Head Lice Infestation Is Escalating
In December of 1994, the British medical journal, The Lancet verified what many parents and health officials had suspected–head lice infestation is on the rise. The reason? Head lice have grown resistant to the solutions most commonly used to fight them–lotions and shampoos containing pesticides. As a result, the number of head lice infestations have risen steadily in Great Britain, Canada, France, USA, Israel and Turkey.2 Time Magazine (USA) recently verified this problem in its January 12, 1998 issue reporting that lice infestation in America has risen to the epidemic level of 10 to 12 million a year.3 Today–except for the common cold–head lice infestation is considered the most common communicable childhood disease.4
Head Lice Are Resistant to Common Drug Treatments
In response to this increasing problem, The USA’s American Family Physician attempted to determine which, if any, of the pesticide based lotions and shampoos are still effective against head lice by evaluating evidence in the medical literature about head lice treatments containing pesticides. In its February 1, 1996 issue, the authors concluded that “evidence of efficacy has been established only for per-methrin 1 percent creme rinse.”5
Then, in April of 1997, The Los Angeles Times reported the findings of an Israeli study which concluded that head lice have also become resistant to permethrin, the active ingredient in what is considered the most widely used head lice treatment in the USA–Nix.®6
Overuse of Pesticide Treatments Are Endangering Children
Clearly, as seen in international media and the medical literature, head lice are winning the war. These new “super lice” are becoming more and more resistant to the pesticide based treatments. As a result, concerned parents can no longer buy a drug preparation that is 100% effective against head lice.
If that is not disturbing enough, consider this: Most parents are unaware that the pesticide-based head-lice treatments they have purchased will probably not work. So, when lice reappear on their child’s scalp, parents reapply these toxic treatments more often and for longer periods of time then is safe. The results? Parents unknowingly placing their children in harms way with sometimes disastrous, if not fatal results.
A Case of Poisoning in London
A London Times article of October 5, 1997 reported, “Alison and Keith Thomson from Carlisle started treating their three boys with the delousing lotion Derbac-M after an outbreak of nits at their local primary school last year. ‘We kept treating them for about three or four months because they kept getting re-infected,’ said Allison. ‘I asked the doctor if it was okay to keep using it, and he said it was fine.’ Just before Christmas Paul, 6, developed flu-like symptoms. He became lethargic and his personality changed. By Christmas he had become incontinent and could hardly walk. Doctors have said a possible cause is [organophoaphates] poisoning.”
In that same article, Dr. Vyvyan Howard, senior lecturer in fetal and infant toxio-pathology at the University of Liverpool verified that possibility and added, “I have used these lotions [head lice treatments containing pesticides] myself in the past but knowing what I do now, I would never dream of using them again on my children.”7
Lindane Reportedly Causes Seizures
In the U.S., the National Pediculosis Association (NPA), a non-profit health education agency, received within a two year period, over 1100 reports of the harmful side effects of head lice treatments containing pesticides. 500 of those reports related specifically to Lindane, used in the head lice preparation most commonly known as Kwell®. According to Steven Pray, Professor of Nonprescription Products and Devices at Southwestern Oklahoma State University, “We have tragic histories of children who experienced the same ill effects intended for the lice.”
One serious problem from lindane was reported in the Ladies’ Home Journal, “William Carpenter, an Albuquerque, New Mexico, attorney represented the family of a healthy nine-year old who was treated for head lice in 1986 upon the recommendation of their physician. The child did not have head lice; her baby brother did, but treatment for the whole family was recommended. The child used the shampoo [containing lindane] in the shower, followed by a cream rinse, and suffered a seizure just hours after the one application. She suffers from brain damage and permanent seizure disorder to this day.”8
After evaluating NPA’s reports to the FDA’s Medical Watch Program, the FDA now warns that pregnant women and infants should not use lindane and that it should only be used as a last resort after all other available treatments have been tried. This same drug is identified by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry of the U.S. Department of Health Services as a hazardous substance and is banned in 18 other countries while being highly restricted in 10 others. Despite all this, nearly two million lindane prescriptions are still filled each year in the U.S.10
Testimonial Evidence That Certain Oils Kill Head Lice
If the available products are toxic to children and ineffective, what then can parents do to fight off these pesky bugs? A possible answer may be found at your health food store. Mothers, school nurses, some public health officials and even researchers are providing testimonials that vegetable oils (such as olive and coconut oils) and some essential oils (such as lavender and anise) are killing head lice and their nits.
For instance, The Nonits Program which contains coconut oil, olive oil and essential oils such as lavender oil received this commendation from Cheryl Hauser, Public Health Nurse for the Perry County Health Department. ” We have had very good results with Nonits. We have supplied schools with Nonits and all the students that have used this product have not needed any followup as the Nonits was successful at clearing their head lice.”11 This and other anecdotal evidence seems to support the early research findings.
Early Research Evidence for Non-toxic Head Lice Treatments
There is a large body of research evidence that long chain fatty acid oils such as coconut and olive oil kill soft-bodied insects (like head lice) on animals.12 However, research is just beginning for head lice on humans.
One informal sample test was performed by Richard Pollack, Ph.D. at Harvard’s School of Public Health. During this test, Pollack submerged six head lice in olive oil for one hour while holding another six lice as controls. After that hour, three were still alive; the other three were dead. After the three remaining live head lice were submerged for another hour, all the lice were dead.
Clearly this indicates that olive oil can kill head lice. However, Pollack is quick to state that additional testing is warranted before coming to any further conclusions. Although Pollack has received a fewer number of calls from people saying that olive oil was ineffective during their head lice infestation, he has also had dozens of phone calls from people saying that olive oil cured their head lice infestation.13
In addition, five Israeli studies were performed upon a product called Chick-Chack in Israel (marketed under the name of HairClear 1-2-3 in the U.S.) made of coconut oil, isopropyl alcohol and two essential oils. Researchers reported that the solution created a synergistic combination that effectively killed all the head lice and about half of the nits.14
A Parent’s Choice: Toxic or Non-toxic Treatments
As new head lice treatments using these non-toxic oils hit the market, they will be followed closely with clinical trials to support their effectiveness. Today, there are several clinical trials testing these treatments that are already in progress. Until these results are public, parents must make a choice: to treat their children with lesser known, non-toxic head lice treatments which have some evidence of efficacy and pose no threat to their children; or to treat their children with well known head lice products which are clearly not effective and contain pesticides which do poison children.
Pesticide-Free Products & Treatments For Head Lice Infestation
Nonits®, developed by Changes and Company, is a new product which effectively eliminates head lice infestation through an olive oil based solution and a coconut oil based shampoo. As the Harvard School of Public Health test indicates, the olive oil in Nonits® controls head lice. In addition, essential oils, including lavender and tea tree oil, have been added to prevent reinfestation, promote healing, as well as provide a pleasant fragrance that children like.
The Nonits® package comes with a finely tooled metal tooth comb specifically designed for manually removing nits and lice, an 8 oz. bottle of treatment solution as well as an 8 oz. bottle of head lice shampoo. With this 16 ounce package, a family can be completely treated for $24.95. Nonits is recommended by the New York Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides (NYCAP).
Hair Clear 1-2-3 by Quantum uses coconut oil, isopropyl alcohol, ylang ylang oil and anise oil to fight head lice. One ounce size sells for $16.95 and provides two full treatments. The two ounce size sells for $24.95 and provides four full treatments. Each size includes a metal lice comb.
LiceMeister developed by National Pediculosis Association is a uniquely tooled metal lice comb which the NPA says makes lice and nit removal easier, passes through hair without pulling or tearing, collects lice and nits as it goes, enables parents to screen regularly and detect head lice and their nits as early as possible. The LiceMeister sells for $14.95.
Clear ® Total Lice Elimination System is advertised as a non-toxic head lice treatment which contains a natural extract of chrysanthemum flowers. However, according to the New York Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides (NYCAP), the chrysanthemum extract (pyrethrum), even in a natural form, is a pesticide with moderate to high oral toxicity that may cause asthmatic reactions and liver damage and should not be considered “non-toxic.”15
Herbal Recipe, this home-made treatment can be made in the privacy of your own kitchen by combining 2 ounces of vegetable oil, 20 drops of tea tree oil and 10 drops of the following essential oils: rosemary, lavender, and lemon. Dr. Andrew Weil recommends this combination suggesting, “Do a skin test on the inside of the elbow first, and wait several hours to make sure the strong oils don’t irritate the skin. Leave the mixture on the infected head under a towel for an hour, then shampoo. You’ll probably have to repeat this at least once to get rid of the next batch of hatched lice.”
How to Tell If Your Child is Infested
The following symptoms will be present if your child is infested with head lice:
- Excessive head scratching
- Sores on the scalp from lice
- Red or black gritty fecal specks on collars, back or pillows
- Adult lice in hair, eyebrows or eye lashes
- Nits attached to the hair.
If your child does have head lice, don’t panic. It’s inaccurate to assume that head lice like dirty heads–in fact, there is evidence that lice actually prefer clean hair. And contrary to popular belief, children of the rich are just as likely to have head lice as children of the poor. The presence of head lice does not indicate poor hygiene. Unfortunately, routine bathing and shampooing will neither prevent nor eliminate head lice problems.
People become infested by head lice when they have had direct contact with an infested person, or used brushes, combs, hats, scarves, coats, bedding, towels, or upholstered furniture which are infested. In addition, since only humans can be infested with head lice, you can’t get them from pets or wildlife.
What To Do If Your Child Has Head Lice
When you discover the presence of head lice, the best way to control them is to not only clean with solutions that are lethal to lice and safe for you and your child, but to do some manual nit-picking. According to parasitologist and lice expert Dr. Robert Dalgleish, “the manual or mechanical removal of lice and nits from the hair is crucial no matter what treatment regimen is chosen.” Here are some suggestions:
Tips for the Successful Treatment of Head Lice
- Place towel under hair so that a portion of the towel is exposed beneath the end of the hair.
- After applying olive oil or coconut oil solution/shampoo to the scalp and hair for the length of time required, slot a metal lice comb at the roots of a lock of hair at a 45 degree angle with the curved side of the teeth toward the head. (Note: Plastic lice combs are ineffective.)
- Comb through each section of hair until you have combed the entire head. You should make at least thirty strokes during this process.
- Any lice will be pushed onto the back of the comb, get caught between the teeth or fall on the towel. Check the comb after each stroke and remove any lice or nits with hot water and a toothbrush.
- Use fingernails or tweezers to remove any nits missed by the comb or use safety scissors to snip out individual nit-bearing hairs.
- Repeat the procedure as needed.
Note: Lice are easier to see off the head rather than in the hair. Lice eggs or nits are glued firmly to the hair strands, often near the roots. If you see white particles near hair but not attached, they are probably dandruff –not nits. White eggs are empty shells. Live eggs are difficult to see without good lighting.
Other Lice Busting Actions to Do
Since head lice cannot live without a human host, cleaning everything in your home can be a waste of time and energy. According to the NPA, your energy is better spent manually combing out lice and nits. Here are some home care actions worth doing:
- Wash all linens and dry on high heat in a dryer.
- Soak all barrettes, brushes and hair combs for ten minutes.
- Check coat collars, hood and scarves for lice and nits.
- Never use lice sprays! Carpets and sofas and chairs should be vacuumed every day until the infestation is over.
When children are young and tend to wrestle and hug and tumble together, the transmission of head lice during school hours is almost inevitable.
Here are some other steps to consider:
- Make sure your children don’t share pillows, hats, combs and hairbrushes with other children.
- Wash linens often.
- Check often for head lice on all members of the family.
Sources for Additional Information
If you have further questions about head lice and the present epidemic, these are some good sources to update yourself on the latest info about head lice and recommendations for products.
Bio Integral Resource Center (BIRC)
754 Washington Street
Eugene, Oregon 97401
Harvard School of Public Health
77 Lewis Pasteur
National Pediculosis Association (NPA)
P.O. Box 610 189
Newton, Massachusetts 02161
New York Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides (NYCAP)
353 Hamilton Street
Albany, New York 12210
Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides (NCAP)
P.O. Box 1393
Eugene, Oregon 97440
Michael Alan Morton, Ph.D. is the Director, Homeless Services, Economic
Opportunity Commission (EOC) for San Luis Obispo County. He is also the co-author of Five Steps to Selecting the Best Alternative Medicine,(New World Library, 1997) and the founding president of the American Holistic Health Association.
- Chosidow, Oliver, et al., “Controlled study of malathion and d-phenothrin lotions for Pediculus humanus var capitis-infested school children” The Lancet, December 24, 1994, v344, n8939-4, p1724.
- “Health Alert”, Health News, February 1996, v14, n1, p7(1).
- “A Lousy, Nit-Picking Epidemic”, Time Magazine, January 12, 1998, v151, n1, p73
- “What’s the Best Treatment for Head Lice?”, Pediatric’s Report’s Child Health Newsletter, October 1993, v10, n8, p61(2).
- “Evaluation of treatments for head lice.” (adapted from the British Medical Journal 1995;311:604-8) (Tips from Other Journals), American Family Physician, Feb 1, 1996 v53, n2, p740(1).
- “Head Lice Getting Ahead of Treatment, Officials Fear”, I, April 12, 1997, p.1.
- “Head-lice Lotion Poses Health Risk to Children”, The London Times, October 5, 1997, p.3.
- Lyons, Paula, “The Most Dangerous Medicine”, Ladies’ Home Journal, June 1994.
- Snyder, Karyn, “As Children Return to School, Lice Are, Again, in the Spotlight”, Drug Topics, September 2, 1996 v140, n17, p68(2).
- “Safe Control of Head Lice”, NYCAP, p9.
- Changes and Company, Inc.
- “Managing Head lice With Least Toxic Methods”, Olkowski, William et. al., Spring 1991, Common Sence Pest Control Quarterly, v.7(2): p8-16.
- Richard J. Pollack. Personal Interview, January 12, 1998.
- Quantum, Inc.
- “Evaluating the Hazards of Pesticides”, Quick Solutions (NYCAP), October 1997, p10.