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Non-Toxic Head Lice Treatments

Pesticide-Free Alternatives to Kill Lice


Concerned about potentially toxic head lice treatments? Some parents are leery of exposing children to the insecticides in the widely-available OTC products or prescription-only treatments, or fear allergic reactions. Others question effectiveness, noting some recent reports indicating lice may be becoming resistant.

An internet search for pesticide-free lice treatments reveals a vast and confusing array of commercial products and home remedies with detailed instructions. Most include enthusiastic testimonials, but deeper searching may uncover many reports of treatment failures. Few offer conclusive, well-controlled research to back up their claims. How do you make a choice?

Know this first

It’s critical to understand the life cycle of the head louse. Adult lice can live on the scalp about 30 days and lay up to 100 eggs (nits), firmly “gluing” them to the hair shaft. New lice hatch in 7-10 days, and reach maturity and lay eggs 7-10 days later unless killed or removed first. That’s why a one-time treatment (even insecticidal) is unlikely to resolve the problem; all effective methods aim to kill live lice, but the nits usually remain and will later hatch, requiring re-treatment.

Four pesticide-free possibilities


Head Lice

Approach #1: Smother lice

The goal is death by suffocation: the hair is thoroughly saturated with a viscous household substance like olive oil, mayonnaise, or petroleum jelly, then covered tightly. Leaving the treatment on several hours is key, as preliminary laboratory research at Harvard University indicated lice “recovered” from one hour of olive oil submersion. Treatments must be repeated as nits hatch. Reports of success are mostly anecdotal. An exception is the “Nuvo Treatment”, which uses a skin cleanser and blow-drying. A controlled clinical study published in the September 2004 issue of Pediatrics claimed up to 96% effectiveness for this method.

Approach #2: Kill lice on contact

Natural health stores, websites, and some drugstores sell enzyme-based, herbal or essential oil-containing treatments marketed as effective in killing lice. Home “recipes”, too, may advocate mixtures infused with tea tree oil, anise, eucalyptus or neem oil, among others. One best-selling commercial product lists sodium chloride (salt) as the active ingredient. All of these treatments probably act on lice via neurotoxic effects. As with the suffocation techniques, individual successes are abundant but hard clinical evidence can be hard to come by. Some experts caution parents against the use of essential oils in young children.

Approach #3: Electrocute lice

Battery-operated lice combs that “zap” lice can be purchased. Unlike traditional louse combs, these must be used on dry hair, and do not claim to destroy or remove eggs. Fans claim these have worked where other treatments have failed, while critics have questioned whether they reach the scalp and/or truly kill, rather than just impair, the lice.

Approach #4: Manual removal

Almost all “non-toxic” approaches suggest combining regular removal of eggs using a nit comb with the chosen treatment. Some, such as the National Pediculosis Association, go further and assert that combing and nit-picking alone is the ONLY surefire means of eradicating lice. One drawback in relying on combing alone without a lice-killing treatment is the large amount of time, diligence and compliance required of both parents and children. Missing even a few viable nits can result in the cycle of infestation beginning again.

Stay the course!

Dealing with lice can be challenging and requires persistence. There are no miracle cures, but a combination of a lice-killing treatment with meticulous combing/nitpicking is a one-two punch that can ultimately prove successful in winning the battle.

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