recommended by experts

The Most Effective Tick Repellents for Humans (and Dogs), According to Science

Photo: Ron Erwin/Getty Images/All Canada Photos

As more and more people are starting to spend more time outside, it is extremely important to be wary of tick-borne diseases. The summer months are when you’re most susceptible, because “as the weather gets better, tick numbers rise,” according to Dr. Thomas Daniels, who studies ticks at Fordham University’s Louis Calder Center. Places to watch out for include wooded areas and patches with tall grass and bushes, explains Dr. Goudarz Molaei, research scientist and director of the CAES Passive Tick Surveillance Program and associate clinical professor at the Department of Epidemiology of Microbial Diseases at Yale University’s School of Public Health. It’s important to know that tick bites don’t just happen on the hiking trail. “Close to 75 percent of Lyme-disease cases have been reported from bites that occur in people’s own backyards,” Molaei explains.

Jeffrey Hammond of the New York State Department of Health’s public-affairs office recommends doing “a final, full-body tick check at the end of the day and also checking children and pets” in order to protect against ticks and tick-borne illness. A proper tick check starts with examining your feet, then onto armpits, wrists, knees, and, yes, groin. “Ticks start low and crawl up,” adds Dr. Thomas N. Mather, director of the University of Rhode Island’s Center for Vector-Borne Disease and its Tick Encounter 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 your body.” The 11 experts we talked to say the best way to deal with a tick bite is to prevent it from happening at all. Fortunately, there are some solid, science-backed ways to prevent the pests from latching on, including using products treated with permethrin, DEET, and picaridin. Even more fortunately, the experts say that most of those ways remain the same as they have in the years since we first started asking them about tick repellants — though Dr. Rick Ostfeld, a disease ecologist at the Cary Institute, told us that the EPA recently registered a new compound called nootkatone that’s found in grapefruit skin and Alaska yellow cedar trees and “may become a game changer when it comes to repelling and killing ticks.” But the EPA estimates any products containing nootkatone won’t be on store shelves until 2022 at the earliest, so for now, our experts say the products below remain your — and your pet’s — best line of defense for the upcoming tick season. Beneath the repellants, we’ve included the experts’ recommended tools for removing a tick that has bitten you or a four-legged friend.

Best pesticide-treated clothing for humans

According to Molaei, there are generally two types of chemicals that serve as the first line of defense against ticks: repellents, which can be applied directly to the skin, and pesticides, which can be applied to clothing. Mather, Molaei, and our other experts all recommended permethrin (the same chemical used in delousing shampoos like Nix), which acts as a “tick-killing agent,” according to Ostfeld. Although using a chemical to deal with bugs can sound intimidating, permethrin is one of the most widely used agricultural chemicals; 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 it comes from a company called Insect Shield in North Carolina, and it can go through the wash about 70 times and still be effective,” he says. Dr. Scott Williams, who works at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station’s Department of Forestry & Horticulture, adds, “The weave of the sock makes it difficult for the smaller ticks to navigate, which increases their time exposed to the permethrin, which kills more of them.” Since ticks start low and crawl high, permethrin-treated socks are a good first line of defense because the chemical can kill ticks in their tracks.

To fend off any ticks that may crawl as high as your torso, you can get this treated lightweight pocket tee.

This treated hat will protect your scalp from both ticks and the sun.

Best DIY tick-repellent treatment for clothing

You can treat your own clothing with permethrin using a spray. “For tick repellent for myself and my field crew, we soak our clothes in permethrin and allow them to dry before wearing them,” says Williams. But unlike pretreated clothing (which can be washed over and over and retain its tick-repelling ability), clothes you’ve sprayed with permethrin lose their ability to kill ticks after about six weeks or six washes (whichever comes first). Spraying your sneakers or hiking boots before going out into the woods is another solid tick-prevention technique, as is spraying gardening gloves, pants, shorts, and T-shirts.

But avoid applying it directly to your skin. That’s not because permethrin is unsafe; in fact, the concentration of permethrin on pretreated clothing is “well below what the EPA calls the daily dermal, no-observable-effect level,” says Mather, meaning it’s functionally nontoxic. It’s just that permethrin breaks down on your skin after 15 minutes, according to its manufacturer, so spraying it on your body rather than your clothes leaves you vulnerable.

Best tick repellents for humans

The CDC — along with six of our experts — recommends DEET as an effective tick repellent. “The EPA suggests that any product with DEET should have a concentration between 20 and 30 percent of the active ingredient,” says Molaei. He does note that while DEET typically lasts for 12 hours against mosquitos, it will only remain effective against ticks for around eight hours maximum. “DEET can also not be combined with lotion or sunscreen, otherwise the efficacy of the product decreases significantly.” These towelettes from Off! are soaked in 25 percent DEET and come recommended by Strategist contributor Maureen O’Connor. She uses them to prevent “Quasimodo-like reactions” to mosquito bites, but they will also work against ticks. While you can opt for a spray, she says that the towelettes are “quick, easy, and can be deployed in a bathroom stall without anyone noticing.”

If you want something with the maximum concentration of DEET, O’Connor recommends Repel’s towelettes, which contain 30 percent DEET.

Dr. Catherine Hill, a professor of entomology at Purdue University, says picaridin, an insect repellent that can be applied to the skin, is another effective way to ward off ticks. Ostfeld says it’s one of “the most effective repellents against black-legged ticks,” the carriers of Lyme disease, babesiosis, anaplasmosis, and Powassan virus in most of North America. Compared to products that contain DEET, which can feel overly oily on the skin, picaridin is “more pleasant aesthetically,” says Dr. Kirby Stafford, a medical-veterinary entomologist. But Molaei has one word of caution when using picaridin: “While DEET is considered a relatively safe product, picaridin has less toxicity in comparison, but it can occasionally cause an allergic reaction if it accidentally gets on your face or into your eyes.”

Best natural tick repellent (for doubling up)

Though the CDC and EPA do say essential oils like garlic oil and lemon-eucalyptus oil are somewhat effective repellents of black-legged ticks, 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, adding 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, lemon eucalyptus oil is readily available. Just don’t rely on it as your main tick repellent.

Best tick repellents for dogs

Best tick collar 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 dog owners really want to protect themselves from tick bites, it’s important that they make sure their pet is protected, too. If a dog brings a wandering tick into your home, it can live in your couch or sheets until it bites you or another human. Three of our experts — Mather, Ostfeld, and Daniels — recommend this collar, which lasts for six to eight months and works to prevent ticks from biting your dog. “They’ve been real life-changers for some people that I’ve heard from. Every day there’d be ticks, and now that they have the collar, maybe they find a tick every month or something,” says Mather, who recommends replacing the collar twice a year.

Best oral tick treatment for dogs

When Strategist writer Liza Corsillo interviewed a panel of veterinarians about the best tick treatments for dogs, every single one recommended Bravecto chews, an oral treatment that protects dogs for three months at a time. Bravecto works by releasing insect poison into your dog’s bloodstream; as she explains, it’s completely harmless to Fido and eventually becomes absorbed into the tissue fluids under a dog’s skin, “where it’s transferred to any biting ticks, which then become dead ticks.” Because it is prescription medication, you should always consult with your vet first: Corsillo notes that some oral tick preventatives, like Bravecto, are not recommended for dogs with a history of uncontrolled seizures.

Best topical tick treatment for dogs

If you’d rather not give your dog an oral treatment, or if you don’t think it needs protection for three months at a time, Daniels recommends the topical K9 Advantix II, a product containing permethrin. Each dose lasts for one month. Just know that Advantix, along with most topical tick repellents for dogs, is super-toxic to cats. If you own both, Stafford recommends keeping your cats away from any permethrin-treated dogs for 72 hours after applying the product.

Best tick-repelling bandanna for dogs

Should a tick-repelling collar not prove protective, or if you want something that offers a bit more coverage, Insect Shield also makes a handsome dog bandanna that’s been pretreated with permethrin.

Best tick-removal tools

If you forgot to bring your permethrin-treated socks on your hike and you ended up with a tick on you, don’t panic. All you really need to remove one 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.