Thinking of solo travel? CLICK HERE to find out how

Follow me on

Home :: Health Information for Travel :: Permethrin Spray

Cheap worldwide health insurance

Permethrin Spray, DEET and Other Anti Mosquito Travel Tactics

10 July 2017 — Visiting a tropical country may be the dream of a lifetime, but you don’t want to transform it into a nightmare of itching and scratching - or worse.

Lots of things bite, but the mosquito is the most common. It may be harmless in cooler climates but in some parts of the world, it can be lethal. You should do everything in your power to avoid malaria, dengue and now Zika, not to mention all the infections that don't make the headlines.

Mosquitoes can be dangerous unless you use permethrin spray or similar repellentsThe mosquito, so seemingly innocuous yet so dangerous

So how do you protect yourself from mosquitoes?

You keep them from biting you, and there are several ways you can do that.

Product

Advantages

Disadvantages

Effectiveness

Materials impregnated with "Insect Shield". Available from several manufacturers, including ExOfficio and White Sierra.

  • Factory-applied, using an industrial process that lasts around 70 washes
  • You don't look strange (as in wearing funny nets)
  • Longer-lasting than DYI options and saves you time spraying your own clothes
  • Limited product ranges
  • Cost, especially if you already have a good travel wardrobe
  • Clothes design isn't always optimal - open necklines, vents (men's ranges often cover more skin)

⭐  ⭐

Home-applied (DYI) mosquito repellents for clothes, like Sawyer Permethrin

  • If you already have some great travel clothes, you can just treat them yourself
  • You can treat everything easily in one session, from your socks to your hat (outdoors, of course)
  • Cheaper if you already have the clothes
  • 6 weeks/6 washes before your clothes need re-treating
  • Product must be kept away from all pets when applying
  • Takes a bit of time and organization to do a good job
  • If traveling for a long time, you'll have to pack plenty of repellent to re-treat your clothes

⭐  ⭐

Skin-applied mosquito repellent products, such as Sawyer or Ben's

  • Effective for several hours (lotion lasts longer than spray)
  • Protects where clothes are not appropriate - swimming, water sports
  • It doesn't look strange and no one will know you're wearing mosquito protection
  • Cheap protection
  • You have to reapply more than once during the day
  • Long-term skin use might be problematic to health
  • Some preparations are greasy and can destroy plastics and artificial fabrics (where there are high DEET % so please read the label!)

⭐  ⭐  ⭐

Head nets

  • Cheap protection
  • Easy to wear, compact and light to pack
  • Good at keeping bugs away from ears, eyes, nose and mouth, where you cannot apply skin mosquito repellents
  • Not ideal if you worry about how you look
  • You need to wear it with a hat or a cap so the net doesn't touch your face
  • You need to keep it tucked in for it to work properly

⭐  ⭐  ⭐

Full body nets (from the Bugshirt company)

  • Very effective, especially if combined with a bit of clothing repellent
  • No chemicals on your body
  • You look like a beekeeper
  • Costs more but the garments last a long time
  • Hotter to wear but also well ventilated
  • More suitable for an adventurous trip than for a city break

⭐  ⭐  ⭐  ⭐

  • Peaceful, worry-free sleep
  • Rest from chemicals at night
  • Bugs won't get in to the tent (or to the net if it's properly tucked in)
  • More to pack
  • The net needs to be hung on something
  • The tent is expensive

⭐  ⭐  ⭐  ⭐

Mosquito repellent bracelets

  • Cute and fashionable
  • Dresses up travel clothes - it's cheap jewelry
  • Sadly, mosquito repellent bands don't work - except around your wrist!
  • You can always add some mosquito repellent to the bracelet, but protection will still be limited to the immediate wrist area

NONE

Product

Materials impregnated with "Insect Shield". Available from several manufacturers, including ExOfficio and White Sierra.

Advantages

  • Factory-applied, using an industrial process that lasts around 70 washes
  • You don't look strange (as in wearing funny nets)
  • Longer-lasting than DYI options and saves you time spraying your own clothes

Disadvantages

  • Limited product ranges
  • Cost, especially if you already have a good travel wardrobe
  • Clothes design isn't always optimal - open necklines, vents (men's ranges often cover more skin)

Effectiveness

⭐  ⭐

Product

Home-applied (DYI) mosquito repellents for clothes, like Sawyer Permethrin

Advantages

  • If you already have some great travel clothes, you can just treat them yourself
  • You can treat everything easily in one session, from your socks to your hat (outdoors, of course)
  • Cheaper if you already have the clothes

Disadvantages

  • 6 weeks/6 washes before your clothes need re-treating
  • Product must be kept away from all pets when applying
  • Takes a bit of time and organization to do a good job
  • If traveling for a long time, you'll have to pack plenty of repellent to re-treat your clothes

Effectiveness

⭐  ⭐

Product

Skin-applied mosquito repellent products, such as Sawyer or Ben's

Advantages

  • Effective for several hours (lotion lasts longer than spray)
  • Protects where clothes are not appropriate - swimming, water sports
  • It doesn't look strange and no one will know you're wearing mosquito protection
  • Cheap protection

Disadvantages

  • You have to reapply more than once during the day
  • Long-term skin use might be problematic to health
  • Some preparations are greasy and can destroy plastics and artificial fabrics (where there are high DEET % so please read the label!)

Effectiveness

⭐  ⭐  ⭐

Product

Head nets

Advantages

  • Cheap protection
  • Easy to wear, compact and light to pack
  • Good at keeping bugs away from ears, eyes, nose and mouth, where you cannot apply skin mosquito repellents

Disadvantages

  • Not ideal if you worry about how you look
  • You need to wear it with a hat or a cap so the net doesn't touch your face
  • You need to keep it tucked in for it to work properly

Effectiveness

⭐  ⭐  ⭐

Product

Full body nets (from the Bugshirt company)

Advantages

  • Very effective, especially if combined with a bit of clothing repellent
  • No chemicals on your body

Disadvantages

  • You look like a beekeeper
  • Costs more but the garments last a long time
  • Hotter to wear but also well ventilated
  • More suitable for an adventurous trip than for a city break

Effectiveness

⭐  ⭐  ⭐  ⭐

Advantages

  • Peaceful, worry-free sleep
  • Rest from chemicals at night
  • Bugs won't get in to the tent (or to the net if it's properly tucked in)

Disadvantages

  • More to pack
  • The net needs to be hung on something
  • The tent is expensive

Effectiveness

⭐  ⭐  ⭐  ⭐

Product

Mosquito repellent bracelets

Advantages

  • Cute and fashionable
  • Dresses up travel clothes - it's cheap jewelry

Disadvantages

  • Sadly, mosquito repellent bands don't work - except around your wrist!
  • You can always add some mosquito repellent to the bracelet, but protection will still be limited to the immediate wrist area

Effectiveness

NONE

How to get rid of mosquitoes? By using the best mosquito repellents

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), four main products work to keep mosquitoes away: Picaridin (known as icaridin outside the US), oil of lemon eucalyptus, something called IR3535 and, of course, DEET.

No time for all this science? Scroll down to find the best mosquito spray

I am not a medical expert, just another traveler. Everything I quote below does come from experts, however. At the end of this page you’ll find some resources and links to articles so you can make up your own mind.

Let’s look at each in turn.

Picaridin is recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO). It is considered less toxic than DEET (whose toxicity is still being debated). It evaporates from skin faster, doesn’t irritate the eyes and isn’t as strong smelling. A working group from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers it a good alternative to DEET.

Products containing picaridin include Natrapel Bug Spray (recommended by the Audubon Society) and Sawyer’s Fisherman Formula

Picnic table - mosquitoes are attracted to smells and foodMosquitoes are often attracted to food and fragrances

Oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE) is one of several natural oils recommended as a mosquito repellent. At slightly stronger concentrations, some tests have shown that OLE is as effective as DEET. It doesn’t last as long, however, nor is it effective against West Nile virus, sand flies and 'no-see-ums'. Other oils include citronella, soybean oil and geranium oils and while they may be less likely to cause side effects, you do have to apply them quite often.

Oil-based products include RepelBugs Be Gone and NOW Essential Oils. One alternative health website recommends such oils as cinnamon leaf, vanilla (mixed with olive oil) and catnip oil.

The third common mosquito repellent is IR3535, a potent substance that can irritate your eyes and harm plastic. Still, the EPA's Working Group says it poses few other safety risks. (Really? But it dissolves plastic?) It is considered as good as DEET against deer ticks and some of the mosquitoes that carry the West Nile virus.

Products containing IR3535 include Avon Skin So Soft Bug Guard and Coleman SkinSmart.

Mosquito coils - not too effective so permethrin spray on your clothes will helpCoils and smoke will help but are no substitute for repellent when malaria mosquitoes are around

DEET mosquito repellent - friend or foe?

And finally, everyone’s favorite whipping boy, DEET, the most common mosquito and tick repellent and possibly the most controversial. Health authorities admit it is strong and can damage plastic and rubber, including many of the man-made fibers in your clothing, so read the labels. Still, they consider it safe - although they do admit that in large doses or over time it can produce adverse reactions in about one per 100 million persons. (‘They’ are the CDC, the EPA and the WHO.)

DEET is known to irritate eyes and used in large doses or for a long period of time it can produce neurological damage but this is extremely rare.

According to the EPA, “DEET is generally safer than many people assume and remains a viable option for people in areas infested with disease-carrying pests.” The big advantage of DEET of course is that it lasts a long time (longer than essential oils) so you have to apply it less often and it is more effective as it repels a wider range of disease-carrying insects.

Still, DEET has significant critics. A study by Duke University pharmacologist Mohamed Abou-Donia details an extensive list of neurological damage caused by DEET and other conventional insecticides, from memory loss to tremors to slurred speech. French studies say it can harm animals, children and pregnant women.

You’ll have to make up your own mind: is it truly safe, or is this an example of business funding science and coming up with ‘acceptable’ results? I do use DEET on occasion, but I spray it on my hands first and then rub it on - I never apply it directly to sensitive skin parts. Nor do I apply it to artificial fibers and plastics, which it can degrade. Also, bear in mind that concentrations above 30% don't offer much more protection but they do expose you to greater amounts of DEET.

Products containing DEET include Cutter BackwoodsOFF! and Ultrathon - and my own favorite, Ben's mosquito and tick formula, which lasts up to 12 hours and also comes in wipes, which protect for up to 8 hours. I don't slather it on but if the alternative is malaria or dengue, I'll go for the DEET spray or the picaridin.

But I’d welcome alternatives that really work.

These four products are those officially recommended by the CDC but there is one more: permethrin. The FDA approved it relatively recently although it’s in widespread use in Europe and Asia. The EU, however, lists it as an endocrine disruptor, and it's been shown to cause tremors in dogs and cats, according to the National Pesticide Information Center. Having read this, and having used permethrin spray, I am concerned. One note: I would only use it on my clothes, never on my skin. A product I have used containing permethrin is Sawyer Premium.

Environmental concerns about DEET

Some of the major concerns people voice around DEET are environmental.

When DEET breaks down into nature, what’s left behind is less toxic that the DEET itself. But DEET is used often so it does make its way into waste water and through that into other waters. It can be toxic to fish and insects at extremely high levels but isn’t considered toxic to birds.

According to an EPA review in 2014, DEET meets current safety standards, although there is plenty we don’t know. “We continue to believe that the normal use of DEET does not present a health concern,” the review said. More tests are planned and who knows - they may reveal something else.

The Sierra Club concurs, arguing that malaria or West Nile virus or Lyme disease (from black-legged ticks) are far worse dangers than DEET - which, it says, is toxic to household pets so don’t treat your travel clothes around your cats. (It has been known to kill cats.) You must spray your clothes outside and once they are dry, your pets won't be at risk anymore.

Your choice.

Repellent products I use and have found effective (there are other good products, of course)

Product

Image

How to use it

Longevity

Details

On all your clothes, NOT on your skin. Also backpacks, boots, tents and netting and hats. 

Up to 6 weeks or 6 washes, whichever comes first (very gentle hand-washing might extend use if you don't wring and just drip dry) 

Spray your clothes at home just before you leave and pack a smaller one to take with you. Use the spray outdoors and well away from pets. Works against mosquitoes, ticks, chiggers, mites and many more insects. Safe on most fabrics.

On skin or clothing. If sweating or swimming, reapply.

Up to 14 hours for the lotion, 12 hours for the spray. For biting flies, chiggers and gnats, works up to 8 hours.

The lotion provides longer protection on your skin. It works on a range of insects, from mosquitoes to flies and ticks. It won't damage plastic or synthetic clothing, nor is it greasy or smelly.

Image

How to use it

On all your clothes, NOT on your skin. Also backpacks, boots, tents and netting and hats. 

Longevity

Up to 6 weeks or 6 washes, whichever comes first (very gentle hand-washing might extend use if you don't wring and just drip dry) 

Details

Spray your clothes at home just before you leave and pack a smaller one to take with you. Use the spray outdoors and well away from pets. Works against mosquitoes, ticks, chiggers, mites and many more insects. Safe on most fabrics.

Image

How to use it

On skin or clothing. If sweating or swimming, reapply.

Longevity

Up to 14 hours for the lotion, 12 hours for the spray. For biting flies, chiggers and gnats, works up to 8 hours.

Details

The lotion provides longer protection on your skin. It works on a range of insects, from mosquitoes to flies and ticks. It won't damage plastic or synthetic clothing, nor is it greasy or smelly.

What about the mosquito patch?

These have become a popular alternative.

You can stick the DEET-free AgraCo Mosquito Repellent Patch to your skin, ideally a couple of hours before the mosquitoes, gnats and flies come out. Most people apply a new one each day. They seem to work better on some people than others and there has been a mixed response to their effectiveness so I'd certainly slide a few into my bags; they're flat and don't take up any space. If I were going to a "dangerous" destination with plenty of bugs, I'd certainly use Sawyer insect repellent on my clothes, along with picaridin or DEET on my skin. Just in case.

What is the best natural mosquito repellent?

At least one natural or essential oil mosquito repellent can claim some success, but it depends on how bad the mosquito situation is.

Kelly of Primally Inspired reports having had some success with Rose Geranium by Edens Garden but beware, not all Rose Geranium oils are created equal. This brand has been successfully used as a tick repellent. If you do use it, consider diluting it with almond or even olive oil, since most essential oils should not be used at full strength. That said, diluted oils don't seem to work as well.

Some people have also been pleased with results from Repel plant-based Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent. However, if you're going where deadly diseases thrive, be very careful about using something less than powerful - the consequences of catching malaria or West Nile virus far outweigh a spray with a chemical.

Just because something is known as a "natural" bug repellent doesn't necessarily mean it is safe or effective. Because natural products aren't as regulated (if at all) as chemicals, quality often varies so please do your homework before you rely on these products to ward off potentially deadly insects. Your best bet is to work with an expert who knows about essential oils or who can recommend an organic bug spray; discovering something doesn't work is too late when you're standing in the middle of a swarm.

Tick repellent

Ticks are tiny climbing (not jumping) insects that from a distance look like small spiders. They wait, a bit like leeches, at the end of plant leaves and become active as you brush past, dropping onto your clothes and climbing until they reach unprotected skin, especially armpits, your breast area or genitals.

They slash away at your skin and bury their head into it, pumping out an anesthetic, again, much like a leech, so you don't notice them until you undress or they become big and bloated. They can carry Lyme disease, a debilitating ailment that can last for years if not treated immediately.

TIP: Avoid getting bitten by ticks at all costs. Wear clothes treated with permethrin spray, tuck in your clothing (especially socks over pants), apply Ben's tick repellent (or a similar picaridin product) on your skin and wear light colors so you can see the tick and brush it off before it finds a way into your clothes.

If you need to remove a tick, there's a small, plastic pronged tool you should carry in your first aid kit. You don't want the tick to be "sick" into your skin and cause an infection. Pulling it off with your finger is likely to activate that "sick" response. If you're bitten and swelling and if red circles appear around the bite, get to a doctor right away to get checked for Lyme disease and treatment if needed.

A few final mosquito prevention tips 

  • Stay where there is a breeze - mosquitoes blow away easily. A simple fan will help get rid of the worst of them. Air conditioning helps too.


  • Do not forget your mosquito net or tent. These are super-efficient and will at least protect you at night.


  • Make sure you've got all your required vaccinations and treatments before you leave, especially if you're staying far from the city. Some vaccinations are needed weeks before you travel. Remember, not all diseases can be prevented with vaccinations and for particularly nasty ones, you're back to making sure you follow all these recommendations and use the best insect repellent you can get your hands on.

  • Wear clothes with a tight weave to make it difficult for mosquitoes to get through to your skin. Sun protection clothes will usually do the trick.


  • If I'm in the tropics and walking around in nature, my leech socks go on right away.

  • I carry suitable disinfectant in my first aid kit to treat bites and sores. Skin infections can be very dangerous.

  • When it comes to mosquitoes, you shouldn't rely on a single product for protection. Make sure your protection is adapted to your circumstances.

  • If I'm using DEET repellent, I make sure I keep it away from my eyes, as well as from plastics and all artificial materials. I also keep in mind it damages the environment so I use as little as possible. I also keep it away from watercourses and pack any empty containers.

  • A good mosquito protection alternative for city wear is a shawl or scarf treated with repellent for your head and neck.

  • Mosquitoes apparently dislike light colours so ditch the dark fashions and go pale.


  • They and other insects may, conversely, like perfume so make sure your deodorants and shampoos aren’t fragrant.


  • Wearing sunscreen? Put it on first. When it’s dry, apply the repellent. The CDC suggests you stay away from products that contain both repellent and sunscreen.


  • Try a small amount of repellent on your skin to check for allergies before slathering yourself.


  • Stay away from stagnant or slow-moving water. Mosquitoes love it. 


  • I have a head net I can fish out of my pack if the insects are particularly dense. It's easy to carry and lightweight (and I don't like bugs around my face).

  • And of course… cover up as much as you can, especially at dawn or dusk (although some mosquitoes do hang around all day). Keep your clothes tucked in and done up. Put socks over your pants - it may look weird but it's better than being bitten. Use a good-quality repellent, but only on your exposed bits of skin. And consider using some insect repellent clothing.

  • Finally, when heading for bug-infested areas I always travel with my mosquito tent. It gives me the security of knowing mosquitoes, ticks, scorpions, cockroaches or other creepy things will be kept at bay.

  • However prepared and equipped you might be, remember - SH*T happens, so make sure you've got solid travel insurance (I use World Nomads).

In 2015, almost half a million people died from malaria. Each year, half a million cases of dengue develop into hemorrhagic fever, killing 25,000 people. And the impacts of Zika have been well documented. You have to pit this data against the possible health impact of using a strong repellent to make up your mind.

And please - don't let all this put you off your trip! My aim is to make sure you're armed with knowledge so you can actually forget about getting sick and enjoy your exciting, boundary-stretching trip, and come back healthy.

If you'd like to read more about mosquitoes and other insect bites...

Popular Science: Is DEET Safe to Use?

National Pesticide Information Center: DEET Fact Sheet

EPA: DEET Hub

Sierra Club: Keeping Bugs (and Bears) at Bay

National Wildlife Federation: Better Ways to Swat Mosquitoes and Bye Bye Bugs

Green America: Living Green

Have you got any great solutions that work for warding off bugs? If you do please comment at the bottom of this page!

You might also like...