Head Lice

A perennial problem – How to deal with Head Lice effectively using natural methods.

What are Head Lice?

Head lice are small six-legged insects that live on the human scalp and in the hair. They are light tan to dark grey in colour and are about the size of a sesame seed when fully grown. They cannot fly, jump or swim, but can be spread through close head contact. They only infest humans, so you cannot catch them from animals. Head lice feed by sucking blood through the scalp. The female produces eggs (nits) which are very firmly glued onto hair shafts close to the scalp (for moisture and warmth) and will hatch out after 7-10 days.

They are more commonly found on children, but adults can become infested. Infestations are very common in Irish schools, and are often difficult to eradicate due to re-infestation and resistance to conventional treatments.

Some children appear to have a greater susceptibility to the problem than others. The reasons for this are not fully understood.


Many head lice infestations cause no symptoms, and probably less than half cause itch, so a mild infestation may not be noticed. So, you really have to LOOK very carefully to find out if your child has head lice. This is best done after washing, with the hair still wet, using a special fine-toothed comb. It is important to comb the full length of the hair from roots to the tip, paying particular attention to the back of the ears and neck. Lice will appear on the comb as grey/brown, pinhead sized insects. Nits (eggs) are not difficult to see, use a strong light and look on the hair shafts. Newly laid eggs are usually within 1.5 cm of the scalp while older eggs are higher up the hair shafts, further away from the scalp. If you are not sure whether an object you find is a nit, try sliding it up the hair shaft using your fingers. Nits are usually quite difficult to move, whereas particles of dry skin will slide off easily.

Why are Head Lice a problem?

The main problem with head lice is the social stigma attached to having an infestation, which leads to acute embarrassment for child and parent alike. There is a common view that head lice infestation is a sign of poor hygiene and failure to wash. This is a myth, as head lice seem to like clean hair just as much as dirty hair.

It is important to understand that a case of head lice is not a major medical emergency. According to the American Medical Association lice infestations are “generally not injurious to health” and lice have “never been established as a primary vector for any disease.”(1)

Conventional treatments

There are many specific over-the-counter and prescription treatments for head lice consisting of shampoos, sprays, lotions etc. All conventional treatments contain insecticides, which are inherently toxic. It is interesting to note that in the US, insecticides, because of their toxicity, are not allowed to be labelled as safe. There is particular concern over treatments containing Organophosphates (2) , and Organochlorines, some of which have been found to be carcinogenic and neurotoxic. Several health authorities (3)(4)(5) in the UK do not advise insecticide-based lotions except as a last resort “These lotions contain insecticides that can be harmful. They are also ineffective if not used properly and can poison the environment. Wet combing is the surest and safest way of beating head lice” according to the Manchester Health Authority.

Alternative Natural Methods

Beware of so-called “natural” products containing pyrethrins. While not as toxic as organophosphates, they can cause allergic reactions, and in any case lice have largely become resistant to them, so much so that many of them are now totally ineffective (6)(7).

IAHS Health Stores now carry a wide range of proprietory products, based on natural ingredients such as herbs and aromatherapy oils, which have been found to be very useful both in dealing with the problem itself and also as preventives.

If you prefer to make up your own remedy at home there are recipes to be found in aromatherapy books using a combination of aromatherapy oils. All ingredients are available at your IAHS health store. An example:-

To a 100 ml base of almond oil add the following:

  • 25 drops rosemary oil
  • 12 drops eucalyptus oil
  • 13 drops geranium oil
  • 25 drops lavender oil

Mix thoroughly and apply to hair. Massage well in, cover with cling-film and leave for about two hours. Wash out with a mild shampoo. This method does not kill the eggs so it is important to repeat the procedure in 7-10 days when they hatch out.

Fine combing – wet or dry

Thorough fine-combing is a tedious and time-consuming job, but is essential to definitively remove the pests. These are the steps involved in effective combing. If the child has long hair, it may be preferable to dry comb, so eliminate steps 1 and 2 :

  1. Wash the hair and partially dry it with a towel.
  2. Apply conditioner. This appears to stun the lice, and facilitates the identification of nits.
  3. Ensure there is good lighting – daylight is best.
  4. Comb with an ordinary comb to untangle the hair. Then start with a nit comb, touching the skin of the scalp at the top of the head. Draw the comb carefully towards the edge of the hair. Look carefully at the teeth of the comb for any sign of moving lice.
  5. Do this over and over again, from the top of the head to the edge of the hair in all directions, working round the head. It can take 10 to 15 minutes to do this properly.
  6. If there are head lice, you will find one or more on the teeth of the nit comb. They may be difficult to see because of the conditioner and it may help to wipe the comb with a tissue and look for lice there.
  7. Thoroughly clean the nit comb under the tap, scrubbing with a nail brush.

How to prevent re-infestation

Having gone to all the trouble of removing the infestation from your children, re-infestation is the last thing you need. Here are several good tips which can help minimise the chances of re-infestation : Treat all kids in your family simultaneously. Fine comb immediately afterwards. Whatever treatment you choose, remember to repeat the treatment in 7-10 days. Fine-comb the kids hair at least once per week. Add a few drops of tea tree oil to shampoo and use as a preventive. Wash all combs, brushes and other utensils in very hot soapy water after use. Put all pillow cases, sheets and clothes into the washing machine. Clean all headgear, caps, hats, berets and other hair accessories.

Things NOT to do

With head lice being such a difficult problem to deal with, desperate parents have been known to resort to all kinds of measures to eradicate them. Some of these methods are not advisable, some are unnecessary, and some are downright dangerous.

It is not advisable to use petroleum jelly, mayonnaise or engine oil on the hair. While some people swear by these remedies, the cure is often much worse than the disease, as they are very difficult to remove.

It is not necessary to fumigate the house or to treat furniture, or carpets with insecticides, because head lice cannot live very long away from the host.

  • Never use insecticidal head lice products as preventives.
  • Never use kerosene – (yes, it has been done!).

It is very dangerous to use household insecticides, fly spray or flea treatments on children’s hair. In the case of treatment failure, do not use conventional head lice treatments repeatedly. Although some may be presented as “head lice shampoos”, they are in fact insecticides, not shampoos. Please err on the side of caution as the cure may well be worse than the condition.

Resources and References:

  • Centers for Disease Control (USA)
  • Dept of Public Health and Tropical Medicine
  • Harvard School of Public Health (USA)
  • James Cook University, Australia
  • American Medical Association 1992 Drug Evaluation
  • “Carbamate and organophosphate poisoning in young children” Pediatric Emergency Care, V15,2, p 102.
  • Morcombe Bay Health Authority
  • Lancaster Priority Services NHS Trust Manchester Community Health Councils Manchester Education Authority
  • Manchester Health Authority
  • Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.1999; 153:969-973.
  • Contemporary Pediatrics Vol. 15, No. 11

This fact sheet is for information only and is not meant to be used for self-diagnosis or as a substitute for consultation with a healthcare professional.

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