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How to Treat and Prevent Head Lice

Before you use a conventional lice-treatment shampoo for yourself or your children, consider this: Many lice-treatment shampoos contain ingredients that have been banned as agricultural insecticides and are extremely toxic. For instance, the insecticide lindane, once used to protect crops such as barley, wheat, and corn from pests, is no longer used by farms in Canada, and has been banned in over 50 countries around the world. But it can probably still be found at your local drug store, in bottles of lice shampoo.

In 2002, the state of California in the United States banned lindane from being used in pharmaceutical products due to reports that the chemical was causing skin irritations, dizziness, headaches, convulsions, and even death.

In Health Canada’s adverse reaction database, lindane is linked to more than three dozen cases dating back to as far as 1971, including two deaths.

A 1995 warning issued against lindane by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration states that people "are at risk for serious neurologic adverse events, and even death" when using products containing the pesticide, particularly with repeated treatments.

Products containing either pyrethrin or permethrin are often recommended over products containing lindane, but they are also toxic insecticides and can cause major health problems.

Head lice are an embarrassing problem to have to deal with. If you find yourself holding a note from your child’s school stating that little Johnny or little Sally has head lice, please keep in mind that head lice are very common worldwide, are found especially in schools and other institutions, and they do not discriminate - no matter your age, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, or type of hair you have – anyone can get head lice.

Having head lice also does not indicate poor hygiene. Whether a head with hair has been freshly shampooed or hasn’t been washed for a month, lice like them all the same. Thus, daily shampooing will not help to prevent head lice.

Natural Treatment Options for Head Lice

There are a number of natural and inexpensive treatment options if you find your children and family dealing with head lice. While it takes more time and effort to solve the problem naturally than to use chemical ingredients, you can rest assured that staying away from pesticide-containing products will keep your family’s health intact.

In order to get rid of head lice, there is a three-part process which you must follow. You must make sure to:

  1. Kill the lice.

  2. Rid the head of all the eggs (also known as nits).

  3. Make sure no lice are left on combs, brushes, towels, etc.

Remember to treat every person in your household who has head lice. You may wish to treat everyone in the household as a preventive measure, even if head lice have been detected on only one member.

Also consider that one cost-effective and efficient way of getting rid of lice is to shave off the hair. This is unlikely to be a good solution for the majority of people, due to the importance placed on appearance, and can cause a significant amount of emotional distress if done to an unwilling individual. Nonetheless, it is a viable option and some persons may be amenable to it.

How to Get Rid of Head Lice Naturally:

Do the following on days 1,2,5,9,13,17, and 21:

Apply liberal amounts of olive oil to the hair and scalp, making sure all of the hair is covered, from the roots down to the ends of the hair shaft. Make sure you get the areas behind the ears and at the nape of the neck.

Once all of the hair is well-coated, put on a shower cap. You may wish to wrap a towel around the shower cap because things will get messy. Leave on overnight (it may be helpful to cover the pillow with a couple of towels).

The purpose of this is to suffocate the lice with the oil, as they’ve got a number of small openings on their bodies which they breathe through.

In the morning, find a spot where a mess won’t matter, perhaps even outdoors. You may need a lot of towels. Place a towel over the shoulders. Comb out the hair to remove as much of the oil as you can, wiping the comb often on a vinegar-soaked towel. This process will remove both lice and some nits. You may wish to use a metal nit comb to help remove as many nits as possible.

Wash out the olive oil with regular shampoo. Applying the shampoo before wetting the hair will make washing easier.

*Some people use mayonnaise in place of the olive oil, as mayonnaise is easier to apply and will stay in place better than olive oil will. However, compared to olive oil, mayonnaise will be a little more disgusting in the morning and it’s more difficult to wash out of hair.

When treating head lice, you will likely see little critters of different sizes and colors. Adult lice are dark brown in color and 2 to 3 millimeters long. Baby lice (or hatchlings) are light brown and 1 to 2 millimeters long. They turn dark red after they feed, from the blood they have ingested. All of this explains why you can find lice that look different from one another.

How to Get Rid of Nits (Eggs):

This is the most difficult part of getting rid of head lice.

The most effective way to remove nits is to pick them off of the hair using your fingernails or a metal nit comb. You need to search very carefully as the eggs can be found anywhere on the head (but they will be attached to a hair) and are difficult to see. Look for something about the size of a grain of salt and grey-white in color.

In order to hatch, nits need the scalp’s warmth and moisture, so be sure to search close to the scalp for newly-laid eggs. They need to be 1.5 centimeters from the scalp or closer in order to survive long enough to hatch. Nits found further than 1.5 centimeters from the scalp may be dead, or may just be the remains of an egg that has already hatched.

Many people find a metal nit comb effective. Plastic nit combs are also available, but some people report that the metal ones are more effective.

Before using the comb, either slather the dry hair with conditioner or soak the hair in vinegar. When using the comb, wipe it regularly on a vinegar-soaked towel.

To maximize the probability of finding the eggs, use a magnifying glass in strong light (such as sunlight). Be sure to check the hair close to the scalp, behind the ears, and at the nape of the neck.

It takes 7 to 10 days for the eggs to hatch once they are laid. It takes up to 10 days for the hatchlings to mature and start laying their own eggs. In order to get rid of head lice, you need to interrupt their 10-day reproductive cycle; comb regularly to achieve this.

How to Eliminate Head Lice from Your Home:

On the day you begin treatment to eradicate head lice, be sure to clean hair brushes, combs, bedding, towels, and clothing. It is imperative that these are cleaned on the very first day of treatment.

To clean hairbrushes and combs, immerse them in hot water for 10 minutes to kill any lice. You may also wish to use an old toothbrush to help clean grooming implements.

Items that can go into a washing machine or dryer, such as bedding, towels, stuffed animals, and clothing, should be washed using hot water or put in the dryer set on high for 20 minutes.

Items that cannot go into the washing machine or dryer should be bagged for two weeks. When bagging, the purpose is to suffocate the lice, so make sure the bag is air-tight, with any excess air squeezed out prior to closing.

Large furniture pieces such as mattresses, upholstered furniture, rugs, etc. can be carefully vacuumed to pick up hairs that may have living lice or nits attached.

How to Prevent Head Lice:

What’s good to know is that head lice need to have hair-to-hair contact in order to spread, as they swing from one hair to another. They do not jump, hop, or fly. Nits do not travel from one head to another. In order to catch head lice your child needs to have their hair come in contact with another person’s hair with a live louse on it.

There are a number of steps parents can take to help keep their children from catching head lice. Most obvious is that children should avoid sharing hair brushes, combs, hats, pillows, and other things that may collect hairs.

Long hair can be tied back, preferably braided or put up.

Children can be reminded to avoid head-to-head contact, such as when playing with other children, hugging, working at the computer, etc.

If someone in your family does contract head lice, rest assured that head lice do not carry diseases or infections. They are merely a nuisance.


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Thank you for this article. Some years ago my daughter missed 5 weeks of school until the lice were gone. My son never got them. The only thing that worked was cutting her hair short like his - 1 inch long all over her head. My older daughter, in high school at the time, refused to do anything. They just "ran their course" after a couple months, and were gone.

I'm a professional lice treatment provider and I'm lately noticing evidence of an infestation in the few months prior to my treatment, but am surprised when I see so few nits. I'm beginning to think that some lice are healthier and hardier than others, and sometimes, an infestation might actually run it's course if the lice were weak, or poor breeders, or if few males were born to fertilize the eggs.

My children had mega head lice a few years ago. While Dr. Spock says you won't see the lice, the head lice on my children were bigger than dog fleas!!!!!

My daughter was still nursing at the time and as I lay beside her in bed I would see the lice crawling on the pillow. (Sorry if this is revolting, I am just trying to give a picture of how serious the infestation was.)

What surprised me was that I never, ever got lice!!!! I believe the reason was that it was my habit to wash my hair every day and use apple cider vinegar as a final rinse.

So I have never really worried about lice since. I figure if anyone is infested again, I will just use the vinegar!!!

Hello Dr Kim,

Thank you for your newsletter, it's always so informative and
interesting, I really think it's the best thing I have ever found on
the internet and definitely the best thing that comes into my mailbox
regarding health!!

I read the article on headlice treatment and I have a little tip you
might find useful.

Some children get lice more easily than others, and my daughter is
one of those. I don't know how many times I have had to deal with
this problem throughout her elementary school years.

Apart from using a natural oil that suffocates the lice (the
principle behind the olive oil process, but qithout the mess...
there's a product that's made up of different natural oils, one of
which is aniseed, that effectively suffocates the lice when applied.
You only leave it for 15-20 minutes and wash the hair. It works well.
There's probably a similar product in the US, ours is called Paranix
and is sold in most chemists).

Anyway, the little trick I use is effective to get rid of the eggs
they lay, as they are very difficult to remove from long hair. I have
bought one of those electrical appliances used to straighten your
hair, two hot plates that you use as a comb to straighten wavy hair,
and I use it on her hair after the shampoo... I do it slowly and the
eggs get cooked! After a while they all fall off (when they're dead
they lose their sticky grip on the hair).

Make sure you buy a hotplate with ceramic plates, they don't damage
your hair and work very well. Although I wouldn't use this appliance
often, it seems to be very useful for killing off all the nits and it
doesn't damage the hair.

Thanks again for all your work, and be assured that we keep reading
you on this part of the world :)


Milan, Italy

Hi Dr. Kim, There's also a prevenative which I've heard from many pharmacists that work. Lavendar Oil put onto the brush & brushed on the hair or the oil rubbed straight into the hair every morning before kids go to school. You can use 3 to 4 drops I believe. When my son went to a daycare for a time, I put lavendar oil on his hair daily. When they had a lice problem there, I took him out, but he didn't have it & didn't get it. But shaving the head is a good idea too, didn't think of that one. Not sure how it would look on me his Mom though, ha! But I think lavendar oil & some say teatree as well seems to keep them off as we've never, thank God, had lice. Other things yes, but not lice. Thanks so much! Anyone tried this & found that it works. Does anyone have any tips for pinworms? Seems just as easy to get as lice, no? Thanks again! Sincerely, Renee

Thank you for your idea of using a hair straightener. My daughter also gets lice easily (our hair stylist also confirmed some kids are more prone to it than others). I have tried using a hot hair dryer which works a little but I will definately try a hair straightener if there is another time. Fortunately it has been a couple of years since she got lice. I think it is because she is so much taller than her peers currently.

The flat iron is a great idea! Pennyroyal essential oil (from the mint family) is an outstanding natural treatment/prevention for lice (and any other indoor/outdoor bug issues). It kills fleas on contact and black widow spiders in a few seconds! ;-)

There is also an all natural product line (shampoo, hair oil, spritzer) called Naughty Nits (available as a combo pack and individually).