Summer is just around the corner in the Northern Hemisphere. Are you ready to protect your kids from tick bites?
In the United States at least, fears of Lyme Disease from tick bites have recently eclipsed warnings about mosquito-borne Zika. Local and national news outlets have been covering the Lyme threat for several months.
They’re right to warn us. As maps from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention illustrate, ticks carrying Lyme disease -- like the blacklegged tick in the video below -- now live in many of the continental United States. Ticks carrying other diseases (such as the cayenne tick in the image at the top of this post, and the similar-looking Rocky Mountain tick) can be found in all 48 contiguous states. Moreover, 47 of those states had reported cases of Lyme disease by 2015. All this means that if you live in the U.S., you need to know how to prevent tick bites.
But it’s not just U.S. newscasters warning that last winter’s mild weather means a record summer for ticks. (Which is bad news for anyone wary of Lyme Disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Powassan Virus, and other tick-borne infections.)
According to a report published nearly a decade ago, the bacteria that causes Lyme Disease now lives in ticks throughout Canada, Europe, and even parts of Africa and South America. News sources from Canada to the British Isles are cautioning audiences to be alert to the increased risk of tick bites. In other words, knowing how to prevent tick bites is critical regardless of where you live or travel.
So let’s assume you’re a parent who wants to protect your kids from tick bites. What do you do?
Enter my friend Renée. A few weeks ago she asked what we used for bug repellent. She was looking for an effective, all-natural mosquito repellent, though she was also curious how to prevent tick bites. In other words, she wanted something that would work and is not DEET.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has reviewed DEET several times and maintains it’s generally safe to use, though they acknowledge it causes “skin irritation” in some users.
Yes, some parents have reported nervous-system problems in children exposed to DEET. Official sources maintain that this is due to not following instructions and warnings for proper use. (Popular Science notes that the number of severe cases is extremely low, and the problems can’t be conclusively linked to DEET use anyway.)
But Renée’s question got me wondering: How well DO insect repellents work against ticks? (Ticks are, after all, more closely related to spiders than mosquitoes.)
News reports of this year’s especially-bad tick season, which usually end with something like “apply bug repellent,” weren’t very helpful. And family-camping season is rapidly approaching.
So I did some research. This is what I learned.
Unless you’re new to tick-borne illnesses, you probably already know the standard advice. But it’s worth repeating anyway: To protect your kids from tick bites,
- Don’t take them tromping through the underbrush. When you and yours must be outside, stick to shorter grass and stay on the center of trails.
- Wear long pants and long sleeves in light colors, topped off with a hat or bandana.
- Tuck pants legs into light-colored socks.
- Do a tick check as soon as you’re done outside, paying special attention to armpits, groin, and other warm areas where ticks like to hide. Then run those play clothes through a hot dryer for 10 minutes, to kill any ticks on them.
- Protect your pets against ticks as well, and check them after they’ve been outside.
So, once you’ve covered those bases,
Which insect repellent will protect your kids from tick bites?
Here’s a rundown of the more common insect-repellent active ingredients, and how well they work against ticks and mosquitoes:
With one exception (see below), these provide little protection from mosquitoes. In tests conducted by the independent organization Consumer Reports, repellents based on natural oils generally repelled mosquitoes for only 30-60 minutes.
Moreover, as American Academy of Pediatrics physicians have noted, these oils can cause severe allergic reactions in some users, and we don’t really know how well they work against ticks. The Center for Wilderness Safety deems them ineffective tick repellents.
While Consumer Reports testing found that some natural-oil formulas offer limited tick protection, personally, I’d rather use something that will work against ticks AND mosquitoes.
This was the only naturally-based ingredient that Consumer Reports gave decent marks for repelling both ticks AND mosquitoes. This makes it an encouraging all-natural option.
With one major caveat: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, oil of lemon eucalyptus isn’t safe for kids under three years, because of possible skin irritation or allergic reaction. (That would include my friend Renée’s kids. Sorry, Renée!)
This active ingredient has been widely used in Europe for over three decades now. While it does well on tests against ticks and one type of mosquito, it does poorly against another common mosquito variety.
Again, though, there are caveats. One, you need to make sure the concentration of IR3535 is high enough to be effective; lower concentrations (7.5%) don’t protect well at all. Second, avoid products containing IR3535 (or any bug repellent) plus sunscreen. Because sunscreen needs to be reapplied more often than bug repellents, you’ll either come up short on sun protection, or overdose on repellent.
Picaridin (aka KBR 3023), the top-selling repellent ingredient in Europe and Australia, is still relatively new to the United States. Nonetheless, it’s the only non-DEET repellent that the American Academy of Pediatrics even mentions as a DEET alternative.
Whether it works against ticks depends not so much on who you ask, as on the concentration you’re using. According to Consumer Reports, products containing 20% picaridin repel both mosquitoes and ticks for much longer than those with lower concentrations.
And while opponents of DEET will like that picaridin won’t melt plastics or your clothes -- as DEET has been known to do -- it hasn’t been around as long as DEET, so it hasn’t been studied as thoroughly.
DEET, first invented by the U.S. Army in 1946, is the most-studied bug repellent around. It’s widely considered safe for human use and effective at repelling mosquitoes. Popular Science calls it “the best insect repellent humans have ever invented.”
But I still wondered: Does it effectively repel ticks?