Natural Treatments for Head Lice

Natural Treatments for Head Lice
Natural Treatments for Head Lice

How many of you feel itchy and start to scratch when you hear the words "head" and "lice" in the same sentence? I know I do! For several summers in a row, my oldest daughter came home from camp with lice. As if the thought of all those icky creatures crawling in my child’s hair wasn’t bad enough, I soon discovered that the vast majority of available over-the-counter and prescription products to treat lice were toxic.

Lice, while not desirable creatures, don’t carry disease and so they don’t cause any significant health problems (although there is a risk of infection if children scratch too much.) However, the treatments for head lice are another story.

Products such as A-200, Kwell, Nix, Ovide, Rid, and Pronto Plus contain neurotoxins, which are designed to attack the central nervous system of the lice and kill them. Imagine what these poisons can do to our children!

Pyrethrin, permethrin, lindane (which has been banned in 52 countries) and malathion are some commonly used neurotoxins in these products. Exposure to pyrethrin has been associated with rashes, asthma, and other breathing difficulties in children, and they also may disrupt endocrine function. Lindane exposure can cause seizures, lethargy, slurred speech, and stiff neck. Topical permethrin can cause burning, stinging, rash, redness, swelling, or tingling of the scalp.

Clearly these are not products I want to put on my child’s head! So I began my crusade to discover safe, natural treatments for head lice, as well as ways to prevent them in the first place.

Natural treatments for head lice

The first time I found out my daughter had lice I called in an expert to check her head-as well as the rest of my family's heads-so I would know what to look if or when it happened again. The expert took us outside and sat my daughter down on a chair and next to her she had a white bowl and paper towel. She separated her hair into sections and started to carefully check each section carefully. She showed me what the nits looked like, and had me remove them so i could learn how to do it myself (I was pretty g-r-o-s-s-e-d out the first time I did it, but now that I'm an expert I actually enjoy removing them…kinda strange, I know!).

Luckily there are lice clinics popping up around the country so if you have no interest in doing it yourself, you can visit a clinic near you and they can do the checking. This year my friend drove her kids from the camp bus directly to a lice clinic to check their heads before bringing them home! Pretty funny…and smart.

If you're up for the challenge to do it yourself, you can use your bare hands, or a nit comb Nits are tiny yellow, brown, or tan lice eggs that are typically found firmly attached to the hair shafts close to the scalp. A nit comb can help you find these eggs in your child’s hair.

Careful combing of your child’s hair actually does most of the necessary work to eliminate the lice. Here are some combing tips:

  • Depending on the length of your child’s hair, you may need to use some hair clips to help you separate areas of the head for combing.
  • Comb while working under either sunlight or an overhead lamp so you can see the scalp clearly.
  • Lice eggs glisten, and proper light will allow you to see the eggs, which you can then pull off with your hands or tweezers.
  • Rinse the comb often under hot water as you work.
  • When you are done combing, soak the lice comb in a 10 percent bleach solution, soak it in vinegar for 30 minutes, or boil it in water for 10 minutes.

Here are several natural treatment options you can try:

Comb, oil, and shampoo

  • Coat the hair with oil. Olive oil and almond oil are best, but do not use items such as petroleum jelly or mayonnaise, as they can be difficult to get out of the hair.
  • Some people prefer to coat the comb with the oil rather than coating the hair. The choice is up to you.
  • Carefully comb your child’s entire head, separating sections of hair as necessary.
  • When you are done combing, shampoo the hair, rinse, and shampoo again.
  • Repeat this entire process every night for one week to ten days.
  • For the following two weeks, comb your child’s hair every day with the lice comb to be sure the critters are gone.

Comb, Essential Oil, and Shampoo

  • Carefully comb your child’s hair with a lice comb, separating the hair into sections and picking out any eggs.
  • Prepare a mixture of base oil (e.g., olive, almond) and essential oil to be used on your child’s head. The mixture is composed of 2 ounces of base oil and 15 to 20 drops of your chosen essential oil. An option is to mix the essential oil with 4 ounces of rubbing alcohol.
  • In rare cases, kids are allergic to essential oils, so before you try this method, place a single drop of the essential oil on the back of your child’s hand. If he or she does not have an allergic reaction, they it is likely safe to use the oil.
  • The following essential oils have been shown to be effective in treating lice. Tea tree oil is the most effective, and the rest are in descending order of benefit. Tea tree, lavender, neem, clove, eucalyptus, aniseed, cinnamon leaf, red thyme, peppermint, and nutmeg.
  • Apply the essential oil mixture to your child’s scalp using cotton balls. Place a shower cap over the treated scalp and hair and leave it on overnight, for at least 8 hours, preferably longer. Since lice can live without breathing for 8 hours, leaving the shower cap on longer will help ensure you suffocate them. Nits, however, do not suffocate!
  • If you have used rubbing alcohol as your base, you can place the mixture in a spray bottle and spritz your child’s head until the hair is saturated. Apply a shower cap and leave it on overnight, for at least 8 hours.
  • At the end of 8 or more hours, comb your child’s hair with the lice comb.
  • Shampoo, rinse, and repeat.
  • For one week, comb your child’s hair every night with the lice comb.
  • As a preventive measure, you can use the alcohol and essential oil spray on your child’s hair once the lice are gone.

Vinegar, Oil, and Shampoo

  • Carefully comb your child’s hair with a lice comb, separating the hair into sections and picking out any eggs.
  • Rinse your child’s hair with apple cider vinegar. The vinegar helps loosen the nits.
  • Allow the vinegar to dry on the scalp and hair.
  • Once the hair is dry, coat it with olive or coconut oil. Place all the hair into a shower cap and keep the cap on for at least 8 hours, preferably longer.
  • Once the time is up, shampoo the hair to remove the oil or use a nit comb and then wash the hair. You may need to shampoo several times to remove the oil.
  • Because the oil will not suffocate nits, you will need to repeat the entire process once a week for three weeks. This will eliminate the ability of the lice to reproduce since they don’t lay eggs until they are 10 days old.

Vinegar, Oil, Salt, and Shampoo

  • A variation on the vinegar, oil, and shampoo approach is to add salt. The mixture consists of ¼ cup salt dissolved in ¼ cup warm apple cider vinegar that should be sprayed on your child’s hair until it is saturated. This combination should dehydrate and kill both adult lice and nits.
  • Allow the salt and vinegar mixture to remain on your child’s hair until the hair is dry.
  • Coat the hair with olive or coconut oil and cover the hair and scalp with a shower cap for at least 8 hours.
  • Comb the hair with the nit comb.
  • Wash the hair with shampoo, rinse, and repeat as necessary to remove the oil.
  • Comb your child’s hair every night with the nit comb for one week to ensure the lice are gone.

Read more about 13 reasons to avoid pesticide

Over-the-counter natural products

If you prefer to use a nontoxic, pesticide-free, over-the-counter product, there are several from which to choose. Follow the directions on the packages for best results.

  • Lice B Gone is a multi-enzyme shampoo made from natural plant sources and can be used by young kids and individuals who have asthma or allergies, according to the product label.
  • HairClean 1-2-3 is a spray that contains coconut oil, anise oil, ylang ylang oil, and isopropyl alcohol.
  • Lice R Gone is a shampoo product that contains purified water, anionic/nonionic surfactant blend, glycerin, enzymes, peppermint oil, and sodium borate. It is advertised as nontoxic, hypoallergenic, biodegradable, free of artificial and synthetic chemicals, and was not tested on animals.
  • ClearLice is a treatment program that includes shampoo, a laundry additive, and a household spray. Ingredients: enzyme proteins, neem oil, wrightia tinctoria, tea tree oil, acorus calamus, peppermint oil, cocos nucifera, natrum muriaticum, deionized water and natural surfactants. No sodium laurel sulfates or pesticides are used.

Other tips

  • Impress upon your children not to share items such as hair clips and hair ties, hats, brushes, and combs.
  • When away at camp or sleepovers, children should not share their pillows or bedclothes.
  • Children with long hair should wear it up (ponytails are great).
  • If your child sleeps with a favorite stuffed toy, put it in the dryer for 20 minutes once a week as a precaution.
  • Wash and dry any towels you use while trying to eliminate head lice and vacuum the area around where you do the combing. The sheets, and pillowcases your child slept on should be placed in the dryer for at least 20 minutes.

Image via Philippe Put

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Andrea Donsky, B. COMM is an international TV Health Expert, Best Selling Author, Nutritionist Podcast Host, and Founder of NaturallySavvy.com—a recipient of Healthline’s Best Healthy Living Blogs for 2019. As a pioneer and visionary in the health food industry, Andrea’s passion is to inspire people to make healthier choices. Andrea has combined her background and expertise as both a Registered Holistic Nutritionist and an entrepreneur ("She Boss!") to educate the public on living a healthy lifestyle through the creation of her businesses, books, articles, podcasts, videos, talks, and TV and radio media appearances. Andrea founded Naturally Savvy Media Inc. in 2007 in order to share her passion for healthy living, and love for natural products and companies. Among her numerous publications, Andrea co-authored Unjunk your Junk Food published by Simon and Schuster, a book that journalist, author and mother Maria Shriver endorsed: “Unjunk Your Junk Food has certainly made me more aware about the food that my children eat and the effects it has on our body and mind."</P. Andrea also co-authored two e-books entitled Label Lessons: Your Guide To A Healthy Shopping Cart, and Label Lessons: Unjunk Your Kid’s Lunch Box.