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The kids and I got lice last year. I freaked out and ruined a perfectly beautiful Sunday afternoon with a tornado of cleaning and lice treatment research. Since then, I've learned enough about the little bugs to say confidently that there's no need to panic. If you just found a louse or got the lice exposure notice at school, take a deep breath. This non-toxic guide will effectively help you treat and prevent lice without synthetic pesticides.
Feeling better? Great! Here's what you need to do. First, remove and treat the lice (pesticide-free options below.) Next, clean a few key items (don't go nuts.) Re-treat nine days later. I know that sounds like a lot, but I'll break it down step by step.
If you got the lice exposure notice but didn't find lice or nits, see my prevention tips below.
Professional non-toxic lice treatments
First, decide if you want to DIY or have a professional remove the lice. My daughter and I went to Lice Clinics of America. Their products are non-toxic, pesticide-free and you'll find salons across the country. If you want a professional treatment, call your insurance company and ask if they will reimburse you. Many do. If they don't, use your Health Savings Account (HSA) or Flexible Spending Account (FSA) to pay for the professional lice removal. Call your doctor for a prescription, so you have it if your HSA or FSA provider asks for it.
Non-toxic home lice treatments
I'm glad we went the professional route the first time around. But if it happens again, I'll do a home treatment. I re-treated myself and kids three weeks in a row after the first treatment. I was told to do it once, I went a few extra miles. Prevention is key.
If you're ready to try a home treatment, get yourself a steel lice comb* and try one of these non-toxic methods.
How to treat lice with the Nuvo Method
Cetaphil Gentle Cleanser* – Using the Nuvo Method you lice comb Cetaphil through dry hair, blow dry it, and leave it on for eight hours. It smothers the lice. The method was developed by Stanford educated dermatologist Dale Pearlman. It's the method recommended by the Palo Alto Medical Foundation. 1 Read the full Nuvo Method instructions here. Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser is rated three out of ten by the EWG 2 and is often recommended by dermatologists for people with sensitive skin. I used it for years.
Use dimethicone as a non-toxic lice treatment
Lice Clinics of America sells a home treatment that uses dimethicone as the active ingredient. It's also the product they use in their salons. Dimethicone is silicon, not a pesticide. It drowns the lice and eggs. 3
When I re-treated my kids at home I used the basic Lice Remover Kit* for $20, but the OneCure Clinic-Proven Lice Treatment Kit* includes a special hairdryer if you want to be on the safe side and don't mind spending an extra $120. Both are sold by Lice Clinics of America on Amazon. I keep a few jars at home just in case since it takes a few days to ship.
Dimethicone is considered non-toxic and effective, but it does leave a greasy feeling in your hair. You have to shampoo multiple times to get it all out. The good thing is dimethicone is an ingredient in many hair conditioners, so it makes it very easy to comb through with that little lice comb. The benefit of dimethicone compared to the Nuvo Method is you only need to leave it in for 20 minutes.
Prevent lice with essential oils
If you had active head lice, re-treat at least once one week later using one of the above treatments. After you've disrupted the cycle using the Nuvo Method or dimethicone, start actively preventing lice from coming back.
Peppermint and rosemary help prevent lice
and are considered “minimum risk pesticides” by the EPA. 5 I add ten drops rosemary and ten drops peppermint essential oil to all our shampoos, conditioners and leave-in-conditioners. I add lavender too because it smells so good. Viola! DIY lice prevention.
No need to buy a special lice shampoo and conditioner. The essential oils cost about the same amount as one bottle of lice shampoo, but the essential oils will last for years if you're just using them for lice prevention. (Mine disappear fast, I use peppermint for all kinds of good stuff.)
Note: Always dilute essential oils and do a small patch test before you use them. Avoid eyes, ears, mouth, private parts. You don't want them there. If your kids are sensitive to strong smells, essential oils are not for them. The scents can be overwhelming.
“Live lice were found on only 4% of pillowcases used by infested volunteers. Thus, the major focus of control activities should be to reduce the number of lice on the head and to lessen the risks of head-to-head contact,” according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.6
“Washing pillow cases and treating natural bristle hair care items that may have been in contact with the hair of anyone found to have head lice are reasonable measures.” 7
Take reasonable measures, don't crazy clean. Here's why. Nits (eggs) take about 8–9 days to hatch and die within a week when not attached to a scalp. To hatch they have to be at the temperature close to a human scalp, so they're unlikely to hatch away from a human host. Nymphs (baby lice) can only live a few hours without feeding on a human. So even if they hatch on your coach, they'd have to attach to your head pretty quick to survive. Lice can live 30 days on your head but only a day or so away from it.
Feel less panicked about cleaning? Good.
The Centers For Disease Control Recommendation
The CDC’s recommendation is more rigid, but not ridiculous. Vacuum the carpet, rugs, couch and car seats. Wash anything the person with active lice used within 48 hours in HOT water or run through the dryer on hot for 30 minutes. Things to consider washing: bed sheets, towels, hats, scarves, coats, combs/brushes, sports uniforms, hair accessories, and favorite stuffed animals.
Starting to hyperventilate? Remember, lice want you, not your couch.
“Spending much time and money on housecleaning activities is not necessary to avoid re-infestation by lice or nits that may have fallen off the head or crawled onto furniture or clothing,” according to the CDC. 8
The Problems With Pesticides
Pesticides commonly used to treat lice such as permethrin are considered safe by the CDC. However, “All pesticides have some level of toxicity and pose some risk to infants and children. The risk depends on the toxicity of the pesticide ingredients and how much of the pesticide a child is exposed to,” according to The National Pesticide Information Center.
“Most products used to treat head lice are pesticides that can be absorbed through the skin,” according to the CDC 9
The other problem with over the counter lice treatments is lice have become resistant to commonly used pesticides. They are called Superlice. That’s right. Like Superman, but they look like lice and they don’t die when doused with poison. Also, pyrethrins and permethrin (used in popular over the counter lice treatments) don’t kill the eggs (just the lice). 10 That's why lice keep coming back.
Finally, the runoff from permethrin into the ocean is toxic to fish. 11
Easy lice treatment and prevention tips
- The key to lice treatment is removing all the lice and eggs with a lice comb and smothering the lice and eggs with a pesticide-free product like dimethicone or Cetaphil.
- When combing through it, dip the lice comb and stray hairs into a white bowl full of water to better see the lice and nits as they come out. You know you're done when you no longer see lice or nits.
- Nits are tiny. Look for them ¼ inch from the scalp. They look like knots on the hair shaft. Unlike dandruff that falls off easily, nits stick to hair like glue.
- Look around the scalp, behind the ears, neckline, and back of the head. That's where they like to be.
- Clean combs and hairbrushes then put them in a strainer and pour boiling water over them. Or soak them in HOT water for 30 minutes to kill nits and lice.
- Wash favorite hats, stuffed animals and pillowcases. Or just run them through the dryer for 30 minutes.
- Lice have a 30-day life cycle. If you had lice, repeat the lice treatment at home nine days post-treatment to disrupt the cycle.
- Prevent lice by using rosemary and peppermint essential oils in your shampoo, conditioner, and de-tangler.
- Don’t cover kids' heads with plastic. No shower caps, no saran wrap, no plastic bags. Drape a towel over their shoulders to catch drips.
- Avoid synthetic pesticides.
- Do not fumigate your house or spray pesticides on your furniture. Unnecessary at best. Dangerous at worst.
- Don’t rely on home remedies like mayonnaise, olive oil, margarine, or butter.
You don't need pesticides to treat lice
Lice are annoying and itchy, but they're also a part of childhood. Our children are watching how we handle minor irritations like lice. Do they see us go to the harshest chemicals first, never questioning the consequences to our health or environment? Or do we use gentle yet equally effective solutions?
When it happened to us, I was quick to freak out, but my children were unfazed. They know that bugs aren't bad, they're just annoying. Bugs should be dealt with promptly, but why use a blowtorch when all we need is a light?
“The ability to remain calm and focused in stressful situations is central to making positive decisions.”
– Goldie Hawn
- PAMF, http://www.pamf.org/preteen/mybody/bodyscience/fj/headlice.html
- Ian F Burgess and Nazma A Burgess, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, “Dimeticone 4% liquid gel found to kill all lice and eggs with a single 15-minute application”, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3038924/
- Young-Cheol Yang Hoi-Seon Lee J. M. Clark Young-Joon Ahn, “Insecticidal Activity of Plant Essential Oils Against Pediculus humanus capitis (Anoplura: Pediculidae),” Journal of Medical Entomology, Volume 41, Issue 4, 1 July 2004, Pages 699–704, https://doi.org/10.1603/0022-2585-41.4.699 originally accessed on September 15, 2018 on https://academic.oup.com/jme/article/41/4/699/884360
- Barbara L. Frankowski, Joseph A. Bocchini, Jr, “Council on School Health and Committee on Infectious Diseases,” Head Lice, Pediatrics, August 2010, VOLUME 126 / ISSUE 2, From the American Academy of Pediatrics Clinical Report, accessed September 15, 2018, http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/126/2/392
- AAP Updates Treatments for Head Lice, 4/27/2015, American Academy of Pediatrics, accessed September 15, 2018, https://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/Pages/AAP-Updates-Treatments-for-Head-Lice.aspx
- “Treatment”, Centers for Disease Control, accessed September 15, 2018, https://www.cdc.gov/parasites/lice/head/treatment.html
- Treatment Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs), Centers for Disease Control, accessed September 20, 2018, https://www.cdc.gov/parasites/lice/head/gen_info/faqs_treat.html
- Treatment, Centers for Disease Control, accessed 9/17/2018, https://www.cdc.gov/parasites/lice/head/treatment.html
- National Pesticide Information Center, “Permethrin,”accessed September 18, 2018, http://npic.orst.edu/factsheets/PermGen.html