Less Toxic Ways to Repel Ticks

It’s the end of summer, you can feel it. The warm, sunny days to be followed by crisp, temperate nights of autumn. Back-to-school excitement hangs in the air. There’s football season, school plays, friends new and old. The leaves begin to turn. We love autumn.

And so do the ticks.


Ticks are tiny arachnids that can be as small as the periods on this blog post or as large as apple seeds when fully fed. These pests typically live in shady, moist areas on the ground where they wait to attach to their hosts. They can transmit pathogens that cause diseases like Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, ehrlichiosis and anaplasmosis when they feed.

Common tick-repellent products can contain chemicals linked to cancer, developmental problems, and neurotoxicity. It’s enough to make you consider staying indoors. Many of us at MADE SAFE live in tick-infested areas, so we wanted to share what we turn to for information and nontoxic tick-repelling solutions.

Before we continue with our own suggestions, however, we want to remind you to use your own discretion and follow the advice of the CDC and WHO for recommendations of the most effective forms of prevention of tick-borne illnesses. That said, Made Safe strongly encourages you to examine the ingredients in your tick spray (and other bug repellents) to consider the effect they may have on your health and the health of future generations.

Common Chemicals in Tick Repellent

DEET has become synonymous with “bug repellent” over the years. The US Army first developed this chemical in 1946 to protect soldiers sent to insect-infested areas. DEET became available to the general public shortly after. Though it serves as an effective insecticide, scientists are wary of a slew of negative effects associated with the toxic chemical. Exposure to DEET is linked to skin blisters, seizures, memory loss, headaches, stiffness in joints and shortness of breath. DEET chemicals absorb quickly into the skin, with one study finding 48% of the chemicals completely absorbed within six hours of application. Oxybenzone, a chemical in sunscreen, speeds up the rate of absorption into the skin. Scientific studies prove DEET is a neurotoxin. Should you choose to use bug repellent with DEET and keep it in your home, it is extremely important to keep it away from places small children can reach.

Pyrethroids are a common class of bug repellent chemicals that includes over 1000 insecticides. This group of chemicals accumulates in the fatty tissue. Pyrethroids are toxic to the central nervous system and classified as neuropoisons by the WHO. They are also linked to endocrine disruption and are possibly carcinogenic. Humans aren’t the only creatures that suffer from exposure to pyrethroids – these chemicals are also toxic to fish and aquatic life.

Common pyrethroids in bug repellent include cyfluthrin and permethrin. Cyfluthrin resembles DDT in its mode of action. Cyfluthrin produces harmful effects on the blood with studies linking use of the chemical on the human body with decreased glucose and red blood cells and decreased liver function. Permethrin is mostly used to treat bug resistant clothing, mosquito netting and outdoor gear and is used as a pesticide for crops. Permethrin is restricted to crop and wide area applications by the EPA as it is highly toxic to aquatic organisms. Common side effects to short-term exposure to permethrin include skin irritation, headaches, dizziness and vomiting.

Our Nontoxic Tick Safety Suggestions

  • Check out our list of MADE SAFE certified bug repellents.
  • Conduct a thorough tick check on yourself, your kids and your pets after being outdoors, and shower soon after coming inside. Ticks tend to be slow movers and if you can prevent a bite that’s ideal. Common hiding places for ticks include:
    • Under your arms
    • In and around ears
    • Belly button
    • Backs of knees
    • In and around hair
    • Between legs
    • Around waist
  • The CDC has also compiled a list of tick repellents derived from nature

Learn more with our report Bug Repellent: What’s In It?,  our Bug Repellent Chemicals of Concern fact sheet, and our page on DEET.

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