How does bug-repellent clothing work?

By: Charles W. Bryant
Insect Pictures You may be tempted, but please don't smack your computer screen. See more pictures of insects instead.
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Bzzzzzzz. Bzzzzzzz. BZZZZZZZ. SMACK! Mosquitoes -- maybe the most annoying pests to ever fly, walk or crawl the earth. Nothing ruins a camping trip, a picnic or a backyard cookout like these blood-sucking insects. When you consider that mosquitoes have been pestering the inhabitants of our planet for 100 million years, you know it's not likely they're going to go anywhere anytime soon either. And they aren't just bothersome -- mosquito borne illnesses kill more people worldwide than anything else [source: Outside Magazine].

Most people might think these little vampires just feed on human blood like it's food. It's actually only the females that stick their little syringes, or proboscis, into your skin -- and draw blood to help develop their eggs. The lifespan of a female mosquito is only about three to 100 days, but that's enough time to put a dent into your summer fun. It's also enough time for a female mosquito to have anywhere from 1,000 to 3,000 baby mosquitoes. It doesn't take long for these little guys to grow up either -- they mature into adults in less than a week. And, if most of the mosquitoes in your yard look familiar, it's because they rarely travel more than a mile from where they were born. You may also notice that they tend to die down at night. That's because most mosquitoes do their work like you and me -- from dawn to dusk.


So what can you do to prevent these insects from infesting your yard, besides getting rid of standing water? Foggers and sprays are only effective for a few hours at a time and aren't exactly environmentally friendly. Bug zappers may be fun for the whole family, but they actually kill beneficial insects and attract mosquitoes without killing them. Notre Dame University performed a study that showed a 10 percent increase in mosquito bites for people that had zappers in their yards. Citronella candles and smoking coils work, but only if you're extremely close to the smoke they emit. Bug sprays are an effective way to keep them from biting you, but ingredients like DEET have been shown to be toxic, especially for kids.

If none of these methods for achieving a mosquito-free life work for you, there's an alternative. It's not a spray and it doesn't emit smoke or a harmful, foul-smelling spray. It's a technology that's built into the clothes you wear. That's right, companies are now manufacturing insect-repellent clothing. All you do is put it on and relax.


Insect-repellent Clothing

Insect shield clothing also wards off ticks, which can carry Lyme disease.
Jason Edwards/Getty Images

In 2003, after seven years of research and development, a company based in North Carolina received approval from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to begin selling its line of "Buzz Off" clothing. The company branded its new technology as "insect shield," and it's effective at warding off a plethora of bugs, including mosquitoes and ticks.

The secret to insect shield is the use of permethrin, a synthetic version of a naturally occurring chemical called pyrethrum, which is found in chrysanthemum flowers. Chrysanthemums are known as a good natural deterrent to pesky insects. Permethrin is a "knockdown" insecticide, meaning it disables the insect when they come in contact with it. So it doesn't so much repel the insects as knock them out or kill them.


How insect shield actually works is a bit of a mystery -- or more like a trade secret. But we do know that permethrin is actually woven into the fibers of the clothing fabric. Since a mosquito is able to insert it's proboscis through most clothing, then warding them off your t-shirt is a good idea. It's odorless and isn't readily absorbed into the skin, so it's safe for adults and children. Do you need to walk around smelling bad because you're afraid to wash your $50 Buzz Off pullover? Not at all -- the new line of insect shield clothing can stand up to 70 washings and maintain effectiveness.

The technology works on most any fabric as long as you don't have the garments dry-cleaned. You can buy the goods online from a variety of outdoor gear Web sites, and you have a plethora of duds to choose from. Most of the garments are suited for the outdoor enthusiast -- pullovers, cargo pants, bandanas, hoodies and fishing vests. They also offer visors, floppy hats and a line of kid's clothing. You won't know any difference between clothes treated with permethrin and regular clothes either, aside from being bug-free. The U.S. Army uses insect shield, but it's not been shown to reduce the number of mosquito-born illnesses.

The clothing has been shown to be fairly effective at warding off insects where your skin isn't covered with the clothing as well. So if you have on a short-sleeved insect shield shirt and a hat, you'll get good coverage for your arms and neck as well. If you want to use a little DEET on your exposed skin too, you can almost guarantee an insect-free experience. How much do these clothes cost? Not a whole lot more than your standard outdoor gear, which isn't too cheap to begin with. Plan on adding about $10 for pants and shirts and three to four bucks for hats and bandanas.



Lots More Information

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More Great Links

  • "Buzz Off! Insect Repellent Clothing." The Derm Blog. 2008.
  • "Catch a Buzzzzz: Insect Proof Clothing Off The Rack." Treehugger. March 31, 2005.
  • "Does insect-repellent clothing really work?" The Providence Journal. July 20, 2008. 08_GNAOACN_v5.170b303.html
  • "EPA Approves Buzz Off Insect Repellent Clothing." August 4, 2003.
  • "Insect Shield technology converts clothing and gear into convenient, effective insect protection." Orvis. 2008.
  • "Is bug repellent in clothing a marketing gimmick?" Outside Magazine. Nov. 21, 2003.
  • "Mosquito Facts." Mosquito Solutions. 2008.
  • "Permethrin." Travelmed. 2008.
  • "Permethrin-based Insect Repellent Clothing." Insect Repellent Wear. 2008.
  • "What is Insect Shield?" Buzz Off. 2008.
  • Farell, Jodi. "Bug-repellent clothing does have some merit." San Diego Union Tribune. July 22, 2008.
  • Kahn, Jennifer. "Buzz Factors." Outside Magazine. September 2006.