What is mosquito- and tick-repellent clothing?
We asked two experts about wearable ways to stay safe.
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Warm weather might fill your schedule with outdoor activities, but it can also fill your backyard or favorite hiking venue with pesky pests. So before venturing out for some summertime adventures, make sure you’re protected from mosquitoes and other biting insects.
Spritzing on bug spray isn’t the only way to stay safe, however, as you can also ward off insects with your wardrobe. Clothing treated with a chemical called permethrin is designed to repel mosquitoes and ticks without gumming up all your skin with spray-on products. We tapped two experts to break down how such mosquito-repellent clothing works.
What is permethrin?
Permethrin is “one of the most widely used agricultural chemicals in the world,” says Thomas Mather, director of the University of Rhode Island’s Center for Vector-Borne Diseases. It’s classified as a pesticide, meaning it kills mosquitoes and ticks with enough exposure, rather than a repellent like the DEET you'll find in bug sprays. Permethrin was first registered with the EPA in 1979 and works by “interrupting the neural pathways” of pests including mosquitoes and ticks, says Daniel Markowski, technical advisor for the American Mosquito Control Association.
While permethrin-treated clothing won’t deter mosquitoes from landing on you like DEET, the bugs get a dose of the chemicals when they make contact with the fabric, causing them to fly off “but then die, so they won't come back to bite you again,” says Mather. Similarly, when ticks are exposed to the chemical, they lift their feet up higher and eventually fall off of the treated clothing. “If they've had enough of an exposure, depending on the concentration that's in the clothing and how long they've been on it, they also will end up dying,” says Mather.
Are there any health risks to wearing permethrin-treated clothing?
According to the EPA, permethrin-treated garments are “unlikely to pose any significant immediate or long-term hazard” to people who wear the clothing. “We had a recent study where we tested [treated] clothing that was worn by outdoor workers, and then we did testing on looking for metabolites that might have been absorbed,” Mather says of the products’ safety. “There was no higher concentration of permethrin metabolites in the urine of people that were constantly wearing clothing compared to just your average person that was never wearing treated clothing.”
How long does permethrin-treated clothing last?
Similar to UPF-protective clothing, permethrin-treated garments lose some of their effectiveness after repeated washing. “The [permethrin] concentration in the fabric is always sort of changing and diminishing over time,” says Mather, adding that you can check your garment’s label for specific information about how long it should last. The lifespan of permethrin-treated clothing is also linked to fabric type, he says, as more synthetic fabrics like nylon, rayon, or spandex “seem to hold the product a little bit longer than cotton.”
Where can you buy permethrin-treating clothing?
If you’re itching to get outside as temperatures rise, permethrin-treated clothing can help you avoid bug bites and insect-borne diseases. Several major retailers offer permethrin-treated clothing, including L.L. Bean, which sells a selection of styles ranging from hoodies to leggings to unisex hiking socks, and REI, which offers products including buffs to protect your neck.
Can you make your own mosquito-repellent clothing?
To add some protection to clothing you already own, you can use a clothing-specific permethrin spray to treat your own clothing and socks, such as Insect Shield’s clothing and gear spray, which the brand claims lasts up to 60 days. To use, you should spray in an open space, and carefully follow all instructions on the product label. But both Mather and Markowski recommend exercising caution with this method. “You want to be careful to not apply the products [and] come in contact directly with your skin any more than you have to,” Markowski says. Alternatively, you can send your favorite clothing to Insect Shield to have it sprayed for you. Services start at $8.50 per item, or $99.95 for a 19-inch by 14-inch prepaid envelope’s worth of items.
Even if you don’t choose chemically treated garments, Markowski suggests generally opting for lighter-colored clothing. “Research shows if you have dark-colored clothing, it can actually attract mosquitoes,” he says, as mosquitoes are drawn to “large, dark moving objects.”
Do you still have to use bug spray with permethrin-treated clothing?
Because mosquitoes could land anywhere, not just on your carefully chosen clothing, it’s important to pair permethrin-treated clothing with bug spray on any exposed skin. And while you might be tempted to simply spray your clothes with bug spray, too, Mather cautions that it’s “off-label use” and “doesn’t really work as well” as the spray typically won’t last on clothing fibers for as long as it does on skin.
Bug spray is especially important for repelling mosquitoes, which fly to their host rather than latching on as ticks do. “With tick protection, we really favor the longer lasting effectiveness of permethrin-treated clothing,” says Mather, noting that DEET sprays, which work by making ticks’ feet burn, causing them to fall off of the host, are typically only effective against ticks for 30 minutes before they need to be resprayed.
When it comes to protecting yourself from ticks, Mather recommends “thinking from the ground up.” A permethrin-treated shirt, therefore, might not be as helpful as protective pants and socks. Whether you opt for treated clothing or not, ensure that your legs are covered to reduce the risk of a tick bite. While the traditional advice entails tucking your pant legs into your socks, sporting leggings is also a good way to keep ticks from crawling up your pant leg, says Mather.
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