A few years ago, we published a some articles on home remedies for lice (namely, the top 3 natural remedies for lice and how to use tea tree oil to treat lice). While we do periodically like to update our content to reflect any new studies or big natural remedy news, we generally don’t write about a topic more than once or twice, let alone three times. That’s because we pride ourselves on being thorough the first time around. But here we are again. This time we’re back with more information, and the timing couldn’t be more appropriate. Here’s why…
The Evolution of “Super Lice”
We recently became aware of a study from the researchers at Southern Illinois University that found genetic adaptations in head lice that have allowed these little buggers to build up an immunity to common over-the-counter treatments, specifically with a resistance to pyrethroids.1 While the fact that a majority of the lice in the United States now show evidence of these adaptations may be shocking to some, pyrethroid resistance in head lice is no new phenomenon. In fact, many scientists predicted the widespread resistance.2
So What’s the Big Deal?
The primary concern with this type of development is two-fold: first is the rise of resistant head lice and outbreaks that are difficult to control, second is the concern about how we got here (and then, of course, where we’re headed). Pyrethroids are a family of insecticides that includes permethrin, a common synthetic chemical used in many over-the-counter lice medications. It is known throughout the medical community that the overuse of chemical insecticides (or any chemical for that matter) to treat common concerns like head lice can eventually lead to adaptation and resistance. And yet they prescribe them anyway. We’ve seen the very same scary development among antibiotic-resistant bacteria or “super bugs.”
As if this weren’t concerning enough, the next phase in the adaptation cycle relies on human ingenuity to lead us to the development of ever-stronger chemicals or drugs to fight the resistant lice only to start the cycle over – all at the risk of our own health. To top it off, these common insecticides, while effective (at least until resistance develops), are probable endocrine disruptors and have been linked to nervous system damage, asthma, and other breathing problems.3
We see this unhealthy cycle as just one of the strong arguments for using natural home remedies for lice. But before we get to the most effective home remedies for lice, we have to know what we’re treating.
What Are Lice?
Lice, or Pediculus humanus capitis, are nasty little critters. While they do no carry any concerning diseases, they spread particularly easily among children and cause significant irritation to the scalp. Lice are small, flat wingless insects that feed on human blood. Similar to mosquitoes, they contain an anticoagulant in their saliva that makes it easier for them to feed, but it is this very substance that causes the itching and scalp irritation that follows. As with other types of bug bites, scratching the itch can then lead to infection, further complicating the process of elimination and healing.
But the adult lice aren’t the only cause for concern. Lice also lay eggs, or nits, and a lot of them. These nits stick like glue to shafts of hair close to the scalp. Not only are these nits difficult to remove, they are also quite durable. In fact, many treatments that work against mature lice do not rid the hair of nits and vice versa.
So what do you do when you’re faced with a lice infestation? First, don’t panic. Second, we don’t suggest reaching for those chemical-filled lice shampoos. Not only are they toxic, but they may not even be effective. Instead, take a stab at these 2-step natural home remedies for lice.
Step 1: Natural Alternatives – Home Remedies for Lice
Most non-toxic topical home remedies for lice attempt to suffocate or smother the lice in an effort to kill or stun them to make them easier to remove. But lice and their eggs are particularly tough little critters and they are able to survive for hours (some studies have shown up to 6-8 hours!) without air. So it is important to note that any home remedies for lice that rely on this mechanism should be applied and left on the hair and scalp for at least 6 hours, though many simply prefer to tough it out and go overnight.
In an effort to fight these super lice, we vetted the many home remedies for lice out there from individual ingredients like mayonnaise, vinegar, and garlic to complicated multi-ingredient recipes for elimination. We think that we have found some of the most effective and safe. Of the two we discuss below, you can choose the best for you as step 1 in your natural treatment plan:
Option 1: Essential Oil Blend
Essential oils have been proven to help repel and eliminate lice while also providing the benefit of soothing the itchy, irritated scalp that generally results from the infestation. In fact, one study actually showed that the topical use of a product containing tea tree oil and lavender oil was significantly more effective than over-the-counter insecticide products containing pyrethrins and piperonyl butoxide!4 Another subsequent study ranked the effectiveness of different essential oils as lice treatments both in terms of their efficacy against mature lice and their eggs. In this study, tea tree oil and lavender again came out on top.5
While there are several essential oils that are thought to work against lice, we have combined the most effective and accessible essential oils together in this recipe. As with any recipe calling for the topical use of essential oils, always use oil diluted in some carrier solution and be mindful when applying to small children, as they may be more sensitive to topical application.
What You’ll Need
- 20 drops tea tree oil
- 15 drops thyme essential oil
- 15 drops lavender essential oil
- 10 drops rosemary essential oil
- 1/4 cup sweet almond oil, olive oil, or melted coconut oil
- disposable plastic shower cap
How to Use
Oils like almond, olive, and coconut have long been used on their own as home remedies for lice. While these are believed to eventually smother or suffocate the adult lice (if applied and left on for enough time), in this recipe they also act as a safe carrier oil for the essential oils and will prep the hair for step 2. Even if the oil doesn’t kill them, it will certainly slow the little critters down (which can be extremely helpful as they can move rather quickly – traveling up to 9 inches in just one minute!6).
Once you have your carrier oil of choice, mix in the essential oils. Massage the mixture into the scalp and hair, being sure to pay the most attention to the scalp itself and the first 1-2 inches of root. Once the scalp and hair is thoroughly coated in the oil blend, cover the head and hair with a disposable plastic shower cap like these. Leave oils to saturate the hair and scalp for at least 6-8 hours. While using this treatment overnight is an option, we would warn parents against treating small children overnight as the plastic shower cap can pose a suffocation risk.
Once you’ve waited the 6-8 hours, throw away the shower cap and skip to step number 2 below: combing.
Option 2: Apple Cider Vinegar and Oil
In this recipe, apple cider vinegar (ACV) is used to dissolve and loosen the sticky “glue” that holds the nits securely to the hair shaft. The acetic acid in the vinegar is especially helpful for preparing the hair (and nits) for the real physical work of combing after smothering the adult lice.
What You’ll Need
- unfiltered apple cider vinegar
- neem oil, sweet almond oil, olive oil, or melted coconut oil
- plastic disposable shower cap
You will want enough of each ingredient to saturate the scalp and hair.
How to Use
For this method, you will begin with rinsing the hair and scalp with ACV, leaving the solution in until dry. Next, apply your oil of choice to the hair and scalp as described for the essential oil blend method above. Cover the head and hair with the shower cap and leave for 6-8 hours.
When it comes to choosing an oil for application in this method, you may simply decide to use one you have on hand or the one with which you are most comfortable. But for those looking for an extra lice eliminating boost, neem oil is known as a botanical or natural insecticide that can safely eliminate lice and other pests. In fact, one study resulted in effective elimination of nits with just one application of neem oil shampoo.7 But be warned, neem oil has a very distinctive and not-so-pleasant smell.
You can use neem oil in this 2-part recipe or by adding several teaspoons of it to a clarifying natural shampoo like this one from Trader’s Joes for step 2.
Step 2: Physical Removal – Nit Combing
It is especially important to note that most, if not all, home remedies for lice are only effective in conjunction with a second step: nit combing. This one-two punch turns out to be the perfect treatment. While topical remedies can slow the lice down, loosen the nits from the hair shaft, and even kill them, the process of combing physically removes them from the head ensuring that you get every last one of those critters out. This is especially important since you just can’t be sure that they’re gone for good until you’ve killed and removed every last egg-laying louse and live egg. Some experts even say that proper combing does most of the real elimination work, but we certainly wouldn’t want to go at it without help from our step 1 topical home remedies for lice.
We say that this step is extremely important, but it is also important to do extremely well. The process of nit combing properly can be tedious, but well worth it. If you will be combing your child’s hair, be prepared with some activity (a book, movie, handheld game, etc.), to keep them entertained during the process.
What You’ll Need
- a sturdy nit comb
We like this one. It is made of sturdy stainless steel and has very tight micro-grooved teeth that will catch nits even from single strands of hair. It is the #1 best seller on Amazon and just so happens to be the comb featured in the professional nit-picker video we share below.
How to Use
First you’ll want to try one of the step 1 topical home remedies for lice we share above. Not only will these topical treatments help to kill the adult lice and loosen the nits from the safety of their glue beds, but they will act as a lubricant allowing the fine comb to glide more easily through the hair. You can also choose to coat the comb with additional oil or natural conditioner to help it glide.
First, you will want to work in an area with good lighting so that you can see clearly. Lice and nits are difficult to spot, and you’ll want to try to catch every one you can. Next, separate the hair into small sections after combing through with a regular comb to remove any tangles. Theses tangle-free sections will be easier to manage and will ensure that you comb every hair. Be sure to rinse the nit comb with hot water frequently as you move around the head. For more detailed instructions on best practices for nit combing, check out this informative video from some lice busting professionals (yes, there is such a thing).
Once you’ve completed the combing process, it’s time to wash the hair. You can wash the hair in a good old natural shampoo or you can use a natural dish washing liquid on your first pass if the oil in the hair is rather stubborn. Then repeat. After you’ve washed the hair twice, go ahead and blow dry it. The heat may be effective in killing any remaining nits, according to one study.
Don’t forget to thoroughly wash and dry all towels and clothing worn in the process. You’ll also want to clean the nit comb. To do so, you can simply soak the comb in vinegar for 30 minutes.
And Then Repeat
Yes, we said repeat. Though we know that you were as thorough as possible with your first go-round, we always suggest repeating the entire 2-step treatment again, at least once more 7 days later and then again the following week. By doing so, you ensure that you interrupt the reproductive process. Nits generally take about 8-9 days to hatch and then another 9-12 days after that before they mature and are able to lay their own eggs.8 By treating the hair and scalp every 7 days, you interrupt that cycle and ensure that any newly hatched lice are eliminated before they lay more eggs.
How to Stop the Infestation From Spreading
When it comes to treating lice, it’s not just about getting rid of the lice on your child’s head. Lice are passed easily from person to person in close vicinity, so once lice have been confirmed in your household, you’ll want to stop the infestation in its tracks. First, wash any potentially compromised bed sheets, clothes, and hats in extra hot water to kill any lice who haven’t yet found their way to their next host. You might consider turning your water heater up temporarily if your washing machine doesn’t pump out the temperature you’re looking for or you can simply top it off with some water you boiled on the stove. Then continue to change all towels, pajamas, sheets and pillow cases each day – or you can simply throw them in the dryer on high heat for at least 30 minutes.
It’s also probably worth a good vacuuming of the carpets and upholstery where your child spends most of his or her time – which includes your car seats! To take extra precaution with items that may have touched your child’s head but cannot be washed (like stuffed animals), seal them in a large plastic bag for several days.
While being thorough is of the essence when dealing with head lice, don’t worry about missing one or two or even a few around the house. Head lice will eventually die of starvation if they do not find a new human head to call home, and a louse that’s gone more than a couple of days without without a host is no longer capable of feeding even if it does find a new home.
A Note on Mayonnaise…
While writing this article, we realized that there are more than a few famous home remedies for lice that did not make our list, including, but not limited to: mayonnaise and Vaseline (or generic petroleum jelly). We felt that no list of home remedies for lice would be complete without a mention of these old folk remedies, and we certainly don’t want to go about offending any parents or grandparents who swear by them. Nevertheless, here is where we stand:
When it comes to mayonnaise, the primary mechanism it relies on for the elimination of head lice is suffocation, much like the recipes we list as options for step 1. While it is certainly a natural option, we found conflicting evidence of its effectiveness with even the National Pediculosis Association showing conflicting reports on its success.
Petroleum jelly has also been praised for its lice suffocating abilities. While we do not necessarily question the thick, gloppy jelly’s effectiveness in the arena, we definitely don’t appreciate the unnecessary mess that is hair covered in petroleum jelly. It’s also extremely difficult to wash out.
So, we left them off our list. We hope you forgive us.
Speaking of the many home remedies for lice out there, what have you used to eliminate lice? Share your story in the comments below!
- Super head lice warning as scientists discover almost all species are resistant to treatments – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/health/news/11810582/Super-head-lice-warning-as-scientists-discover-almost-all-species-are-resistant-to-treatments.html ↩
- Knockdown Resistance Allele Frequencies in North American Head Louse (Anoplura: Pediculidae) Populations – http://www.bioone.org/doi/abs/10.1603/ME13139?journalCode=ment ↩
- Forget Treating Your Kids’ Head Lice With Chemicals – http://www.takepart.com/article/2014/09/07/back-school-lice-alert-theres-no-need-douse-your-kids-pesticides ↩
- A randomised, assessor blind, parallel group comparative efficacy trial of three products for the treatment of head lice in children – melaleuca oil and lavender oil, pyrethrins and piperonyl butoxide, and a “suffocation” product – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2933647/ ↩
- An ex vivo, assessor blind, randomised, parallel group, comparative efficacy trial of the ovicidal activity of three pediculicides after a single application – melaleuca oil and lavender oil, eucalyptus oil and lemon tea tree oil, and a “suffocation” pediculicide – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3182970/ ↩
- Head Lice FAQs – http://www.parents.com/kids/health/head-lice/head-lice-faqs/ ↩
- Ovicidal effects of a neem seed extract preparation on eggs of body and head lice – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21484346 ↩
- Parasites – Lice – Head Lice Frequently Asked Questions – http://www.cdc.gov/parasites/lice/head/gen_info/faqs.html ↩