Home Health News Want To Prevent Tick Bites? What About Clothing With Permethrin Bug Spray?

Want To Prevent Tick Bites? What About Clothing With Permethrin Bug Spray?

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Can insecticide-treated clothing help prevent tick bites? (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

Your clothes may repel others. When it is people at a party or on a date, that can be bad. When it is ticks (at a party, on a date, or anywhere else), that can be very good. Because ticks suck in many ways.

A study recently published in the Journal of Medical Entomology showed how certain types of clothing can really affect ticks. Before you ask whether the study involved dressing ticks in little pants and jackets, this study focused on how clothing from Insect Shield that is supposed to worn by humans may affect different species of ticks.

For the study, Robert Prose, Nicole E Breuner, Tammi L. Johnson, Rebecca J. Eisen, and Lars Eisen from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) went shopping. They bought ten different types of permethrin-treated clothing from Insect Shield, including three 100% cotton items (a T-shirt, a long sleeved shirt, and pants), two 100% synthetic textile shirts (a 100% polyester shirt and a 100% nylon shirt), one pair of  100% synthetic textile socks (a 85% coolwick/15% lycra spandex compression sock), two shirts that were blends of cotton and synthetic textiles (a 60% cotton/40% polyester shirt and a 50% cotton/50% polyester shirt), and two pairs of blended socks (76% cotton/21% nylon/3% lycra sock and 49% polyester/47% cotton/3% rubber/1% spandex sock). Permethrin is an insecticide that doesn’t tend to be absorbed through the skin. 

Picture here is a tick on clothing. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Instead of wearing the clothes and going to a party, the researchers used the clothes to stage two types of experiments with three species of ticks: the black-legged tick ( Ixodes scapularis), the lone star tick (Amblyomma americanum) and the American dog tick (Dermacentor variabilis). In the first experiment, the researchers cut out a piece of clothing and sewed it onto a playing card, because that’s what scientists do with clothes. They then propped up the card at a 45 degree angle, placed tick nymphs on the swathe of fabric, and timed how long the tick nymphs remained on the fabric. Tick nymphs are essentially baby ticks, which unlike baby kangaroos, baby turtles, and baby otters are not cute. Here are some of the results for laboratory-reared and field-collected I. scapularis nymphs:         

Assay outcome Laboratory-reared nymphs Field-collected nymphs
Nontreated 100% cotton textile Permethrin-treated 100% cotton textile Nontreated 100% cotton textile Permethrin-treated 100% cotton textile
Total no. of ticks introduced onto assay card 40 40 40 40
% ticks remaining on assay card after 1 min 100 57.5 85.0 32.5
% ticks remaining on assay card after 2 min 100 42.5 47.5 22.5
% ticks remaining on assay card after 3 min 100 22.5 37.5 12.5
% ticks remaining on assay card after 4 min 100 15.0 32.5 12.5
% ticks remaining on assay card after 5 min 100 5.0 22.5 7.5
% ticks with normal movement 24 h later 100 25.0 100 45.0
% ticks both with normal movement and willing to climb a finger 24 h later 27.5 7.5 80.0 17.5

I will say it because you are thinking it: this showed how ticked off the permethrin-treated clothes really were. Many more tick nymphs fell off the permethrin-treated fabric than the non permethrin-treated fabric.

In the second set of experiments, the researchers lay the clothing material flat, placed tick nymphs on them, and observed how much they moved around over time (the ticks and not the clothes. If the clothes moved, that would be weird.)  Here are some of the results for laboratory-reared and field-collected I. scapularis nymphs:

Assay outcome Laboratory-reared nymphs Field-collected nymphs
Nontreated 100% cotton textile Permethrin-treated 100% cotton textile Nontreated 100% cotton textile Permethrin-treated 100% cotton textile
Total no. ticks exposed 40 40 40 40
% ticks with normal movement 1 h later 100 0 100 0
% ticks with normal movement 24 h later 100 7.5 95.0 5.0
% ticks both with normal movement and willing to climb a finger 24 h later 37.5 0 52.5 2.5

You can see that the nymphs on the permethrin-treated fabric didn’t seem to be singing “I like to move it, move it.” Other experiments showed that the permethrin-treated clothing material also affected older ticks in similar ways.

Does this mean that wearing this insecticide wardrobe may prevent tick bites? Not necessarily. Unless you are a playing card and usually stand at a 45 degree angle, the experiments in this study do not completely represent real life. Plus, assuming that you don’t wear a sock on your head, parts of your skin will still remain exposed. Additionally, as anyone who has been around a drunk person knows, falling off and getting sluggish does not mean not biting. All it takes is one rogue tick to get a bite. Therefore, the next step is to see if permethrin-treated clothing can actually prevent tick bites.

But the findings from this study are promising. Permethrin is not like spaghetti sauce and completely OK to rub all over your body. At higher doses, there are potential toxicity risks. And don’t drink it or eat permethrin treated socks. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) indicated that permethrin is “Likely to be Carcinogenic to Humans” when taken orally. However, the EPA also has so far deemed the risks of permethin-treated clothing “below our level of concern.”

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