Mosquito Repellent Clothing: Helping Avoid Malaria, Dengue And Zika

Mosquito repellant clothing (or repellent, depending on the dictionary) is not just about mosquitoes but about deterring ticks and the many other potentially terrible diseases carried by insects, from malaria to Zika to West Nile virus.

  • Where bugs are more of a nuisance than a danger, you might be fine with insect repellent hats and a shawl for evening wear. 
  • Where bugs begin to pose a danger but aren’t dive-bombing you every second, you might be able to get away with a good mosquito shirt, some skin repellent at dawn or dusk, and a good head net and hat (and anti-malaria pills where needed).
  • Where infestation and danger are greatest, you’ll need everything you can get your hands on: vaccinations, whatever pills are available, a head net, solid insect repellent clothingchemical mosquito repellent and a mosquito tent in which to sleep at night. 

So please, as you’re planning your travels, check the situation at your destination (see Resources below) and protect yourself as needed. Don’t wing this one.

More than a million people die each year from insect bites (map courtesy of WHO)

No one likes to be bitten by an insect – that’s a given. Whereas most bites are merely irritating and itchy, some can lead to diseases that are dangerous and should be avoided at all costs during your travels. Here are a few to watch out for:  

  • mosquito bites, which in some parts of the world can carry dengue, West Nile virus, Zika or malaria, which can be dangerous and even fatal 
  • tick bites that can lead to Lyme disease
  • ant bites from certain specific species found especially in tropical climates
  • spider bites

Catching a deadly disease during your travels is rare but not impossible, and bug bites can cause life-changing health problems.

I’ve traveled to places with horrendous diseases and I’ve been fortunate not to catch anything – partly luck, and partly by being well equipped.

Please NOTE: I am not a medical expert, just another traveler, and this page is for information only. I have researched this page and made reference to sources and to respected international organizations where I could. I also provide additional resources at the bottom of the page so you can make up your own mind. For medical advice please check with your medical practitioner.

For a run-down on mosquito-borne diseases, check the CDC page on mosquito bites.

Insect repellent clothing: your first line of defence

The traditional way of keeping mosquitoes at bay is by using some kind of mosquito repellent and yes, that often works well. But there are other ways.

The newer ranges of permethrin-treated clothing are more effective than ever and take a lot of the guesswork out of keeping bugs away. They have many advantages (and a few disadvantages) but will enhance your safety when it comes to fighting bugs.

You can also bug-proof your clothes yourself. After all, not everyone can afford an entire new wardrobe each time we travel, so here’s what I do.

When it’s time to replace my travel clothes, I try to buy a “treated” item to replace the one that fell apart or that (more realistically) doesn’t fit anymore. I also carry anti-mosquito lotion and I’ve now discovered scarves and shawls that can help keep bugs away but look great.

Insect Shield is a company that supplies some of the best travel clothes retailers – ExOfficio, Tilley, Rohan, Sea to Summit and many other illustrious brands. IS is used to treat all sorts of clothes, and works by binding itself within the material or the weave. If you see the Insect Shield logo on clothes, you can expect the anti-bug treatment to last for 70 washes. If you use the DYI approach and spray your clothes yourself, treatment will last about six washes and six weeks in the sun. 

If you plan to go to war against mosquitoes – and win – here’s my selection of the most reliable anti-mosquito clothes. 

It’s up to you: you can buy “IS”-treated clothes, or you can treat your own travel pants with permethrin clothing treatment for shorter-term protection. (I use Sawyer Premium Permethrin for Clothes.)

  • If you need serious bug repellent clothing for the fullest protection, consider clothes that have some sort of net. They may not be chic, but only you can know what level of protection is best for you.
  • Don’t rely exclusively on mosquito clothing. It is effective, but it is not foolproof! Read up on travel disease warnings (see Resources below) and make sure you take all necessary medical precautions, including shots and pills. The clothes are an extra line of defence, not the only one.
  • Also, make sure you can cover up properly. For some reason women’s clothing lines tend to leave more skin exposed than the men’s lines, so make sure your collars button up and your sleeves cover your wrists. The more treated material between you and “them”, the better.
  • Have mosquito protection products for your skin at hand. If you end up in a particularly infested place, you can supplement your permethrin clothing with anti-mosquito lotion. If I’m headed to particularly ‘bad’ areas where air-borne diseases are common (anywhere near the Equator, damp areas or rainforests, for example, or in mosquito country right in your backyard!) I always carry Ben’s DEET (I talk about toxicity further down) or picaridin and use it to spray myself. (Just beware of spraying DEET on some synthetics, which it can damage when at high concentrations.)
  • If you’re headed to a place notorious for mosquitoes and other bugs, seriously consider taking a mosquito net or mosquito tent with you for use at night.

The mosquito head net: it may look strange, but would you rather get eaten alive?

What are the most vulnerable parts of our bodies?

What’s most exposed, of course: your neck, eyes and hair.

Keeping mosquitoes and insects away from your face, eyes and mouth is a challenge which we usually meet with chemicals. Putting these around your face isn’t recommended, nor is it pleasant.

But if you don’t want to use special clothing or you are a bit phobic about flying insects around your head, a net might be the best answer.

Using a head mosquito net may look silly at first sight but if you combine it with a stylish travel hat that is either coated with permethrin clothing treatment or that you treat at home yourself, you’ll end up more comfortable because the hat will keep the net from touching your face (and giving mosquitoes a chance to bite through the net) as well as offer protection from the sun. Nets can itch unless you put them over a hat or cap, and the greater your comfort, the more likely it is you’ll wear it.

There are both advantages and disadvantages to using mosquito head netting.

Mosquito head net pros

 Highly effective if you tuck it in properly
 Easy to place over a hat
 Light, compresses to pack and weighs very little so easy to carry in your daypack or travel handbag
 No chemicals on or near your face – priceless!
 You can stop worrying about mosquitoes and other flying insects buzzing around your hair and face – much more enjoyable!

Mosquito head net cons

 Not very elegant – unless you’re aiming for the “safari nostalgia” look
 Not suitable for dressing up – more for casual, camping, trekking or outdoor work wear
 A mosquito net hat is just one element of staying safe: you still have to protect the rest of your bare skin with creams and clothing (where there are ticks you’ll need a combination of tucked-in clothes and treatments)
 If not tucked in properly, creepy crawlies can get in (and I don’t like the idea of spiders or mosquitoes finding an entrance)
 An overlapping net entrance can allow insects in so I would treat the net (and my hat) with permethrin for clothing (unless I was using an “IS” garment)

Great examples of the mosquito head net

A word of warning: shop carefully because there are many cheaply made and poor quality mosquito net hat models on the market! And an important TIP: If you’re not wearing treated clothes, don’t forget to spray your hat or head net with Sawyer permethrin spray to increase repellent power.

Mosquito nets for your head weigh nothing and are cheap mosquito protection. Pop one into your bag and carry it with you if you happen to be in a bug-infested area – and would rather use a net than soak your face with chemicals. It’s great to have for an emergency!

If you’d rather spray your net before using it – yes, it’s chemical but it will help keep bugs away – then use a highly effective product (yes, Sawyer’s). At least it will work.

A mosquito suit – when nothing else will do

Admittedly this option is a bit extreme. If you’re traveling to a severely infested area, the anti-mosquito clothing line from Bugshirt might be of interest. This is a Canadian brand, a country where mosquitoes and biting flies can seriously spoil your time outdoors in some parts of the country, especially in summer. (They do ship to the USA.)

Obviously this is not city wear but if you’re off on an adventure, a photography shoot, perhaps or a trekking holiday in Canada, the US or off to parts of Africa or Asia, then at least consider their jacket and possibly the pants, especially if you’re someone biting bugs adore.

This tightly woven range blocks out all sizes of insects, which means fewer chemicals for you. The face net has two zippers so you can open it up – to eat and drink or just to circulate the air – when you’re not using it, without having to take it off. The shirt has a built-in storage pouch, and the loose-fitting pants look quite comfortable. That said, you won’t be making a fashion statement with this medium-priced range – but I certainly wouldn’t care, not for this level of protection.

And then there’s the mosquito repellent bracelet…

There has been much fanfare about the mosquito bracelet – wouldn’t that be wonderful? Just slip on a bracelet and mosquitoes go away?

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. According to Dr Cameron Webb of the University of Sydney, there is no evidence that the anti-mosquito bracelet is effective. It may ward off a few mosquitoes from your wrist, but won’t do much for the dozens that whirr around your head and the rest of your body. Sadly, this product is more wishful thinking than effective so I can’t in any conscience recommend it, not until its effectiveness is proven.

Permethrin Spray, DEET And Other Anti Mosquito Travel Tactics

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.

DISCLAIMER: I am a writer, not a doctor, and none of this is medical advice. I have traveled for 50 years to nearly 100 countries and have gained some experience on what works or doesn’t work for me. I share that experience in this series of articles, which can be your starting point for research. But when it comes to actual prevention, treatment and care, ALWAYS consult a qualified medical practitioner.

So how do you protect yourself from mosquitoes?

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

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.

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 food
Mosquitoes 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 Repel, Bugs 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 help
Coils 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. And of course, 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.

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

Additional resources:

Popular Science: Is DEET Safe to Use?

National Pesticide Information Center: DEET Fact Sheet


Sierra Club: Keeping Bugs (and Bears) at Bay

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

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

— Originally published on 04 July 2017


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