Permethrin is a pesticide that you spray on clothing to kill black flies, ticks, and mosquitoes but has no harmful side effects on humans if used properly. It is the active ingredient used in the Insect Repellent Clothing sold by Outdoor Research Ex Officio, Sea-to-Summit, Royal Robbins, Craghoppers, and others, which kills bugs when they land on your clothing. Permethrin was developed by the U.S. military to protect soldiers from insects in the jungle and is still in use today.
If you want to treat clothing or gear that you already own, you can buy Sawyer Permethrin Spray in liquid form and spray it on your own clothes to the same effect. This self-applied form lasts for 6 washings. I’ve been using it on my hiking pants, shirts, hats, gloves, gaiters, and socks, for well over a decade and found it safe and effective to use.
A big bottle of Sawyer Permethrin comes with a spray adapter and will cover 5 complete sets of clothing, including shirts, pants, and socks. You’ll want to read the directions carefully before applying it, but it’s not difficult to do. You need to spray it on the clothes you plan to wear hiking or for any outdoor activity in a windless but well-ventilated place like a garage. Let them dry for a few hours and you’re all set.
I spray Permethrin on the clothes that I wear for tick hiking in New Hampshire and Vermont, including long-sleeve shirts, convertible hiking pants, gaiters, and hiking socks. When you spray the Permethrin on, you want to position the sprayer 6 to 8 inches away from the clothing you plan to treat. Pay particular attention to the cuffs of long pants and shirt sleeves where ticks will try to attack you. It’s also a good idea to spray it on your hat or to buy one that’s already been treated with Permethrin like the Outdoor Research Bugout Brim Hat.
Sawyer’s Permethrin Spray (24 oz) is pre-mixed to the correct concentration so you can apply it to clothing without any preparation.
I can attest to the effectiveness of Permethrin Spray, particularly against mosquitos and ticks. I rarely ever get bitten as long as I wear a long-sleeved permethrin-treated shirt and pants when I go hiking in the forest. I love having the sun on my arms and legs as much as the next guy, but I’d rather cover up than catch Lyme disease, which the CDC believes is now 10 times more prevalent than previously reported.
More about Permethrin
As a treatment for clothing, Permethrin clothing insect repellent does not harm fabrics and is odorless after it dries. Use Permethrin on clothing by itself or with skin-applied repellents to create the ultimate protective, armor-like insect barrier. Permethrin treatments on clothing are non-toxic to humans and are registered for use by the U.S. EPA.
The active ingredient, Permethrin, is a synthetic molecule similar to those found in natural pyrethrum, which is taken from the chrysanthemum flower. Not only does this product repel insects, but will actually kill ticks, mosquitoes, chiggers, mites, and more than 55 other kinds of insects.
Permethrin insect repellents are for use with clothing, tents, and other gear. During the drying process, it tightly bonds with the fibers of the treated garment. It will not stain or damage clothing, fabrics, plastics, finished surfaces, or any of your outdoor gear.
Permethrin is a contact insecticide, meaning that kills ticks or other insects when it comes in contact with them. It’s also used in hair shampoos for head lice. When applied to clothing the Permethrin binds to the fabric eliminating the risk of over-exposure to the skin. As a clothing, tent, chair, or sleeping bag application, Permethrin is very effective at keeping ticks from attaching to you and in reducing the mosquito population in your camping area. While ticks usually find you at the ankle level (be sure to treat the socks and pants) they can also climb bushes and find you at a higher level so be sure to treat your shirt as well if you are around bushes and concerned about ticks.
Sweating and exposure to water do not significantly deteriorate the application. It is primarily the agitation of a washing machine, which deteriorates the Permethrin application as it knocks the molecules loose from the fabric. For best results, Sawyer recommends hand washing and air-drying. When using a conventional washer and drier, use the gentle wash and dry cycles. Loss due to the drier is limited compared to the detergent and washer agitation. Dry cleaning removes the Permethrin from the fabric.
Permethrin Spray can last up to six weeks through six weekly washings. All treatments are non-staining and not greasy. Always follow the directions for use on the package label. Factory pre-treated Permethrin clothing, however, lasts for 70 washings and is far more convenient if you don’t want to spray your own clothing.
Updated April 2023
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Do you treat garments that have a DWR? For example, would you treat your rain jacket? I am wondering if that could damage the DWR, or alternatively if the DWR would prevent the permethrin from being absorbed. I know you can treat gear made out of silnylon, but I would like to check before applying it to some Gore-Tex type garments!
Also, wouldn’t soaking the garments in the solution be more efficient than spraying it on? The longer the fibre is soaked, the more permethrin should be absorbed I assume. I have used Sawyer spray before, and I did notice that it worked better on my merino wool layer than my polyester ones. The permethrin on the polyester layers seemed to wear out faster as well, which I guess has to do with the fact that polyester does not absorb water to any significant extent, and the solution is water-based.
I don’t treat rain gear. Just shorts, pants, socks, hats. The items that are the first and last line of defense again insects. It’s not recommended that you do underwear. Yes, soaking is more effective, but it all washes out in 6 washes anyway. When I spray, I soak the garments full of permethrin. But if you want a longer-lasting treatment, it’s best just to send stuff away to Insect Shield. I have a coupon on my home page if you want a discoumnt
I’ll just add. The problem with soaking is that you need to properly dispose of the excess. Please see my article “permethrin soak method guide” for instructions.
Permethrin is highly toxic to bees. DEET seems to be a wiser option as it is effective against mosquitos and ticks. Whichever one chooses for their needs I suggest to use it as sparingly as possible so as not to do harm to the many insects that are really beneficial in nature. I apply a little DEET to my ankles and shirt cuffs. Also rub a little through my hair.
Keep safe all. Thanks as always for the great reviews.
Problem with deet is that over time it basically dissolves plastic – which is what most hiking things are made out of (synthetic clothing, tents, backpacks, etc etc.).
In MANY miles of hiking in the northeast I’ve never had a bee bother/land on me – in fact unless I was walking through a field of some sort I can’t remember the last time I saw one while hiking. Ticks, and therefore Lyme Disease, are a much greater health issue here. Mosquito’s, well they’re just a pain.
There’s likely regional differences across the country and not a one-size-fits-all solution.
I’ll stick with the permethrin treated clothes and picaridin lotion on skin.
“DEET seems to be a wiser option as it is effective against mosquitos and ticks. ”
No, that is just not true.
DEET also messes up your plastic gear.
Personally I don’t feel the need to treat every piece of clothing (i.e. rain gear). With rain gear you’re going to be wearing clothing under it so THAT is the clothing I want treated. A tick is going to need to be on that clothing before he gets to your skin so I feel that’s the protection layer.
In any case, yes – you are correct – that the effectiveness and longevity of the permethrin is going to be partially determined by the ability of the piece of clothing to absorb it.
Do you have to fully saturate the material? Some people in my family are uncomfortable with the idea of the chemical contacting the skin and would prefer to just spray the outside of our socks, boots, and bottom pant legs.
I have this same concern and would appreciate a response that addresses what happens when you sweat in clothes that touch your skin. Also, the Permethrin bottle says not to treat hats. I was planning to treat the outside part of a ball cap. It looks like you treat hats. How do you do that? Thanks much.
Nothing happens. The permethrin bonds to the fabric at a molecular level. It doesn’t sweat off when you perspire.
My hats are factory all pre-treated with Insect Shield by the manufacturer. But I wouldn’t hesitate to treat a hat if they weren’t.
you do not have to saturate the clothing throughly but it does work more effectively if saturated and fully dried to allow a molecular bond to the fabric. Working for Parks, and previously doing habitat restoration, I only saturate clothing that does not directly contact skin often. like pant cuffs, shoes, boots, etc. For cloths that directly contact skin, I lightly mist it so that the exterior is covered but not soaked through. It is especially important to treat areas like the neck collars, sleeve cuffs, upper socks, or t-shirts like the underarmor warm weather gear. I do soak my leather boots, gaiters, saw chaps, tinpants and forestry vest.
Is this dangerous to kids can you spray on kids clothes..
Yes, it’s perfectly save to put on kids clothes. Most people don’t put it on underwear though.
I have hunting clothes for hot weathwr and they provide excellent airflow. Would this product block or restrict the airflow of the clothing?
It doesn’t affect it at all. It’s like polygiene or the other chemical treatments that hunting gear manufacturers put on cloth. It bonds to the fabric at a molecular level that’s too small to interfere with breathability.
Previous permethrin labeling says to use on hats. Recent labeling says not to use on hats. I have hiked through wooded areas with low lying branches without permethrin hats and have pulled ticks off my face and neck. Since then I have sprayed my hat with permethrin, let it dry well, and worn the hat with no eye, mouth, or breathing problems. And no ticks! Why the recent stern warning about not using permethrin on hats ? If the sprayed hat is allowed to dry well do you see a risk to wearing the hat. Thanks. JP
I wear an insect shielded hat every day (which is just longer lasting permethrin). No ticks on me! Can’t imagine why they stopped recommending it or if they did. I haven’t seen any change in labeling. Companies are still selling Insect Shield hats, so draw your own conclusion from that.
I am only conjecturing, but permethrin is a neurotoxin for insects. Though it has shown to have very low, to nil effects in humans, having it on your head next to your brain on a continual basis might be less than cautious.
Should we also spray arm sleeves, or do the sleeves themselves keep insects off?
Yes, spray the sleeves too.
Do I need to wash the treated clothing before initial donning?
No. You’ll prematurely degrade the permethrin treatment. It only lasts for 6 launderings.
Once dry, do treated cloths pose any risk to fish or other aquatic life? For example wading a lake or stream with treated pants?
No. They’re safe.
Per the Florida Department of Agriculture permethrin in liquid form is toxic to fish and aquatic invertebrates. So do not spray it anywhere near your tropical fish or pour it down the drain. However once dry the amount you on your clothing will affect a stream or pond so it is OK to use on fishing trips.
Is it safe to spray permethrine on bed sheets? We will be in Kenya and will be provided mattresses but no bedding. As Kenya has endemic malaria the protection is important. Once permethrine bonds with the fabric can you still absorb it through your skin?
Once it dries it does bond to the fabric, but I wouldn’t advise sleeping naked on your sheet. Insect Shield advises against it coming in contact with the genital areas. Frankly, you’d probably be better off sleeping with a permethrin-treated insect net, which is much more common and taking prophylactic anti-biotics when in-country. Talk to your doctor, local tropical medicine clinic, or public health department for expert advice.
As Phillip says, insect net over the bed for mosquitos and prescription anti-malarial medication, depending on exactly where you’re going. Conditions vary widely. I use an ultra-light permethrin-treated sleeping bag liner form Sea-to-Summit against bed bugs, fleas, spiders, etc. You might want to wear underwear to keep it away from your groin.
I loved it when you said that as a treatment for clothing, Permethrin clothing insect repellent does not harm fabrics and is odorless after it dries. My wife is complaining about bugs every time we were on our patio. I will surprise her with an insect repellent shirt on her birthday to get rid of the bugs every time we stayed on our patio.
If it’s a cold day, do you wear the treated clothing over your base layers or sweaters, or do you wear the treat clothing next to your skin?
Right next to my skin.
Pump vs aerosol spraying on clothing?
I doubt that it really matters. What you’re trying to do is get the clothing wet with the solution.
Spraying Permethrin for my clothes (heading to Kenya). I couldn’t help but get some on my skin.
Should I worry? I washed it off well with soap and water after spraying all clothes.
Also wondering where I should dry clothes off? Currently in bathroom with windows open and fan on.
A well ventilated place, out of the sun.
Would you need to wear permethrin-soaked long sleeve shirts? I am wondering if you could just spray your arms with picaridin and use short sleeves. Do ticks attach above 3 feet anyways?
Yes – I’ve had ticks attach to my upper back.
If you were wearing permethrin treated clothing do you have any idea of how the ticks got to your upper back?
I suspect it occurred when I was on a hike and took a hard fall landing on my side. He probably crawled down my neck then and stuck to my back. But that’s just a guess.
Using another insect repellent on exposed skin is certainly one way to go.
Ticks will crawl up clothing above 3 foot, not to mention climbing up brush and catching a ride when you go by.
Thanks, Phil. I’m a bit late in replying to your comment. I was curious because some people say that ticks can drop out of trees onto you. However a tick researcher from the University of Rhode Island told me that ticks don’t do that. It’s more efficient for them to attach to prey that brushes against them. He also said that they’re generally found at knee height or less. So it makes sense that the tick attached to you when you fell. Thanks for all the information you provide.
I help manage the safety department where I work. I do a lot of work with surveyors, and have had to both take, and teach a ton of tick safety as part of my job.
Ticks definitely don’t climb trees and drop on you. Have you ever seen how fast they move? It would take them the better part of their lifecycle to climb a tree. Then they’d get one chance to time it perfect to hit you when they drop. They also weigh noting, so better hope there’s no breeze to blow them off course.
They climb a few feet off the ground, and wait for something warm blooded to brush against them, so they can attach. (There are some studies that claim you’re 70% less likely to find a tick on you if you only treat your shoes and socks, with permethrin, and do nothing else for protection.) Then they climb the animal until they find skin to attach to, and look for a dark place where they’re harder to spot. That’s why they tend to attach just above the socks, behind the knees, just above the waist band, and in armpits on humans.
The most likely way for a tick to attach to your upper body is when you sit on the ground to rest, eat, have a drink, and you brush against some low vegetation with your upper body, or if it climbs on your pack when you set it on the ground, and you pick it up as a hitchhiker. I try to keep my pack, or at least the straps and hip belt treated for that reason.
Some additional info on the underwear thing. Years ago, I emailed InsectShield asking why we shouldn’t treat underwear. They said it wasn’t necessarily bad; rather they didn’t have test data and approval to use it in contact with mucus membranes. Not an issue since we generally wear something on top of underwear. But something to keep in mind if going commando or using running shorts with a built in liner. I imagine using it on sports bras would be just fine.
I also use it on a bandana to tie around my dog’s neck.
If they wear a coat/sweater use it on that.
Yes, I make sure it’s completely dry. Should always read instructions on everything
I used the soaking tub method for my military clothing in 2001 and spent weeks in the deep woodlands of MN, WI, and WA. We still had to load up on 100% deet bug dope, and a deer tick managed to embed on my tricep. The amount of sweat we put into our clothes, rainfall, water fording, was likely as good as washing the fabric. Permethrin is helpful but it isn’t a magic bullet. Continue to take additional precautions when in high risk areas.
I really enjoy your work and articles Phillip. Thank you!
Great advice as always.
Just a note that people hiking in Scotland need to be aware that tick borne encephalitis has reached the Highlands. Vaccines are available. Luckily I’ve never been bitten as am pretty paranoid about the bug++RS but always check yourself and watch out for any bullseye bites or other strange swellings.
I have sent my warm weather shirts and pants to Insect Shield. Their cost per item is $9, but when you consider your cost via USPS and their flat rate return shipping by UPS is $7.95, the total works out to about $12.50 per shirt. I spray some cold weather pants, sun hat, and day pack.
My cabin on VA’s Massanutten Mountain is surrounded by trees. In the spring, I have to trim back some of the saplings so they will not block the Dish signal. Once I did so without wearing the Insect Shield clothing. Got a tick a few inches under my arm pit. Saw my dermatologist the next day. Sitting there in just my underwear, she discovered the tick. Her PA and medical assistant were using Google to look up the type of tick. I told them it was a Lone Star tick and I was right. The doctor removed it and gave me the disease prevention medicine. Did I ever feel stupid for not wearing the treated clothing.
About 15 years ago, I purchased a Permetherin “pretreated” long sleeve hiking shirt. The very first time I wore it out fishing, I had mosquitoes land on me and bite so much, it almost looked like I was wearing a nice fluffy fleece. It did not work at all and I had to call off the fishing trip that day. Perhaps the Alaskan mosquitoes are more hardy than the usual run of the mill lower 48 critters? I have since purchased the “spray” on kind of the solution and have had little to no problems. I relegated the supposedly “treated” shirt to just everyday non bush walking tasks.
I also use permethrin on my clothes. I have some that are treated by the manufacturer and some I have sent to Insect Shield. I volunteer for a National Park and find ticks on me consistently. I am not a scientist but in my research I found a new article from Harvard Health. It is their Lyme Wellness Initiative. Here is link to article: https://lyme.health.harvard.edu/preventing-tick-bites/ In this article it states ‘Many outdoor retailers sell clothing that is pre-treated with permethrin. While some manufacturers claim that pre-treated clothing can last through 70 washes, studies show that clothing pre-treated with permethrin can wear off after 15 washes.’ Not good news. I am now closely tracking how many washes I do on the pretreated clothing and retreating rather than exceed the 15 times.
I volunteer with the NPS to maintain trails near my home in northern Virginia. I average about 300 hours a year doing trail maintenance. My particular NPS park is known as a “tick magnet” park pretty much year round. I started sending my trail clothes (shirt and long sleeve trail shirts, long trail pants, and socks) to Insect Shield about 5 years ago, and haven’t experienced a tick attachment since. I typically send them back to Insect Shield every 18 months or so. It’s well worth the expense when compared with the cost and hassles of spraying or dipping my clothes every six weeks.
Hi Phil i used this all the time, i was getting off eBay from the USA which was great. But The Canadian Government will not allow it into the country you can buy if already on the cloths but is not has strong has if you spray and only a very small % impregnated plus like extra colth inside which no way helps. But with the Massive tike moving North in Canada Like Labrador where i live just hope they change there minds in the next few years Dave
I send my clothes in each year to insectshield.com. I didn’t realize you had a coupon, I will use it next time around. Thanks!
FYI–this is TOXIC to cats when wet. It’s OK once dry. I always spray my items well away from where my cats ever will be until dry.
Can you please post about obtaining the coupon? Loved the article.
click on this link and get 15% off at InsectShield when you use coupon code “SECTIONHIKER”
I switched to permethrin for my yearly Rockies exploration trips many of them in the Wind Rivers. I have a few stubborn buddies that swear by DEET and I hate that stuff. Just can’t use it. They were very skeptical until we started exploring the Eastern side of the range in the Wind River Indian reservation. In the late ’90s They speculate that some pack animals brought in some Minnesota Black flies and they have flourished there. Nasty little creatures. They’re almost invisible and you can’t feel them when they bite but the bites turn into pussy black welts. Well the first year we were in there I didn’t get a single black fly bite and my buddies all had hundreds of them. It made them ill. Guess what. They all treat with permethrin now. The mosquitoes in the Winds are legendary. It is the only way to go. Oh and I also treat my underwear. Everything still seems to be functioning normally down there.
How long is Equip Permathrin impregnating debugger solution viable from the Date of manufacture ?
You’ll have to ask them. I have no idea.
Several years ago, my husband & I went on a missions trip to the Dominican Republic. I attract mosquitos like crazy, so I sprayed the basics –hat, socks, long-sleeved shirts & pants and for the week that we were I was mosquito free. Plan on re-spraying hiking – fly fishing clothes as am now in Montana (no need to spray in southern Nevada!). And spraying was so very easy. Just wished I knew about this sooner :).