Permethrin – A Non-Toxic Tick Repellent That Works

In the Northeast US, there are two species of ticks.

Wood ticks are large and while annoying, do not cause illness. Deer ticks, barely visible to the naked eye, were introduced to the Northeast United States 30 years ago and carry Lyme disease. These microscopic intruders have impacted the outdoors experience almost as much as sprawl.

If I had a nickel for every person who told me that they now limit their outdoor activities to winter to avoid ticks, I’d be a billionaire.

I don’t leave home without my pre-trek preparation, which includes making myself lethal to ticks. So what’s my secret?

A derivative of crushed dried Daisy Chrysanthemum flowers. The insecticidal properties of these plants have been recognized since the 18th century:

Permethrin. It has worked for me for the last 7 years. I specifically mean the pump or spray application for fiber, not a skin cream or ointment.

Permethrin is a chemically synthesized derivative of crushed dried Daisy Chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum cinerariifolium, more commonly known as Pyrethrum) flowers.

It is available in sporting-goods and camping supply stores. The product available in NY is effective for two-weeks, but there are products on the market that last for up to six weeks.

Here is what I do:

* In a well-ventilated area, apply permethrin to all clothing, headgear, shoes, gloves

* Pay special attention to collars, armpit, waist, knee, ankle areas of garments

* Apply permethrin to backpack, especially arm straps, tent, sleeping bag, stuff sacks

* Let items dry before packing up

Why is Permethrin different than DEET? Permethrin stuns or kills insects that come in contact with it. DEET repels insects by blocking the receptors on an insect’s antennae which help it find its host. Once permethrin has dried on the clothing, it is bound so tightly to the fibers that any potential for absorption through the skin is negligible.

Is Permethrin safe for children and pets? While using the pump or spray, take special care to be away from water sources, ponds, or pet drinking dishes. Permethrin is toxic to fish, but has not been shown to be toxic to birds. Although there are permethrin sprays specifically sold for use on dogs, these products should never be used on cats. Because of their grooming habits and slow metabolism of permethrin, cats are much more susceptible to toxicity from permethrin. Once permethrin has dried on any fabric, it is no longer toxic.

What if permethrin gets on your skin? I typically wash my hands after applying permethrin. Everything I have read indicates that it is poorly absorbed by the skin and inactivated by the skin and liver and excreted. I have a history of acute skin allergies, so I wash my hands.

Can permethrin harm the environment? Some research indicates that permethrin is degraded by sunlight, readily metabolized by soil microorganisms, and that once dried, it is so tightly bound to fibers that it does not melt or leach into the environment.

What other preventive measures can nature-lovers take?

* Know your adversary

Deer ticks cannot jump or fly, and do not drop from above onto a passing animal. Potential hosts (which include all wild birds and mammals, domestic animals, and humans) acquire ticks only by direct contact with them. Once a tick latches onto human skin it generally climbs upward until it reaches a protected or creased area, often the back of the knee, groin, navel, armpit, ears, or nape of the neck. It then begins the process of inserting its mouthparts into the skin until it reaches the blood supply.

* Plan ahead

If I am going to build a debris shelter, I apply DEET (Diethyl-meta-toluamide) to my skin. I would not put DEET on children under 3-years-old. If you are applying DEET to children, a 30% maximum strength is recommended, but consult your pediatrician. Have a tick inspection plan and a tick removal plan.

* Awareness is a survival tool

Ticks that are not attached do not transmit disease. Not all ticks carry infection, and once bitten, it takes 36-48 hours for the tick to begin transmitting the disease.

* Avoid the wrong moves

Touching a tick with a hot match, crushing, twisting, applying petroleum jelly, alcohol or any other irritant are not effective and can increase the risk of infection.

* Practice the right moves

Carry a tick removal kit or a pair of pointed precision, unrasped fine-pointed tweezers whose tips align tightly when pressed firmly together. Practice holding the tweezers, so if you had to, you could grasp the tick by the head or mouthparts right where they enter the skin and pull firmly, steadily and directly outward. Resist the temptation to grab the tick body, jerk or twist to remove it.

* Proper tick disposal

Alcohol does kill ticks. I used to crush them, but I now either wrap them in an alcohol towlette and put that in a container or put them in a jar of alcohol if I find them walking around on me.

* Protect your skin from sun and wind damage

Some people wear long sleeve shirts and trousers, which is certainly effective. I enjoy shorts and tank tops, so I apply at least a 30 SPF sun block. With that, DEET and whatever air borne pollens attach to my skin. I make it a point to wash exposed skin with colloidal oatmeal. If I’m on a long trek, I reapply protection once a day or after swimming. Otherwise, I wash my skin as soon as I get home.

In the summer, I spray my furniture and drapes with permethrin, just in case a tick finds its way inside. I have not seen a tick on me in over two years and have not been bitten by a tick in over five years. Maybe I’m just lucky, but given the way I like to explore, I’m confident these methods are effective.

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