Headlice: What works, what doesn’t…

If you have kids, you’ve probably had to deal with headlice.

Today I’ll cover why most products don’t work, why headlice are at plague proportions around the world and how to keep children lice-free.

I’ll also cover what does work, what doesn’t work, and what’s complete rubbish and a waste of your money.

So read on to start winning the Headlice Battle!

We’ve been battling headlice a LONG time!

1. Why most supermarket “headlice treatments” don’t work.

Most “natural” treatments you can buy at the supermarket and chemist will not kill headlice or their eggs.

Products that in my experience do not work at all include the major brands “Moov”, “Parasidose”, “NeutraLice”, “Nyx”, “ClearLice” and “QuitNits”.

Most of these products are very expensive ($20 a bottle or more) and several treatments are needed if you follow the manufacturer’s instructions on anything other than very short hair, in order to full saturate the hair as directed. Manufacturers also recommend that the entire family be treated.

These products don’t work because headlice have grown immune to these products, if they ever actually worked at all.

Experts believe that over time headlice have grown tougher and more resistant, and what did work well a few decades ago no longer does. Remember, we have been using more and more chemicals and “natural” insecticides in our environment for a long time now. It’s not just headlice that have grown more resistant.

In short, these products are outdated and useless. Don’t pour your money down the drain by purchasing them.

2. Why headlice are an epidemic.

When I was a child, back in the 1970s, every school in Australia and New Zealand had a school nurse. The nurse’s responsibilities included checking children for headlice.

Kids were routinely sent home for headlice, and were not allowed back to school until they were cleared by the school nurse.

In other words, individual cases were checked, caught and isolated quickly, then dealt with.

Headlice was a rare occurrence. There was shame and stigma attached to being infested. In all my years at school, I never once had headlice, nor did my brother. I remember just one of my friends ever having lice.

The standard treatment back then was using gasoline, kerosene, naptha or turpentine to soak the hair. It worked – and worked well. It killed headlice quickly, and was cheap and easy to do.

However, there were also a tiny percentage of kids who ended up with burns from sitting near open fires and their hair lighting up, and the practice was strongly discouraged for safety reasons.

Snopes lists 9 cases worldwide of burns over a 20 year period. So burns happened very rarely, but when they did they were horrific. This was enough for health and safety authorities to discourage the use of these effective and affordable methods for treating headlice.

The school nurse program was universally dismantled over time from the 1980s onwards due to budget cuts, along with many other health and education programs throughout the Western world.

Without school checks, and with pressure from dual working families to not send kids home due to headlice, nits grew rampant.

Modern issues that have further added to the problem of headlice include children crowding around iPads, phones and computers, sharing electronic resources and allowing their heads to touch, and the fashion of girls having their hair loose and down rather than plaited and in ponytails at school, as well as boys having longer hair generally than in previous generations.

Taking the stigma away from headlice has not helped the situation either, as many parents don’t bother to report their children’s infestations to the schools, and schools fail to notify parents of current epidemics.

So apart from resistance to the products we’re using, we’re also not checking or isolating individuals with infestations as we once did.

Add into this longer, looser hairstyles (schools no longer require that girls tie their hair up or that boys have very short hair), and the sharing of computer terminals, phones and iPads with kids crowded closely together with head-to-head contact, plus the advent of school sunhats which are often mixed-up, and an epidemic was in the making.

There’s nothing much to stop the spread, and in a recent Christchurch study of primary school children about half needed treatment for headlice. Studies in Australian primary schools also report epidemic infestation rates.

3. How to keep kids headlice free.

  • Check your entire family thoroughly every week, including adults, on the same evening of the week. Check under good, bright light. A magnifying glass can be helpful.
  • If one child has headlice, assume all others may have headlice.
  • The Condition and Comb treatment method is the most widely recommended non-toxic treatment known to be effective in eliminating headlice.

  • Keep all your children’s hair short (i.e. a buzz cut) or tied back / plaited. Girls hair should ideally be kept as short as possible if they don’t like it tied back.

  • Ensure your child does not share hats, headgear, hair items (brushes, hair ties etc.) or pillow cases. Teach kids not to lean in for iPads, smart phones etc and to avoid head-to-head contact.
  • If your children have headlice, notify schools and social groups (i.e. Scouts, sporting groups etc.) immediately.

What works – and what doesn’t

  • Hair dryers and hair straighteners. Work! These work very well at killing headlice – and explain why I never had a single infestation in all the years I struggled with my children contracting them.

    A standard home hair dryer will kill nearly 98% of eggs with good technique. Hair straighteners are just as effective when used properly.

    If you have a daughter with long hair, hair dryers and straighteners are a great line of defence against headlice, especially when used in combination with the Conditioning and Combing technique.

  • Listerine. Works! I found that Listerine worked quite well, and killed a large majority of active lice in my daughter’s hair when I tried it a couple of years ago, but I couldn’t confirm it killed eggs. I used this method in conjunction with the condition and comb method with 100% clearance results.
  • Cetaphil cleanser. Works! Using Cetaphil cleanser (not the moisturiser) achieved a clearance rate of 95% when combed on then blow-dried in.
  • Gasoline / kerosene. Works! But beware! These products are highly flammable and one spark will set them alight. If you intend to use them, do so carefully.
  • Coca-cola. Unconfirmed. This treatment is all over the internet. I haven’t tried it, but it might be worth a go. If it does work, it’s certainly cheap and safe enough!

    The Coke method is unconfirmed, but worth a go!

  • 4% Dimethicone. Kinda-sorta works. The website states that dimethicone 4% eradicates headlice in at least 70% of patients. I’d call that an “almost win”. Dimethicone 4% is available on prescription only in New Zealand. Honestly, I wouldn’t bother. A hair dryer yields better results, for free.
  • Bug spray. Untested. I haven’t tested this and don’t want to. I have no intention of spraying bug spray on my kids. Don’t do this!
  • Pet flea treatments i.e “Spot on”, “Advantage” etc. Untested. These products work, and work well. On pets. By turning their blood toxic to insects. Seriously, don’t use these. Some of the ingredients can cause seizures, weakness and fatigue, and heart problems. While some of the same ingredients are being tested on humans for headlice in the USA, they’re being tested at 1/50th the strength. Very, very different.
  • Electronic comb i.e. “Robicomb”. Doesn’t work. Don’t bother. This is a big expensive waste of nothing.

    Listerine worked well for me, in conjunction with the Condition and Comb method.

  • Mayonnaise. Doesn’t work. I tried the “smother the head with mayo and wrap for hours” method. Either I didn’t wrap my daughter’s head for long enough or this just didn’t work. Either way, it was messy and difficult. Avoid.

  • Tea tree oil. Doesn’t work. While tea tree oil is a great deterrent (water down, put in a spray bottle and spray your child’s head each morning), it didn’t work to kill headlice.

  • Petroleum jelly. Doesn’t work. Creates a big, sticky mess, and expensive.

Summary

Health authorities around the world recommend the Condition and Comb method. This is still the best way to treat headlice, along with using a common household hair dryer. There is some evidence to suggest old bonnet-style hair dryers work well too.

I firmly believe that common-sense will return to our societies, and that we’ll return to having school nurses again. Headlice is more than a nuisance – it prevents our kids from concentrating and learning.

It’s time we took things seriously.