The desire to keep ticks at bay feels especially urgent this year. There’s the news that the number of insect-borne diseases in the United States has tripled since 2014, and the discovery of a new disease-carrying tick in New Jersey. If you’ve been in the woods and are worried about a tick bite, start by checking your ankles. “Ticks start low and crawl up,” says Dr. Thomas N. Mather, director of the University of Rhode Island’s Center for Vector-Borne Disease and its TickEncounter Resource Center. “So if they get to the top of your head, it’s not that they fell out of a tree. Instead, they’ve crawled all the way up across your body.”
A proper tick check starts around your feet, then examining all crevasses of your body — armpits, wrists, knees, and yes, groin — but the best way to deal with a tick bite is to prevent it from happening at all. And fortunately, there are some solid, science-backed ways to prevent the pests from latching on. To find out which tick repellents actually work and which ones are duds, I asked Mather to explain some tick science and share some of his favorite products for keeping them off of humans, and their pets.
Best Tick Repellent for Humans
Though the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends DEET as an effective tick repellent, Mather prefers permethrin, the same chemical used in delousing shampoos like Nix. (That said, DEET can be a godsend for mosquitoes, and if you’re looking for more ways to deal with those summertime pests, check out this guide to mosquito repellents from writer and chronic mosquito victim Sierra Tishgart.) Using a chemical to deal with bugs can sound intimidating, but permethrin is one of the most widely used agricultural chemicals, so as Mather notes, “everyone is exposed to permethrin to some degree.”
For day-to-day tick prevention, Mather counts on clothing that’s been treated with permethrin. “Most of them come from a company called Insect Shield in North Carolina, and those can go through the wash about 70 times and still be effective,” he says. Since ticks start low and crawl high, permethrin-treated socks are a good first line of defense, since the chemical can stop, and kill, ticks in their tracks.
You can also treat your own clothing with permethrin, using a spray. Unlike the pretreated clothing, which can be washed over and over and retain its tick-repelling ability, clothing you’ve sprayed with permethrin loses its ability to kill ticks after about six weeks, or six washes, whichever comes first. But spraying your sneakers or hiking boots before going out into the woods is another solid tick-prevention technique. You could also spray gardening gloves, pants, shorts, or T-shirts with permethrin.
But avoid applying it to your skin. That’s not because permethrin is unsafe; in fact, the concentration of permethrin on clothing is what Mather calls “well below what the EPA calls the daily dermal, no-observable effect level,” meaning it’s functionally nontoxic. It’s just that this formula of permethrin breaks down on your skin after 15 minutes, according to its manufacturer Sawyer, so spraying it on your body rather than your clothes would leave you still vulnerable to ticks.
Best Tick Repellents for Dogs
When you and your dog go for a walk, your pet is more likely to come back into the house with a tick than you are, so if you really want to protect yourself from tick bites, it’s important to make sure your pet is protected, too. If a dog brings a wandering tick into the home, it can then live in your couch or sheets until it bites you or another human. Mather recommends this collar, which lasts for six to eight months and works to prevent ticks from biting the dog. “They’ve been real life changers for some people that I’ve heard from. Every day there’d be ticks, and now they have the collar, maybe they find a tick every month or something.” He recommends replacing it twice a year.
You should also check your dog for ticks by grooming with a fine-toothed comb after you come in from a walk.
Best Tick-Removal Tool
If your tick prevention strategies failed, or maybe you forgot to bring your permethrin-treated socks on your hike, and you ended up with a tick on your body, don’t panic. All you really need to remove a tick are pointy tweezers — but not flat-edged tweezers. That’s because you need to be precise. “Think of the tick as a bag of germs that happens to be connected to your skin with a straw,” explains Mather. If you squeeze the bug’s body with an imprecise tweezer, all those germs will be released through the “straw” and into your skin, which is gross. A pointed tweezer, on the other hand, will allow you to get as close as possible to the head of the tick, right next to the skin, and pull up at the connection point without squeezing the bug.
“Usually, people are so grossed out at this point that they just want to get rid of the tick,” Mather says. But don’t do that. The next course of action is to take a picture of the tick with your phone, so you have a record, then put the tick in a Ziploc bag and hold onto it until you’re sure you don’t have any diseases. If you do end up with a rash or some signs of an illness, it’ll be easier to test for a tick-borne illness if you have the tick on hand. Mather also recommends labeling the bag with the date, and maybe the location, just so you can remember what you’re dealing with. Plus, identifying the tick can help narrow down your risk of getting sick. For instance, Lyme disease is mainly spread through black-legged ticks, not dog ticks — and knowing that fact can save you a lot of worry.
A Quick Note on Essential Oils As Tick Repellent
Though the U.S. CDC does recommend essential oils like garlic oil as a somewhat effective repellent of black-legged ticks on yards and skin, Mather wouldn’t advise essential oils as your primary line of defense. “I’m hard-pressed to find any hard data on them,” he says, though he adds that in the few experiments he and his colleagues from other universities have run, the results haven’t been great for essential oils. In a test of lawn products, “The natural products were very poor at killing ticks compared to the standard products,” which included a type of permethrin. But if you want to double up, garlic oil is readily available. Just don’t rely on it as your main tick repellent.
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