I just learned that my state, Washington, is one of several that is experiencing an outbreak of “super-lice”, or lice that are resistant to the traditional pyrethrum-based treatments (Rid contains pyrethrin; Nix contains permethrin).
Super-lice aside, the common louse has been increasingly resistant to the standard over-the-counter products for many years. Which begs the question: Why are Nix and Rid still the recommended first line of treatment by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)??
Probably because there are few other tested and FDA-approved methods.
So what should parents do? Let’s look at the options.
There are basically three ways to get rid of pesky lice and their eggs, or nits (at least in theory):
- Kill them with an insecticide (Rid, Nix, or tea tree oil)
- Dry them out (desiccation) using a hair dryer or the expensive new FDA-approved device, AirAllé.
- Suffocate them (occlusion) using a thick, oil-based product, such as petroleum jelly (Vaseline) or soap (Cetaphil).
Keep in mind that nothing kills 100% of the nits, so any treatment needs to be done at least weekly, for 2-3 weeks.
Tea tree or essential oils
Although studies have shown tea tree oil (sometimes in combination with lavender oil) to be very effective at killing lice and nits, and this information is all over the internet, it is not recommended by the AAP.
Tea tree oil is a volatile chemical that can cause allergic reactions, skin irritation and breathing difficulties. It and lavender oil can also have estrogen-like effects on the body, causing breast growth (gynecomastia) in young boys.
Related post: Use essential oils with caution
Furthermore, essential oils are not regulated as to concentration and purity; the label information might be inaccurate.
Bottom line: I would not use essential oils to treat head lice, especially in very young children.
I’ve often heard of parents using a hair dryer to kill lice in their kids’ hair. Half an hour on medium heat while brushing supposedly does the trick.
The AAP does not recommend this method, either, because although lice don’t jump (like fleas do) the hair dryer might “…cause live lice to become airborne and, thus, potentially spread to others in the vicinity.”
Flying lice is definitely something to think about if you want to take this approach.
AirAllé, with its FDA-approved lice-killing device (it basically looks like a hair dryer/vacuum combo), guarantees its one-hour professional treatment. That sounds great, but the downside is that it has to be done by licensed AirAllé technicians, and these are not available everywhere. And it’s expensive, around $170.
(Interested in a business opportunity? AirAllé wants to sell you an operator’s license! 😉 )
Bottom line: Heat works well to kill lice and their nits, but can be time-consuming and/or costly, and there is a risk of spreading the lice to others in the household.
Which brings me to my preferred method—smothering.
This is the AAP’s back-up plan for when insecticides don’t work. If you do an internet search, you can find all sorts of products that are frequently used, even mayonnaise or butter, but Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser has actually been shown to work well (97% success rate!). The results of a study by a Stanford-trained dermatologist, Dr. Dale Pearlman, were published several years ago in an AAP journal.
Here is a short list of the steps. For more detailed information, go to Dr. Pearlman’s instruction page.
- Apply Cetaphil throughout the scalp to dry hair.
- After all the hair is wet, wait 2 minutes for the Cetaphil to soak in.
- Comb out as much excess cleanser as possible.
- Blow dry your child’s hair. It has to be thoroughly dry down to the scalp to suffocate the lice. Expect this to take 3 times longer than normal drying.
- The dried Cetaphil will smother the lice. Leave it on your child’s hair for at least 8 hours.
- In the morning, wash off the Cetaphil with a regular shampoo.
- To cure your child of lice, repeat this process at 7 days and 14 days after first treatment.
Bottom line: Yes, it’s still a time-consuming process, but it’s pretty inexpensive and it doesn’t involve potentially harmful chemicals or tedious nit picking.
And don’t use petroleum jelly! Although it’s an effective lice smotherer, it’s next to impossible to wash out of hair. I’ve seen the (not pretty) results of someone trying this.
For more information on head lice and their prevention, check out the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) webpage.