3535 insect repellent or buy tick repellent clothing. Here are the best insect repellents that repel ticks (as well as mosquitoes and black flies).

DEET Tick Repellents (available in Canada & US)

deet-tick-repellents
30% Deet Insect Repellents

DEET Insect repellents should contain 20-30% DEET to protect against ticks:

CAUTION: >10% DEET is not recommended for use by children less than 12 years old2. Cover kids up as much as possible and consider icaridin-based insect repellents for young children instead.

How to use: Spray on exposed skin, clothes including your hat and footwear, and backpack (unless you have pre-treated items with permethrin). Reapply as needed for maximum benefit, and reapply sooner if ticks are not being repelled.

Icaridin aka Picaridin Tick Repellents (available in Canada & US)

picaridin-tick-repellent
PiActive Insect Repellent with 20% Icaridin (aka Picaridin)

According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), icaridin is an effective tick repellent3. Icardin may be safer for children – it is recommended “by the Public Health Agency of Canada’s Canadian Advisory Committee on Tropical Medicine and Travel for travellers six months to 12 years of age”4 – whereas DEET sprays in concentrations >10% are not advised for children under 12 years old. More advantages of Icaridin-based insect repellants are that it is less smelly, less less greasy than DEET, and doesn’t damage synthetic materials.



According to Consumer Reports, pump types work better than aerosols, and the top performing picaridin insect repellent was Sawyers Picaridin with 20% Picaridin (available in the US). In Canada, look for:

  • Piactive Insect Repellent (available at Amazon, MEC, and Canadian Tire)
  • Woods Icaridin Family Mosquito Repellent (available at Canadian Tire)
  • Care Plus Anti-Insect 20% Icaridin Pump Spray (available at MEC)
  • Great Outdoors 20% Icaridin Pump Spray (available at MEC).

IR3535 Tick Repellents (available in US)

IR3535, a derivative of β-alanine, a naturally occurring amino acid has been used for over 30 years and is safe for kids, safe to use around pets, and does not harm aquatic life. Look for a lotion or pump spray that contains 20% IR3535 for long-lasting protection. “After just a single application, a 10% lotion provided protection for nine hours, a 20% pump spray worked for twelve hours, and a 20% aerosol provided reliable protection against ticks for 11 hours*.” (Source)

20% IR3535 tick repellents available in the US include: Coleman SkinSmart Insect Repellent (odor free!) and Avon Skin So Soft Plus IR3535 Expedition Unscented Bug Spray SPF 28.

Permethrin Tick Repellents (available in US as gear spray, and Canada for horses)

permethrin-tick-repellent
Coleman Gear Spray is unscented and contains 0.5% permethin

Tick repellents containing 0.5% permethrin are meant for pre-treating clothes, footwear and gear only. Permethrin kills ticks on contact, and lasts for a few weeks and a few washings (varies by manufacturer) if applied properly.

CAUTION: Permethrin is extremely toxic when wet, and is only for garments and gear. NEVER put permethrin on your skin! If you have cats, read this NPR story about precautions to take to prevent harm to your pet (same as if you have kids: use less than 1% permethrin, spray items outside, let them dry completely before bringing them inside, and keep your cat/child away from treated items). Fortunately permethrin has very low toxicity when dry. Wash permethrin treated clothes separately from untreated clothes. 

StopTicks.org recommends the following permethrin tick repellents (available in the US, not in Canada): Sawyer Permethrin, Repel Permethrin Clothing & Gear Insect Repellent Aerosol, and Cutter Outdoorsman Gear Guard. Coleman Gear & Clothing Permethrin Insect Repellent Spray and Ultrathon Gear & Clothing Insect Repellent are two other 0.5% permethrin sprays to consider.

IN CANADA, try horse tack shops for permethrin-based tick repellents. Absorbine Ultra-Shield is available at The Horse Store on Kensington Road NW.

How to Pre-Treat Clothes with Tick Repellent

pretreating-clothes-with-permethrin
Pretreating hiking pants with permethrin

Safety Note: Permethrin is extremely toxic when wet. Spray clothes/footwear/gear on a calm day, away from pets and children, and avoid breathing in the spray.

To pretreat your clothes with 0.5% permethrin:

  • Put disposable gloves on.
  • Gather up your hiking clothes and footwear, take them outside, and spray all sides of each item with insect repellent. Never apply permethrin to items you are currently wearing!
  • Leave items outside until they are completely dry. Permethrin is extremely toxic when wet, so you should not wear treated gear until it is completely dry.

For more information on treating your own clothes to make them repel ticks, see this page: www.tickencounter.org/prevention/clothing_only_repellent_videos

Where to Apply Tick Repellent

Best practice is to spray the outside and inside of your pants legs  with tick repellent4, but if you are trying to reduce chemical exposure, a) spray the outside only, b) wear gaiters (pretreated with permethrin or sprayed with tick repellent), or c) pull your socks up over your pant legs (to keep ticks out), then apply tick repellent. 

Research shows that spraying your shoes and socks with tick repellent containing permethrin reduces the chance of ticks on footwear by 73.6 times (77.4% of ticks found were dead vs. only 2.4% on unsprayed footwear)5. DEET and icaridin insect repellents are effective, but don’t kill on contact like permethrin. Since ticks live near the ground, make it a habit to pre-treat or spray your footwear!

Safety Notes

  • Do not put insect repellent near your eyes, mouth, nose, or cuts/abrasions.
  • Do not inhale insect repellent.
  • If applying sunscreen and tick repellent, put sunscreen on first and let it sink into your skin for 20 minutes, then apply insect repellent6. This reduces the amount of insect repellent absorbed by your skin.

Tick Repellent (Permethrin-Treated) Clothing

If you’d rather purchase permethrin-treated clothes, check out WindRiver Tick and Mosquito Repellent Clothing from Mark’s. I’ve tried a hat, shirt, and hiking pants from this line and found it to be high quality and effective. They pants and tops fit loose and are quite warm, since they are lined (to keep the permethrin off your skin), but shorts and short-sleeved tops are also available.

Natural Remedies and essential oils?

The EPA has not tested most natural products for effectiveness, so it’s hard to know which work well against ticks. Many essential oils repel oils for short periods of time but they need to be reapplied every 15-20 minutes to protect you.

One product that has been EPA approved and shown to be effective (see study abstract here), is BioUD, which contains the active ingredient 2-undecanone from wild tomato plants. Unfortunately it only repels ticks for 2 hours, so you will need to reapply frequently. Available online here.

Bottom Line

The most effective way to repel ticks is to use 20-30% DEET / 20% Icaridin insect repellent on your skin; and pre-treat clothes, backpacks, and footwear with 0.5% permethrin.

More Tick Safety Tips

Even in town, you should cover up, use tick repellent, and do a tick check after spending time outside. “Lyme disease is present in most of Canada. Although Lyme infection is more common in rural areas, residents that live in urban areas are also at risk for infection. It is the migratory birds, robins and song sparrows etc. that bring this disease in each season.7

Finally, be aware of the symptoms of Lyme disease and other illnesses carried by ticks. In the case of Lyme disease, it is very treatable if caught early (typical treatment is a course of antibiotics)! For more information on Lyme disease, please see CanLyme.com.

If you find a tick on you or near you in Alberta, submit it to an Alberta Health Services (AHS) Environmental Health Office. Details here: http://www.health.alberta.ca/health-info/lyme-disease.html. As of 2020, ticks will no longer be tested for Lyme Disease, so if you are concerned and have symptoms, please see your family doctor as soon as possible. Ticks found on pets can be submitted to your veterinarian at no cost. More info here: https://www.alberta.ca/tick-surveillance.aspx

References

  1. www.cdc.gov/ticks/avoid/on_people.html
  2. www.cps.ca/documents/position/preventing-mosquito-and-tick-bites
  3. http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/page/avoid-bug-bites
  4. www.cps.ca/documents/position/preventing-mosquito-and-tick-bites
  5. www.tickencounter.org/prevention/protect_yourself 
  6. www.cps.ca/documents/position/preventing-mosquito-and-tick-bites
  7. CanLyme.com
effective tick repellents and how to use them
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2 comments

Playoutsidegal May 25, 2016 - 10:48 PM

Hope it helps, Suzi! I want people to keep adventuring and stay safe!

Suzi Smart Photography April 23, 2016 - 1:54 AM

Thanks for posting useful information about ticks, repellent and Lyme disease that allows us to continue to explore the great outdoors.

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