I grew up and I am now raising my children in one of the most tick infested areas of Sydney – the beautiful Northern Beaches. At 12, whilst playing hide and seek in tall grass, I was covered with 67 ticks on my body and even ended up in hospital with one under my eyelid! After the ticks were simply plucked off with tweezers, I was sent home with antihistamine and to rest.
30 years ago, Lyme disease was little known of in Australia and tick bites were seen more like bad mosquito bites. However, much more is now known about the awful chronic health issues that can be brought about by Lyme disease or the meat anaphylaxis allergic reactions which can be triggered by a tick bite. Ticks are no joke.
I have young children and we recently moved to a house with a garden for the first time. I knew my children’s school sprayed tick repellent in their grounds, however I suddenly learnt that all our friends did in their home gardens too. Always sceptical of any sprays, I was calmed by a friend who told me that this one was ‘non-toxic and derived from flowers.’ Admittedly, the scientist in me couldn’t help but wonder how this amazing ‘safe’ spray was able to kill such heavily armoured insects and deter them for a whole year in my garden – despite rain. (The conservationist in me was also concerned about all the other essential insects I might be harming at the same time.)
I then dived into research of which I will share with you below.
What is in tick repellent / tick sprays?
The active ingredient in commercial tick / insect repellent sprays for gardens and indoors is Synthetic pyrethrin. (This includes tick sprays and your household Mortein & Baygon etc.) Synthetic pyrethrin is a lab manufactured, more persistent version of natural pyrethrum, a compound occurring in dried chrysanthemum flowers.
How does tick repellent work?
Pyrethroids incapacitate the insect nervous system, eventually killing them. It affects insects of all types, even beneficial one such as bees.
Why do we use it?
Pyrethroids are very effective and extremely toxic to insects. They have however been thought to be relatively safe for mammals and humans as they are rapidly processed by the human body and excreted quickly in the urine (within 24 hours).
Why should we avoid tick repellents?
There is growing evidence that synthetic pyrethroids have a negative influence on human health including increasing the risk of childhood leukemia, ADHD and sperm abnormalities.
Let’s take a look at what recent studies have found:
- Urinary levels of pyrethroid metabolites may be associated with an elevated risk of childhood Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia. 2012 Study
- There is strong support that developmental pyrethroid exposure is a risk factor for ADHD. 2015 Study
- Pyrethroid metabolites in urine are significantly related to sperm abnormalities. 2014 Study
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- Little Urchin – Little Urchin Natural Clear Zinc Sunscreen, SPF 50+
- EK Sunscreen – Moringa & Harakeke Sensitive / Baby Sun Protection SPF50
- Soléo Organics – High Performance Coconut Sunscreen
- 123 Nourish me – Hello Sunshine Natural Sunscreen
How are we exposed?
We are exposed to synthetic pyrethroids through soil, outdoor air inhalation and also through indoor dust and inhalation. The chemical is very stable indoors and so can cause long term exposure. Dietary intake is also a significant source.
How do we avoid it?
It isn’t possible to completely avoid synthetic pyrethrin exposure, however we can control our predominant exposure – the one from our own homes and gardens. We personally ditched tick repellent / insecticide sprays long ago and have chosen not to spray our garden.
This doesn’t mean I think lightly of tick bites, they are still a very real concern. I follow the below suggestions to reduce the chance of ticks in our garden and I use natural insect repellents on myself and my children.
Check out our guide Choosing A Natural Insect Repellent Which Actually Works and see our favourite recommendations.
How can I reduce ticks in my garden naturally?
Ticks love moisture and shade, so it’s important to try to remove places for them to hide.
- Clear your garden and remove leaf litter
- Mow your lawn regularly, using a catcher which collects grass clippings
- Clear tall grasses and brush from around the edge of your lawn and home
- Make sure any woodpile is in a dry area
- Keep playground equipment in a sunny spot, away from trees and the most wooded areas of your garden
- Try not to have a bird bath/ standing water near wooded areas as this will attract ticks
- Try planting Chrysanthemum, Lavender, Geranium, Mint, Rosemary, Sage or Citronella as they are natural tick repellants.
What if I have to spray tick repellent? – There are too many ticks / I don’t have control over how our garden is sprayed?
The chronic health issues from tick related illnesses can be very serious. If you can’t control the ticks in your garden through natural means or you don’t have control of your choices through where you live, I would do the following.
- Encourage young children to play on grass differently and avoid rolling in the grass. (If they did – wear long trousers and long sleeves.)
- Encourage young children to wash hands once they come in
- Try to get children playing on a climbing frame/ trampoline instead of having body surface contact with the sprayed areas.
As with all chemical exposures, we can’t protect our children from every single one. We just have to focus on the areas we can control. My children’s school for example, is sprayed with tick repellent annually. I can’t control that, however I do know that at least continued exposure doesn’t occur once they get home.