Most Effective Insect Repellents Guide: Topical Repellents vs. Permethrin-Treated Clothing

Topical repellent versus permethrin-treated clothing

Spending time outdoors is rejuvenating, whether at the park, in the mountains, or your own backyard. While outside, it’s important to be mindful that you have entered a natural habitat filled with active and often dangerous insects, such as mosquitoes and ticks. Due to their relentless and aggressive nature, it is vital to protect yourself from their bites and the potential for disease.

With that said, it can be challenging to determine which insect repellents are most effective, how long they will help keep you protected, and what the best method of protection might be for you and your family. This article will help break down the most common options by type and active ingredient for you. 

How to Choose the Insect Repellent That’s Right For You

Choosing an effective insect repellent can be complicated with many factors to consider. The main things to consider are type, duration, and the active ingredient. 

Type: The two main types of insect repellents are topicals, those you apply to your skin, and insect-repellent clothing treated with permethrin. 

Duration:  An important aspect to consider when selecting a repellent is how long the insect repellency will last. In general, insect repellent applied to skin does not last as long as permethrin-treated apparel. 

Active Ingredient: With a wide variety of active ingredients, it’s hard to know where to start. Understanding the difference between active ingredients in topicals like DEET and Picaridin and permethrin in insect-repellent clothing will help in selecting a method of protection. Below we break it down by active ingredients so you can make an informed decision that best suits your needs and lifestyle.        

Topicals - Insect Repellent You Apply to Skin

Repellents applied to skin, such as DEET and picaridin, are among the most commonly known insect repellent options. While effective, it’s important to understand that they should be applied carefully and repeatedly. 

Woman applying topical insect repellent

DEET (N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide chemical created by US Army in the 1940’s)


  • Widely used and available in over 120 products in various concentrations
  • Repels mosquitos, ticks, fleas, biting flies, gnats, and chiggers
  • EPA Registered since 1957 


  • Requires reapplication every 6 hours
  • Potential for overuse
  • Distinctive odor which can be inhaled when applied
  • Greasy
  • Can dissolve some plastics and synthetic materials
  • Can irritate and burn eyes
  • Dermal Absorption Rate (The rate of absorption into skin) 18%

Most effective concentration: 30% comes with WARNING label and Keep out of Reach of Small Children

Available Forms: Pump Spray, Aerosol, Liquid, Lotion, Wipes

Picaridin (icardin – synthetic derivative of plants used to produce black pepper)


  • Available outside the US  since 1998,in the U.S. since 2005
  • Repels mosquitos, biting flies, ticks, fleas, no-see-ums, and chiggers
  • Minimal odor
  • Non-greasy
  • EPA Registered since 2005


  1. Requires reapplication every 8-10 hours
  2. Potential for overuse 
  3. Can be inhaled when applied
  4. Can irritate eyes
  5. Dermal Absorption Rate 6%

Most effective concentration: 20% comes with CAUTION label and Keep Out of Reach of Small Children

Available Forms: Pump Spray, Aerosol, Liquid, and Wipes

IR-3535 (synthetic plant oil developed by Merck that disrupts an insect’s sense of smell)


  • Available in Europe since 1979, in the U.S. since 1999
  • Repels mosquitos, ticks, lice, biting flies, chiggers, midges and fleas
  • Minimal odor
  • EPA Registered since 1999 


  • Requires reapplication every 4 hours
  • Potential for overuse and can be inhaled when applied
  • Can damage some plastics
  • Can irritate eyes
  • Dermal absorption rate 13.3%

Most effective concentration: 10-30% comes with CAUTION label and Keep Out of Reach of Small Children

Available Forms: Aerosol, Pump Spray, Roll-on, Stick, Gel, and Wipes

Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus (natural oil created from the leaves of the lemon tree)


  • Available in the U.S. since the 1940’s as a natural product
  • Effective against mosquitos
  • Synthetic EPA Registered since 2000


  • Requires reapplication every 6 hours
  • Has an odor and can be inhaled when applied
  • Potential for overuse
  • Should not be used on children under the age of 3 
  • Can cause skin irritation
  • Dermal Absorption rate not reported
  • Often confused with lemon eucalyptus essential oil which does not repel insects

Most effective concentration: 30% comes with WARNING label and Keep out of Reach of Small Children

Available Forms: Pump Spray, Aerosol

DIY Insect Repellents Applied to Clothing and Gear

Permethrin Spray

Unlike topicals, repellents like Permethrin can be applied to clothing and gear in forms such as clothes washes and sprays, which can be applied yourself. It’s important to carefully follow instructions for these products, including applying permethrin sprays outside in well-ventilated areas.

[Related Article: How To Use Permethrin on Clothing Safely]

Permethrin Spray (synthetic derivative of the genus Chrysanthemum – specifically the African Daisy)


  • EPA Registered in the U.S. since 1979
  • Repels mosquitoes, ticks, ants, flies, chiggers, midges (no-see-ums) and fleas
  • Can be used on products for adults, children, and pets
  • Repellent is not applied to skin
  • Odorless after dry
  • No potential for overuse
  • Hypoallergenic - no dermal absorption
  • Can be applied to many types of materials in shoes, clothing and outdoor gear products 


  • Requires re-application
  • Only lasts 4-6 washings or 6 weeks of product use

Available Forms: Pump Spray and Aerosol in 0.52% concentration – comes with CAUTION label and Keep Out of Reach of Small Children

Shop Permethrin Spray

Long-Lasting Factory Applied Repellent Clothing and Gear - Clothing with Built-in Insect Protection

Using the same insect repellent active ingredient as DIY permethrin sprays, factory-applied permethrin treatments last up to 10 times longer than sprays (70 launderings for apparel). 

Permethrin-treated clothing

Insect Shield Permethrin Application on Apparel and Gear (synthetic derivative of the genus Chrysanthemum – specifically the African Daisy)



  • EPA registered since 2003
  • Repels mosquitoes, ticks, ants, flies, chiggers, midges (no-see-ums) and fleas
  • Can be used by adults, children, and dogs with no restrictions
  • Repellent is not applied to skin
  • Easy care
  • Convenient
  • Odorless
  • Lasts through 70 washings for clothing, 25 washings for gear
  • Requires no reapplication
  • No potential for overuse
  • Hypoallergenic – no dermal absorption


  • May need to use in conjunction with topical repellent depending on amount of exposed skin and concentration of insects in area

Available forms: 0.52% concentration on hundreds of types of apparel for all ages, pets and outdoor products

[Related Article: What is Permethrin?]

[Related Article: How Does Permethrin Work?]

[Related Article: Is Permethrin Treated Clothing Safe?]

Buy Pretreated Clothing

Insect Shield offers a wide selection of pretreated permethrin clothing including shirts, pants, and socks. Suitable for the entire family, with no restrictions for use, Insect Shield has bug repellent clothing collections for men, women, kids, and pets. You’ll find convenient staples to fit into your wardrobe all with the added benefit of long-lasting and convenient insect repellency. 

Get Your Own Clothing Treated with Long-Lasting Permethrin

Alternatively, you can also send your clothes to Insect Shield and we will treat them with permethrin for you. It’s the same treatment used for Insect Shield pretreated offerings, but allows you to add bug repellency to the clothing styles you already have. Choose from sending individual items through the per piece offering (starting at $8.50/item), or fill a prepaid envelope using the Easy Pack option (starting at $89.95). 

About Insect Shield® Technology

Insect Shield Repellent Apparel and Gear are revolutionary products designed to provide long-lasting, effective and convenient personal insect protection. The durable protection provided by Insect Shield is the result of years of research and testing. In July 2003, Insect Shield Repellent Apparel was registered by the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Insect Shield Technology is utilized by 75+ leading lifestyle brands, work wear distributors and International relief organizations across the globe to provide effective protection against insects and the diseases they can carry. Insect Shield is an approved vendor of the US Army and approved for distribution in 46 countries.

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