Head lice are a common problem for families everywhere. And now, there is a new strain that is resistant to conventional chemical treatments. Rather than strengthen the insecticidal arsenal, here are some effective natural alternatives.
By Jennifer Allen Newton
It sounds like something out of a supermarket tabloid, but unfortunately this one’s true: the mutant super lice have arrived. The bad news is these lice are resistant to the most commonly used over-the-counter insecticide lice treatments. The good news is there are alternatives that effectively kill head lice – mutant and otherwise – without leading to resistance and without exposing our children to neurotoxins.
According to a report published in 2015 by Kyong Yoon, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Southern Illinois University, 104 out of the 109 lice populations tested in a study had high levels of gene mutations that have been linked to pyrethroid resistance. This news, of course, launched a media frenzy about the “mutant super lice” invading our cities and schools.
There is much hand-wringing about how to deal with the problem, and rightly so. Super lice, like regular head lice, live among human hairs and survive by drawing small amounts of blood from the scalp. While lice don’t spread disease, they are irritating and uncomfortable and they spread like wildfire from person to person, particularly among children in school and daycare who play in close contact. But adults and teenagers aren’t immune – parents, siblings, and friends can quickly pass the nasty critters through contact, and fears of “selfie lice” have continued to circulate on social media, highlighting the easy passage of lice from head to head as people stand close for a photo.
“Lice really have no season, they’re around all year and they’re across every age and economic group,” says Wendee Kytola, owner of Picky Picky, a lice removal salon in Vancouver, Washington, USA. “Parents tend to be more aware of lice with their small children, but actually lice are often worse among fifth graders and middle-schoolers because they are more likely to be taking care of their own grooming. Lice problems tend to go un-noticed longer and the lice have time to spread before anyone realizes it,” Kytola added.
When parents use the insecticidal shampoos that no longer work on these mutant head lice, they may think they’ve handled the problem but they really haven’t. So the same child ends up having active lice for months and re-infecting other children throughout the school.
While Yoon’s mutant lice study was the first to collect lice samples from a large number of populations, earlier studies indicated this wave of resistant super lice was coming. Lice tested as far back as 2007 to 2009 were already genetically resistant to the pyrethroid insecticides in the over-the-counter treatment products most frequently used to treat them.
Unfortunately, the growing resistance of pests to the chemicals that are supposed to save us from them is not a new story. The fact is, lice – like many other insects, weeds, and bacteria that we try to stave off with chemical pesticides, herbicides, and antibiotics – reproduce and mutate relatively quickly. Those that mutate to develop pesticide-resistant genes survive, and they breed and pass those genes along to their millions of offspring. We’re seeing similar effects with the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria as a result of the over-prescription and over-use of certain antibiotics in humans and animals.
So what do we do about these mutant super lice?
The answer from the chemical industry is to use different, stronger chemical insecticides that are only available by prescription. But this begs the question: how long will it be until the lice develop resistance to these newer chemicals as well?
As the industry continues to chase the ever-mutating lice with stronger chemicals, many health-conscious families fear the long-term consequences of using neurotoxic insecticides on their children and around their homes.
“When your child comes home from school with lice and you use a de-licing shampoo, you are voluntarily applying neurotoxins to your child’s head,” said Barb Todd, founder of Lumino Wellness. “To break this cycle we need to move away from treating lice with chemical insecticides. Fortunately, there are a number of safer treatments, like diatomaceous earth, that get rid of lice and never lead to resistance.”
Get Rid of Head Lice Without Chemicals
There are alternatives to this vicious cycle of dousing the nasty critters with more and more powerful chemicals; they’re called mechanical killers. Rather than disturbing the pest’s neurochemistry or hormonal cycles, mechanical head lice killers take a more direct approach. They’re the insecticidal equivalent of being shot, stabbed, or hit by a car.
If this sounds like something from a gangster movie, it is (for lice anyway). It would take an epic, super-hero-like mutation for one to become naturally resistant to cold, hard steel. This means that mechanical killers work, and keep working, even on the most chemical-resistant mutant super lice out there. And they don’t damage the human in the process.
Some of the most effective mechanical treatments use multiple methods to pack a stronger punch. Some of the treatments people most often use include:
Hit and Run. This is the most basic mechanical killer. It involves physically combing through hair section by section with a specialized, fine-toothed comb to remove the live lice and eggs, also known as nits (yes, this is where the term “nit-picking” comes from). This method is often used in conjunction with other natural methods to effectively remove the lice and nits, dead or alive.
Hired Gun. Let’s face it, combing and nitpicking is not only time-consuming it can be difficult to do effectively yourself. De-licing and nit-picking specialists have set up shops in many cities around the world. They usually charge by the hour and the length of treatment depends on the level of infestation.
“There are times you just want to see a professional,” says Kytola. “While an occasional outbreak of lice can be handled at home, you really need to stick with your program or it won’t work. I can treat most cases in an hour, and my clients go home with peace of mind.”
Smother. Some folk remedies for head lice involve smothering the bugs with Vaseline or mayonnaise, covering the head with plastic and leaving the treatment in overnight. These treatments tend to be less effective because lice are notoriously difficult to smother – they can hold their breath for a minimum of 12 hours. Add to this the physical dangers of using any type of plastic film, caps, or bags on or around small children’s heads during sleep.
Essential oils, however, work a bit differently. When rubbed into the hair and scalp they can help break down the exoskeleton of the lice. But oils don’t kill the nits, so it’s important to use them in conjunction with other treatments. Tea tree oil also acts as a repellent – lice don’t like the smell, so it is often helpful as an adjunct to combing and picking.
Death by Diatom. If you like the convenience of applying something to the head that will do a lot of the work for you, food-grade diatomaceous earth (DE) is a safe, highly-effective mechanical lice killer. Note, this is not the pool-filter DE, which is of low purity and quality and can contain dangerous chemicals. Food-grade DE is specially mined and processed for purity and it is so safe that it is often used in flours and other processed foods in storage to get rid of – you got it – bugs.
DE is not actually earth or dirt. It is the fossilized remains of microscopic shells of ancient, one-celled aquatic plants (diatoms). When seen through an electron microscope, individual DE cells look like long cylinders covered with multiple sharp edges on their surface. These pointy edges give DE an abrasive quality that make it a super desiccant. When applied as a powder, the microscopic sharp edges are too small to pierce human skin. But to lice, DE is like a bed of broken glass – when lice come into contact with DE, it cuts and abrades their waxy outer layer and causes them to dry up and die.
“Lice never develop a resistance to DE and it is very effective,” says Todd. “Plus it has no neurotoxins and is easy on the hair and skin, so we don’t have to worry about applying it to our children.”
DE also kills a variety of other pests around the home and yard, including fleas and bedbugs. Kytola recommends that her clients use food-grade DE at home to help prevent re-infection and future outbreaks. It can be applied to pets, carpets, bedding, and most anywhere infestations of fleas or lice are found.
“To get the best results, we recommend using food-grade DE as your primary lice treatment with other mechanical methods like essential oils and combing for support,” says Todd. “It’s easy on your child and easy on your wallet, and it works.”
For those who prefer to deal with head lice at home, natural head lice treatments can be quite effective and the cost is minimal. Here are some tips.
Purchase only food grade diatomaceous earth. (often listed as USDA food grade or Chemical Codex Food-Grade DE).
Fit a t-shirt upside down over the hair so that the collar goes around the forehead and seals around the scalp and the body of the shirt forms a sort of “t-shirt bag” over the head.
Apply food grade DE powder to the hair inside the “t-shirt bag.”
Close the “bag” and massage the DE into the hair and scalp.
Leave that DE on overnight (you can tie the top of the t-shirt to form a night cap).
In the morning, the lice will have turned white with the DE and will be immediately more visible.
Shampoo out the DE, preferably using a tea-tree shampoo for maximum effect.
Apply one tablespoon of apple cider vinegar mixed with one tablespoon of water to the hair and scalp (more for longer hair as needed, equal parts vinegar and water). Leave on hair for at least 10 minutes. This loosens any remaining nits and makes them easier to comb out.
Use a fine-toothed comb to remove any remaining nits still in the hair. Rinse hair again with fresh water.
Optional: Mix ¼ cup vinegar with 1 cup water and use as the final rinse.
Repeat this treatment once a week for three weeks to make sure you haven’t missed any eggs and to kill any emerging lice as soon as they hatch.
Jennifer Allen Newton is a writer and communications consultant working primarily with environment, health, and technology clients. She lives and works on a small, organic farm and is currently studying to become a certified functional medicine health coach through the Functional Medicine Coaching Academy. She also serves on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Functional Medicine. This article was first published in Natural Child Magazine.