If you’ve got school age children, then it’s fair to say that at some point your son or daughter is likely to suffer from a head lice infestation, and that those lice will often crawl onto the heads of the rest of the family.
It’s estimated that between 6 million and 12 million children in the US suffer from head lice each year.
Head lice aren’t a cause for embarrassment and having them doesn’t mean that your family has dirty hair. And unlike body lice that are known disease vectors, head lice don’t carry diseases.
Exposure to a lice carrying person for longer than 10 minutes presents an 85% chance of acquiring head lice. Once 24 hours have passed, eggs will have been laid and an infestation will be under way.
The life cycle of head lice lasts for 30 days. A female head louse lays about 4 eggs each day, attaching the eggs to the hair shaft with a sticky glue. Eggs are about 1mm long and their successful development is temperature dependant.
In colder climates the eggs will typically be found closer to the scalp (within 3 – 5mm), while in warmer climates eggs may be attached about 6 inches (15cm) along the hair shaft.
While the egg contains an embryo, it will be a transparent tan to coffee color. Once hatched the empty egg will appear white. Louse eggs take 6 to 10 days to hatch, at which point they are known as nymphs. Nymphs will begin to feed on blood immediately, but can’t reproduce until they are fully mature which takes a minimum of 8 days.
Lice will live anywhere on the scalp but tend to favor the area at the back of the neck and behind the ears, and this is where most eggs are laid, and where you are most likely to first notice the intense itch.
While conventional lice treatments target the adult lice and nymphs, they are unable to kill the lice in their embryonic stage within the egg.
No chemical method of eradicating head lice is a one shot deal. Whatever treatment you use needs to be repeated, taking into account the hatching time for eggs and the fact that not all adult or nymphal lice will be killed the first time around.
In fact, head lice (Pediculus humanus capitis) have become increasingly resistant to the topical medications used to kill them in recent years, and the treatments themselves are made with chemicals that are a cause for concern, especially when these are used on children.
If you would like to know more about the dangers of using what are essentially pesticides on your children, then you can take a look at this report, A crawling issue: Head lice treatments worse than the pest itself? from The Center For Public Integrity.
Thankfully, there are natural remedies and an age old physical process that you can use to get rid of the crawling pests, safely and inexpensively.
The earliest known medicinal remedy for treating a head lice infestation, is recorded in the ancient Ebers Papyrus which dates to 1550 BC. This remedy involved smothering the lice with a date meal and warm water paste.
Other ancient practises involved the use of poisons like mercury and arsenic!
We’ll stick to safe remedies.
If you look at many historical combs, you’ll notice that they are quite different from the typical combs used today. Combs used as delousing tools date back as far as 12,500 BC.
Today we have a wide selection of combs used for detangling and smoothing hair, but the ultra fine tooth combs used for combing out lice are usually only used once an itchy infestation is well under way, and even then their use is accompanied by medicated shampoos and lotions, which are the main treatment.
In the past combs were often double sided, having a normal grooming comb on one side and a fine lice comb on the other.
Because of daily grooming with both sides of the comb, lice and nits could be removed quickly before they had a chance to cause a large infestation.
A lice comb should part of your treatment plan to eradicate lice, and once the lice are gone it would be a very good idea to incorporate regular combing with a lice comb into your families grooming routine to help prevent the little monsters from taking hold once more.
An effective combing technique known as bug busting involves the use of a fine toothed lice comb and wet hair slathered with conditioner. Conditioner slows the lice down and makes the lice slip out more easily.
- Wash hair in the normal way with you regular shampoo.
- After the shampoo is rinsed out, apply a thick layer of hair conditioner.
- Comb hair through with a normal comb to remove tangles.
- Once hair is tangle free, switch to the lice comb.
- Begin at the scalp and draw the comb along the length of the hair.
- You should look closely at the comb after each pass through the hair to see if lice have been collected. If they have, rinse the comb before moving onto the next section of hair.
- Work around the entire head ensuring that every section of hair has been combed through.
- After combing, rinse out the conditioner.
- To be thorough, you can repeat the procedure a second time right away.
You will need to repeat the procedure at regular intervals, 4 days apart, to fully eradicate the head lice.
The first combing session, if done properly should remove all mature head lice, but combing will probably miss some unhatched eggs. Further sessions will catch these newly hatched lice and remove them before they can mature and lay more eggs.
Keep combing until you have had three combing sessions without detecting any head lice.
If you want to, you can comb daily while you have an infestation, but every 4 days should do the trick.
After the lice are gone, you can prevent a new infestation by combing through twice a week after shampooing.
Make sure that you treat all family members at the same time. If you don’t and another family member has an undetected infestation (some people don’t get the itchies) then your household will quickly succumb to head lice once more as the lice are passed around through close head-to-head contact.
The head lice comb that comes with over-the-counter treatments is fine to use, or you can pick up a variety of lice combs from your local stores or from online retailers.
While combing is an effective head lice treatment there are some home remedies for head lice that you can use along with combing for even more bug killing power.
Vegetable Or Mineral Oil
Lice need oxygen to survive, and they breathe through tubes in the sides of their body. When they can’t breathe they suffocate and die.
You might be thinking that you could just drown the lice by laying back in the bathtub and submerging your hair. Unfortunately lice can hold their breath for a really long time. Most sources say that lice can hold their breath for around 8 hours.
It’s really not practical to keep your hair and scalp submerged for that length of time, so drowning them in water isn’t a realistic option.
You can however suffocate the lice by blocking their breathing tubes with regular cooking oils, baby oil or vaseline.
Lice may be able to develop resistance to chemicals but they can’t develop resistance to breathing.
Oils also have the benefit of being in your kitchen already so you can begin treatment right away and they are completely safe to use.
Oils, like olive oil are regularly used as deep hair conditioning treatments and you’ll find that in addition to being lice free your hair will be lovely and soft at the end of the process.
The best way to use an oil is to carry out a two part process.
First generously coat your hair with oil and massage it in really well before using a lice comb to methodically work through the hair and remove the adult lice.
As well as suffocating the lice, oil makes it harder for lice to grip the hair with their claws which makes them easier to dislodge from the hair shaft.
And it makes it more difficult for them to move around since they have to literally crawl through oil instead of scuttling around on nice clean hair. Slower moving lice are easier to remove on the first pass because they can’t get out of the way of the comb.
Once hair has been completely combed through, apply more oil and then cover hair with a shower cap. Leave the oil in place for at least 8 hours (overnight is good) and then shampoo out.
You will need to shampoo more than once to completely remove the oil.
At this point, any adult lice that remained after the combing should have suffocated.
You’ll need to repeat the treatment again in 4 to 6 days to deal with newly emerged lice.
A number of essential oils possess insecticidal and pesticidal properties and can be used to eliminate head lice.
The Greek physician Dioscorides, recorded in his famous Materia Medica, that an application of cedarwood oil was effective against head lice.
His Materia Medica was written in 64 AD and became the standard pharmaceutical reference text in the western world for the next 1600 years.
Dioscorides took nothing on faith and tested every treatment that he included in his extensive text, so there is good reason to trust that cedarwood is a good essential oil to try.
Modern testing has established that cedarwood virginia (Juniperus virginiana) has insecticidal properties, so this is the oil to obtain if you wish to try cedarwood. Other forms of cedarwood (atlas and texas) are available but they don’t possess strong insecticidal properties.
Cedarwood virginia is not safe for use during pregnancy.
Essential oils must be diluted before application.
Depending on the length of hair to be treated, use 5 to 20 drops of cedarwood essential oil in the regular dollop of shampoo that you normally use to wash your hair.
Make sure that you lather well and leave the shampoo to sit for 5 minutes before rinsing out. You will need to use the shampoo daily until all traces of lice are gone.
Other oils have been tested for their effectiveness against head lice. In one study 54 essential oils were studied, and many were found to be effective against head lice.
Of these oils, eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus), marjoram (Origanum majorana), pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium) and rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) were more effective than phenothrin and pyrethrum, two ingredients used in over-the-counter head lice treatments.
Eucalyptus, marjoram and rosemary are safe for general external use, although this form of eucalyptus oil should not be used on children under 6.
Marjoram and rosemary should not be used during pregnancy. Pennyroyal is not a safe oil to use for any aromatherapy purpose and should be avoided.
Finally for essential oils we’ll look at two very well known and safe oils, tea tree essential oil and lavender essential oil.
Tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia) and lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) used together in a 10:1 ratio have proven to be very effective against head lice.
One Australian study compared the essential oils to products containing pyrethrins and piperonyl butoxide.
In the study 123 people with head lice infestation were treated with the essential oils, with a head louse suffocation product, or with another conventional product. Treatments were applied on day 0, day 7 and day 14, and then the presence of live lice was determined one day after the final application.
Of the 42 people treated with the tea tree and lavender oil, 47 were louse free – a 97.6% success rate.
Of the 41 people treated with the unspecified suffocation product, 40 were louse free – a 97.6% success rate.
And of the 40 people treated with the product containing pyrethrin and piperonyl butoxide, 10 were louse free – a 25% success rate.
You can use these essential oils in shampoo as already described or you can use them in an oil treatment.
Use one ounce of an oil like coconut oil or olive oil, and add 20 drops of teatree oil and one drop of lavender essential oil. Mix well, then massage into your scalp and throughout your hair.
Leave the treatment in place for at least thirty minutes, then shampoo out. Repeat daily until all signs of lice are gone.
Essential oils provide an additional benefit when you have an itchy head lice problem. They offer an anti-inflammatory action that calms the irritation caused by the lice and soothes the itch, making your treatment process a much less frustrating process.
In addition to using essential oils you should also make good use of a lice comb.
Try Using Warm Air
Home style warm air treatments won’t kill all of the lice on your head but it can very effective against the eggs.
Using your blow dryer you can dry out the eggs and prevent them from hatching and you can also kill a percentage of adult lice.
There is a patented device that is used in treatment centers called the AirAllé. Treatment with this specialist device takes about 30 minutes, during which time 95% of eggs are killed along with 99% of adult lice.
Dale Clayton, the developer of the AirAllé (formerly called LouseBuster) began work on the idea of using warm air to dry out head lice after he moved his lab from the damp climate of England to the dry environment of Utah and noticed that his research lice were dying.
According the Clayton, lice receive a lot of their moisture from the air and when the air is dry, they can’t get the moisture that they need.
After testing handheld blow dryers, hood dryers, hand blow dryers like the ones in public bathrooms and even a leaf blower, he developed his Lousebuster device.
To try using warm air yourself, you’ll need your hairdryer and a comb.
Hair needs to be lifted up off the scalp so that any eggs laid next to the scalp are exposed to the air flow.
Don’t set your dryer on high heat, this won’t make the treatment more effective and will likely burn your scalp.
Work through your hair a section at a time, lifting the hair and blowing warm air across the hair and scalp. You may need to make several passes in one session to have any noticeable effect.
Alternatively you can look up your local, licensed lice treatment salon and see if they use the AirAllé device and get your head lice treated quickly and effectively by a professional.
Electric Lice Zappers
Lice zappers are battery operated devices that comb through hair and electrocute any lice that they encounter. The obvious draw of devices like this are they are quick and easy to use, don’t make a mess and don’t cost too much money (around $20).
When they work properly, they do work. I used one years ago when my own children were small and had picked up lice at school. But they don’t work reliably, and if you look at product reviews, you will see a mixture of positive and negative experiences.
The zappers work best when hair is clean and dandruff free, but they can still miss lice. However if you comb through with an electric comb each day you should get all of the lice, eventually.
On the whole, I don’t think that they are any more effective than a good old fashioned lice comb.
Whichever homemade head lice treatment route that you choose to follow, you’ll need to have patience and be prepared to go through some laborious oiling, shampooing and combing processes. But if you persevere, then you can eradicate the lice and be bug free, without the use of chemicals within a couple of weeks.