Lice: Just reading the word is enough to make you start scratching. These itch-inducing bugs crawl around your scalp (or anywhere covered in hair) and spread quickly to anyone unlucky enough to come into contact with your infected head. Lice lay thousands of eggs and are notoriously difficult to get rid of.
While lice don't discriminate when it comes to the age of their victims, young kids are most known for contracting (and spreading) a lice infestation. In fact, according to the American Academy of Dermatology, an estimated 6 to 12 million kids between the ages of 3 and 12 years old get head lice every single year. And a lice outbreak in a day care or a preschool or kindergarten class is enough to send parents into a panic.
So what are lice, exactly?
Lice are parasites that attach themselves to human hair and — much like vampires — feed on human blood. Sounds terrifying, right? While head lice (officially known as Pediculosis capitis) are the most common kind of lice, there are two other types. The first is pubic lice (known in the medical community as Pthirus pubis), which functions much like head lice, but the lice attach themselves to pubic hair. The second is body lice (known medically as Pediculosis corporis), which differs from head and pubic lice in that the lice live and lay eggs on people's clothing and make their way to the body just for feeding time. For the purposes of this article, we'll focus specifically on head lice.
Female lice lay seven to 10 eggs a day, which they attach to the hair with a sticky, glue-like substance that's not water-soluble, which explains why lice and their eggs are so difficult to get rid of. The female louse sticks those eggs very close to the scalp (about 1 mm away), and the heat and moisture from the human host's head actually incubates the eggs and helps them hatch. (Talk about adding insult to itchy, itchy injury.) The eggs hatch after about seven to 10 days and, since their moms laid them so close to the scalp, the baby lice are able to immediately sink their teeth in and start feeding. Adult lice live for about 30 days, which means every adult female louse, if left untreated, could lay as many as 300 eggs in her lifetime. The math really helps put their prolific nature into perspective.
What causes lice infestations?
Lice, as we mentioned above, can spread very quickly through a community but especially among children, who are more likely to be comfortable sharing belongings and making close contact with each other. Lice typically spread through head-to-head contact (which could happen while playing, hugging, napping, fighting, or even just leaning in to share a schoolbook), or by sharing items that have made direct contact with an infected person's head (like hats, hair ties, hoodies, and hair brushes).
Many people believe that lice are caused by poor hygiene, but that's not necessarily the case. Kids and adults who have lice don't get them because they don't take enough baths or showers or because their homes are dirty. Anyone can catch lice, no matter how clean their homes or their hair. In fact, not washing hair every day may be a slightly better deterrent than keeping it squeaky clean.
"Keeping hair a little 'dirty' can help," says Bindiya Gandhi, M.D., an American Board Family Medicine–certified physician and mbg health expert. "A good way to do this is to oil your hair regularly—Indian parents always use coconut oil because it's antibacterial and helps keep lice away." This may also help prevent the lice from clinging to hair follicles.
So, you or your kid has lice. Now, what are you going to do about it? Most people know all about the standard, over-the-counter treatments for lice, like Nix. Some parents, however, might not feel totally comfortable dousing their family members' heads with chemicals. So, are there any good, all-natural options when it comes to treating lice in kids and adults? Yes—of course there are.
The best natural (and semi-natural) lice treatments.
Preventive lice checks (aka wet combing)
Sometimes, the best defense is a good offense. Parents who are especially worried about a potential lice outbreak can get a jump on prevention by dedicating one bath time a week to combating potential outbreaks. During the bath (or shower), wash your kid's hair as usual and then follow up with conditioner. After the bath, comb your child's hair out carefully with a lice comb, checking for lice and their eggs and removing anything you find. If you're doing these preventive checks on yourself, enlist the help of your partner or a friend so you don't miss anything. Catching an outbreak early can make a world of difference and eliminate the need for chemical treatments.
If you're going to perform these preventive checks, there are some who believe that adding vinegar to the solution you comb through your child's hair could help increase the effectiveness. There is, however, no scientific evidence or studies to support that claim, so vinegar your child's head at your own risk.
In a study of several home remedies for treating lice, petroleum jelly was found to cause "significant louse mortality" (meaning it killed a lot of the already living, breathing, and bloodsucking lice) but did not prevent the lice from laying eggs. Petroleum jelly did do a pretty good job of killing eggs that hadn't already hatched, with only 6 percent surviving to hatch. This does, however, mean you would have to slather your child's head in petroleum jelly (and leave it on for an extended period of time—up to eight hours) and, even then, some of the lice and their eggs would still almost definitely survive to make your kid scratch another day. If it's all you have on hand, consider it, but some of the more natural options on this list will likely be more effective.
One common home remedy for head lice is olive oil (or almond oil, as an alternative), which is believed to smother the lice and kill them via suffocation. While this method has a lot of anecdotal support, it's worth noting that no studies have explicitly backed it up and that olive oil can be very painful if it gets in the eye (due to the presence of oleocanthal, one of its most healthful compounds that's also responsible for its peppery bite), so be careful—especially with a squirmy kid.
If you do decide to try "suffocating" the lice, remember that you'll still need to brush them out (in fact, some people even recommend coating the comb with oil instead of applying it directly to the hair). After you've combed through the hair thoroughly and removed all of the lice and eggs you can find, be sure to wash your kid's hair with regular shampoo, and be prepared to wash it a few times to get the oil out.
Not all natural oil-based lice treatments are totally baseless, however. In a small study from Israel, a natural product that contained coconut oil (as well as anise oil and ylang ylang oil) was shown to be as successful in treating lice as the chemical treatment pediculicide. The coconut-oil-based product was applied to hair three times at five-day intervals. The Israeli study isn't the only one that found success in using coconut-oil-based products to treat lice. A study conducted in England showed that a spray made of coconut oil and aniseed oil was effective in treating lice, and another study from Brazil found coconut oil was actually more effective than some chemical treatments. (Bonus: It also makes hair soft and shiny.)
You can also just use plain coconut oil as a treatment at home. First, rinse your kid's hair with hot water. Then, apply coconut oil (use plenty—this isn't the time to skimp) to the hair, making sure to massage it throughout. When you're finished, put a plastic shower cap on and leave it on for at least eight hours before removing the cap and combing through the hair, removing any lice and eggs you find.
Tea tree oil
Another kind of oil that has shown promise in treating lice is tea tree oil. In one study, tea tree oil was shown to kill nymph (basically lice children) and adult lice and to reduce the number of lice eggs that hatched.
In another study, researchers tested three different products to treat head lice in children, including one that contained tea tree oil (as well as lavender oil). At the end of the treatment period, almost every child who was treated with the tea tree oil and lavender oil product was completely lice-free. By comparison, just a quarter of the kids treated with pyrethrins and piperonyl butoxide (the most common ingredients in over-the-counter treatments like Nix) were free of lice at the end of the study.
If you want to treat your child's head lice with tea tree oil, you should always combine the tea tree oil with a carrier oil such as coconut oil or olive oil first; otherwise it can damage the skin. Then, apply it in the same way as you would coconut oil, described above. As a recap: Rinse the child's hair with hot water, massage the tea-tree-oil-carrier oil mixture into the scalp and hair, put a shower cap on for eight hours, and then comb through for lice and eggs before washing the tea tree oil out of the hair. You can also buy tea tree oil lice shampoos online or add tea tree oil to your current shampoo as a preventive step if you don't want to go with a pure essential oil treatment.
The benefits of essential oils in treating lice continue with peppermint oil. In a study published in the International Journal of Dermatology, researchers compared the benefits of several different substances in treating lice among elementary school children. The study specifically compared DEET with several natural oils: tea tree oil, lavender oil, and peppermint oil.
While tea tree oil was found to be the most effective in the study (another win for it as a natural treatment for lice), peppermint was also shown to be very effective at repelling lice. What's more, the slippery nature of these oils helped limit the transfer of the lice between kids—so the rest of the PTA will thank you. Just remember, if you want to experiment with using essential oils for lice treatment, always combine them with a carrier oil before they come into contact with any part of your skin, including the scalp.
The same study showed that lavender (as well as that magical tea tree oil) also helped in another very important way. Lice were less likely to feed on skin that had been treated with lavender oil or tea tree oil. Since those bites are what cause the itching that accompanies a head lice infestation, this could potentially provide some relief for kids (and adults) dealing with a lice outbreak, even if it doesn't necessarily cure the outbreak. But again, don't forget the carrier oil!
Other essential oils
Other essential oils have been tested as possible remedies for head lice. In one study, aniseed oil, cinnamon leaf oil, red thyme oil, and nutmeg oil were found to be effective when tested in vitro against lice when they were applied in an alcoholic solution. In the morning, after the treatment, participants' hair was rinsed using a mixture containing essential oils, vinegar, and water.
While many essential oils show promise as potential treatments for lice (and in countless other areas of your life), the research into their effectiveness isn't conclusive by any means, and these products aren't regulated by the FDA. You should talk to your doctor before using essential oils of any kind to treat lice at home, especially if you're using the treatment on a young child.
Other all-natural lice treatments
If home remedies aren't for you, there are still natural options for treating your child's (or your own) lice outbreak. There are several natural and plant-based products on the market, including LiceLogic Natural Head Lice Shampoo, Head Hunters Naturals Pro Lice Treatment, and EucoClean All-Natural Lice Treatment Spray (which can be used on cloth-based products around the home that might have come in contact with the infected child's hair, including bedding, pillows, sofa cushions, plush toys, and more).
Overall, no home remedy has been shown to be totally effective in treating a lice infestation. Whatever treatment method you use, manual removal (meaning doing the hard time combing through your child's hair, strand-by-strand, and removing any lice and eggs you see) will always make it far more effective.
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