Does tick-repelling clothing work?

A yellow ticked warning sign attached to a tree trunk By Gabor Tinz/Shutterstock

This cottage season, there’s another option to keep ticks at bay in areas where Lyme disease is a concern. Mark’s No Fly Zone Tick and Mosquito Repellent clothing includes pants, shirts, jackets, hats, and other accessories. The garments are treated with permethrin, a pesticide effective against ticks and mosquitoes. The permethrin is embedded in the fabric and is still effective after more than 70 washes. Currently, Mark’s is the only Canadian company that sells permethrin-treated clothing.

The most exciting thing? It works. Wearing No Fly Zone clothing (WindRiver Tick and Mosquito Repellent zip-off pants, $99.99) while walking in two tick-prone areas in Norfolk County—one of the first areas in Canada where ticks were established—I didn’t get any ticks on my clothing. In both areas, I had previously picked up ticks on short five-minute walks without treated clothing. My hikes with No Fly Zone pants were longer and I purposely tried to hit tick habitat.

Robbin Lindsay, a research scientist with the Public Health Agency of Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg and a member of the Canadian Lyme Disease Research Network shares my enthusiasm for the product. Lindsay has seen test results where permethrin-treated clothing reduced tick contact by as much as 99 per cent compared to non-treated clothing. “The beauty of this product is, we don’t always put on products before we go in areas where we might encounter ticks. But with this, you just need to put on your pants,” he says.

Mark’s started development of the clothing line in 2008, with the main concern being mosquitoes. “I used to live in Ontario and grew up in mosquito and black fly country,” says Iain Summers, the vice-president for industrial, footwear, and innovation with Mark’s. “I know how bad and irritating they can be. At the time, we weren’t looking to prevent Lyme disease; we were more concerned with West Nile Virus. As we started going though the process, Lyme disease became a concern.”

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Permethrin is effective against mosquitoes, but it’s even more effective against ticks. When mosquitoes get near permethrin, they “go into a state of mini seizures,” says Summers. In response, the mosquitoes move away. But ticks that latch on to permethrin-treated clothing lose their motor skills and fall off.

“If you do see ticks on permethrin-treated clothing, they can’t harm you,” Summers says. “They can no longer do what they want to do, which is bite.”

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Permethrin is a synthetic compound used in the food industry, in shampoo for head lice and scabies control, and on pets for insect control. But in Canada, it was not approved for use on clothing until 2015, when it was given the go-ahead for use in the Canadian military. Mark’s, meanwhile, didn’t receive approval for their mesh-lined, permethrin-treated clothing as a tick-repellant until 2020. It was a process that took more than a decade.

And it’s a process that’s ongoing. “Right now we’re desperate to get approval for socks,” says Summers. “If you think about ticks, and how they attach to people, if you have protection on socks, it would go a long ways.”

Lindsay does caution that permethrin-treated clothing should be used in conjunction with insect repellent on exposed skin. But, “it’s a wonderful addition to the toolbox to prevent tick bites.”

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