Smarter Living: Family Health
Insect-repellent apparel has been available at outdoor gear retailers since 2003, when the EPA approved Buzz Off Insect Shield as safe for human use and for the environment. Though the active ingredient, permethrin, has been associated with health and environmental risks, the manufacturer is not required to attach warning labels, even on products designed for children.
Permethrin is a synthetic version of pyrethrin, a bug-killer that occurs naturally in chrysanthemums. Synthetic permethrin is easily metabolized by many insects, but while it may effectively disable them, they often recover. The chemical can be highly toxic to fish and tadpoles and in humans can cause asthma attacks, headache and nausea.
Among the treated clothing's advertised benefits is the fact that, unlike topical repellents, the active ingredient works near your skin instead of on it. But the fact that the garment loses its effectiveness after 70 washings indicates that the repellent will come off the material, possibly while you're wearing it, especially after heavy perspiration. And research has shown that skin can absorb permethrin. Further, consumers are advised against washing treated garments with other apparel because "small amounts [of the active ingredient] can come off in the wash." All of this suggests the product could pose some health risk to consumers.
Health risks aside, the product has limited impact. Though you'll likely sustain fewer bites through your clothing, any exposed skin is fair game. And while ticks may be prevented from crawling on your clothes and then onto you, the clothes won't keep the bugs from jumping onto exposed heads, necks, arms or feet. Essentially, whether you're wearing treated garments or not, for full protection you’re going to need a topical repellent.
In parts of the world where the relative risks of insect-borne diseases outweigh the health risks from synthetic insect repellents and travelers will be spending long stretches of time outdoors, insect-repellent apparel could provide worthwhile protection, if only because it continues to protect covered areas when topical repellents have worn off. You can also apply a personal mosquito repellent to untreated clothes. Before traveling, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Yellow Book for up to date information on health risks at your destination.
last revised 1/6/2012