We are frequently asked if there is an insecticide that can be applied to effectively control or repel ticks from a picnic area, camp grounds, woodland, or landscape. The short answer is, no.
While there are a number of available insecticide products that are labeled for tick control in outdoor areas the effectiveness of these products is minimal, at best. Ticks are found at ground level in areas of tall grass or thick understory. Contrary to popular myth, ticks do not live in trees. The reason that ticks are found in these particular areas is because they need the high levels of humidity at ground level that this type of habitat provides. While these habitats are great for tick survival, they are extremely difficult to treat simply because most of the spray material will not penetrate through the tall grass or understory to contact the ticks. Add in the fact that ticks are not actively moving around unless they sense that a potential host is near, and you will quickly understand how ineffective these types of applications are in reducing tick numbers and why they are not widely recommended as a tick control practice. Similarly, there are no products that can be applied to outdoor habitats that will be effective in repelling ticks.
While there are no products specifically available to apply to outdoor areas that will be effective in repelling ticks, there are personal repellents that can be effective. Repellents such as Permanone (active ingredient, permethrin) have been shown to be effective in repelling ticks for a considerable length of time. Unlike the mosquito repellents that contain DEET, Permanone is applied to clothing and not to skin. While not as readily available as the traditional mosquito repellents, Permanone can be found in the camping or fishing and hunting sections of outdoor stores and some discount stores.
What to do?
Anything you can do to remove or reduce the tall grass or understory will reduce the humidity at ground level and ultimately make it difficult for ticks to survive. Keep grass well-clipped, remove brush, and prune trees to allow more sunlight to penetrate to the soil surface to discourage ticks. When working or hiking in potentially tick-infested areas wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants, and tuck pants into socks. Wear light-colored clothing for easier visualization of ticks and use a tick-specific, EPA-approved repellant as directed on the label and as described above. Perform regular tick checks at least once a day on yourself and others, including children, especially around the head and neck areas, and on companion animals that have been outside.
For more information about ticks in Iowa, please see ISU Extension publication PM2036, Ticks and Tick-borne Diseases in Iowa.