Everyone remembers the periodic head lice checks at school, and the tense days after when letters are sent out informing parents that “a student in your child’s class has lice”, or worse, you were the one with the nasty critters running around on your scalp.
Though head lice are not dangerous, their bites are annoyingly itchy and scratching can lead to an infection on the scalp. Thankfully, there are measures you can take to prevent your kids from getting lice, and natural ways you can stop an infestation in its tracks.
What are Head Lice?
Head lice (or singular louse) are tiny, wingless, parasitic insects that live on your scalp and drink tiny amounts of your blood. The bugs are grayish white or tan in color and are no bigger than a sesame seed. They lay eggs, called nits, that attach to the bottom of your hair shaft, close to your scalp. This is the perfect environment to incubate the eggs for one to two weeks until they hatch. Once hatched, the dandruff-lookalike eggs turn white and stay attached to your hair shaft, growing out with your hair. (1, 2)
The burning itch comes partially from the live bugs crawling on your skin, but primarily from the reaction to the saliva of the louse once it bites you. (1)
Signs of Head Lice (1,2)
tickling feeling of something moving in your hair
difficulty sleeping (head lice are most active in the dark)
red bumps or sores on the scalp
5 Common Misconceptions about Head Lice
1. Lice can fly or jump from one person to another
As mentioned earlier, head lice are wingless, so they cannot fly. They are contracted from head-to-head contact, from sharing clothing such as hats or scarves, sharing other articles such as hair brushes or stuffed animals, or even lying on the same bed, couch, or carpet as someone infected with lice. (1, 2)
2. Lice can live in your home and on your clothes
This is partially true – adult lice can survive on toys, clothes, and carpets, but only for about one to two days. Nits and nymphs (young hatchlings) need blood to survive and will die immediately when removed from the scalp. (1, 2)
3. Using a hair dryer will kill head lice
Many people think that the heat from the hair dryer will kill the lice, but this is more likely to blow them into the air and spread more easily to others in the household. (1, 2)
4. Lice can be carried and spread by pets
Your pets can’t contract head lice and pass them to your children, and your children can’t pass them on to your pets. Animals bodies don’t provide the same environment, nor do they have the same type of hair that live need to thrive. (1, 2)
5. Lice are caused by poor hygiene
Hygiene and cleanliness have nothing to do with your ability to contract lice. In fact, the cleaner your hair, the easier it is for lice to move around. So if your child does contract lice, there is no need to start washing their hair every day to prevent future infections. (1, 2)
How to Get Rid of Lice
There are a number of methods to remove lice permanently from your child’s head. It is important for you to do your research to figure out which methods are best for your family.
Store-bought Lice Kits
These all-in-one kits are great in that they come with fine-tooth combs, smothering gels, and lice shampoo. The downside? Lice shampoos are actually a type of pesticide, which contain neurotoxins. To top it off, many lice have become resistant to these pesticides, making them useless and not worth the $20 per eight-ounce bottle. (1, 2, 3, 4)
This method is for the purpose of removing nits. Wet your child’s hair and ensure it is tangle-free (you may want to use conditioner to lubricate the hair). Comb your child’s hair in sections from the scalp all the way to the ends of the hair, wiping the comb off on a paper towel between each comb. You should be able to see the nits on the paper towel. Pay special attention to the base of the scalp and behind the ears. (1, 3)
These household products deprive both the nits and hatched lice of the oxygen they need to live. Follow these steps to smother lice (1, 2, 3):
Coat your child’s hair and scalp thoroughly with butter, olive oil, mayonnaise, or butter.
Cover their hair with a shower cap or wrap their head tightly with plastic wrap, to help further suffocate the lice.
Leave on for at least four hours or overnight. Wash and comb in the morning.
Special note: Your child’s head may become intensely itchy immediately after applying a smothering agent and covering their head. This is because the lice are trying to “escape” and will be temporarily more active, however, this will stop as they begin to die.
Try this homemade lice remedy that uses mouthwash and vinegar!
Small studies suggest that certain essential oils may be effective in killing lice. These oils are (1, 3):
These are all natural alternatives to chemical lice shampoos, however, do your research and talk to your doctor before using them on your child’s scalp. Some people can have reactions, and if used improperly some oils can damage the skin.
No need to hire an exterminator! Though chances of lice surviving on household items long enough to infect someone else is slim, here are some precautions you can take to ensure they don’t spread (1, 2):
Wash bedding, clothes, and stuffed animals in hot (at least 130 F) soapy water and dry on high heat.
Clean brushes, combs, and hair accessories in hot soapy water, or throw away if desired
Tightly seal items that can’t be washed in plastic bags for three days, or dry-clean them
Vacuum floors, carpets, and furniture to ensure removal and throw away the vacuum bag.
Products to Never Use on Lice
Some sites will suggest kerosene, gasoline, or alcohol to remove lice and nits. Never put these products on your child’s scalp: They are toxic and highly flammable and therefore dangerous for your family.(1, 2)
With patience and vigilance, lice can be treated naturally. Teach your children about lice, and remind them never to share hats, scarves, helmets, or hair accessories with their friends to avoid contracting lice.