When your child comes home with head lice, you want to take care of it as quickly and as effectively as possible. But if some of the chemicals in over-the-counter or prescription head lice medications leave you scratching your own head, you’re not alone.
Fortunately, there are some natural, home remedies for head lice that actually are effective. It’s definitely worth trying, before slathering your child’s scalp in pesticides. (Especially because many strains of lice have developed a resistance to the active chemicals in over-the-counter head lice treatments anyway.)
On the other hand, there are also some common home remedies that are nothing more than old wives tales. If you’re going to try a home remedy for lice, it’s important to know which ones actually work and how best to use them.
Wet-Combing for Lice Treatment
Wet-combing is probably the most traditional treatment for head lice. Simply wet the hair, apply a conditioner, and run a special lice comb through the hair in very thin sections. You really want the comb to touch each individual hair.
- Wet hair is easier to partition and work with, and it makes white and off-white lice and nits easier to see.
- Note that lice combs are not normal, fine-toothed combs. They are smaller and specially designed to scrape each individual hair for lice and nits.
- Many parents also find it helpful to use a small magnifying glass.
The challenge with wet-combing is that it is very time-intensive. Definitely plan to have some sort of entertainment for the child, but even that may not be enough for young or active children.
After combing the entire head, wash and rinse the hair. You may need to repeat the process in about a week if every nit was not removed.
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Smothering Head Lice
Smothering methods for head lice treatment use additional oils or creams to suffocate head lice before combing. The oils kill or stun the lice, making them easier to catch with a lice comb and less of a threat if you miss a few (hopefully dead ones).
To treat head lice with a smothering oil, coat the hair in oil, and comb thoroughly with a lice comb.
It’s important to note that while some of these smothering oils have proven effective, it is still the comb that is actually removing the lice. It’s not enough to simply smother the scalp and then wash the oil away. Even oils that have been proven effective in killing head lice don’t kill 100% of the insects and none are effective against nits.
Coconut oil is gentle and frequently used on skin and hair for other purposes, in addition to head lice removal. In at least one study, researchers compared several oils to OTC lice treatments, and coconut oil was the most effective: 80% of the lice were dead within four hours of application.
The main challenge with coconut oil is still the time commitment. Some recommend letting the coconut oil sit on the hair before combing, which adds hours to an already very long process. Additionally, coconut oil will not be an option for someone with coconut allergies.
Olive oil is similarly gentle on skin and readily available at any grocery store. Another study of head lice treatment options among children noted that olive oil was one of the most effective home remedies.
In addition to lengthening the process, olive oil has not been proven to kill nits. So even the most effective treatment will need to be repeated in seven days when the lice eggs hatch.
Many people naturally assume that petroleum jelly will smother and suffocate lice and nits because it’s so thick and oily, but this has not been proven. Petroleum jelly might kill lice, and maybe a small percentage of nits, but the evidence is not conclusive.
More importantly, petroleum jelly is nearly impossible to wash out of hair. It will take several washes—usually with a grease-cutting dish soap—to remove it from hair. It’s very messy and it adds a lot of time to the process of lice removal. Most experts urge against using petroleum jelly to smother head lice.
The use of mayonnaise to smother head lice has only ever been proven ineffective. It is a common misunderstanding, because mayonnaise is oil-based and very thick, but there’s no evidence to support its use as a home head lice treatment.
Further, similarly to petroleum jelly, it’s extremely difficult to wash out of hair.
Essential Oils for Head Lice
Several essential oils have been tested and proven effective as head lice treatments. The three most effective are tea tree oil, anise oil, and rosemary oil.
To use essential oils as a home remedy for head lice, the oil needs to be diluted, applied to the head overnight (for at least 12 hours), and then the hair combed—as with wet-combing or smothering. The essential oils will kill a good percentage of the lice, but the rest (and the nits) still need to be removed with a lice comb.
When using essential oils, always remember to dilute and test them first—especially on children. Some oils that don’t bother most adults can still be harsh on a kid’s sensitive skin.
Add about 15 drops of essential oil for every two ounces of a carrier oil, and dab a small drop onto the back of your child’s hand. If there is no reaction, apply the diluted oil to the scalp and hair for 12 hours. This is easiest to do overnight, but remember:
- Do not use a favorite pillow case, as it will become oily and possibly stain.
- Do not cover the hair with a bag or cloth. These coverings can become loose in the night and present a suffocation hazard.
After 12 hours, use a lice comb to work through the hair, removing lice and nits.
Tea Tree Oil
Tea tree oil is one of the best essential oils to use in home remedies for head lice. In early studies, it demonstrated similar success rates as head lice medication in killing adult lice and lice nymphs.
Other studies, however, have found tea tree oil less effective, and most medical professionals are still withholding a verdict until greater research can be completed.
The challenge with tea tree oil, in addition to adding 12 hours to an already very long combing process, is that it can be an irritant to some individuals. It may cause a rash or itchiness of its own.
Challenge: Time-consuming, possible skin irritant
Anise oil has been tested as a natural head lice treatment, mostly in conjunction with olive oil. At least one study highlighted anise oil as one of the most effective essential oils for killing adult lice, and it was found most effective when combined with an olive oil smothering treatment.
Effective? Probably effective against adult lice
Rosemary oil is one of the most commonly used essential oils for in-home head lice treatments, because it is effective and it helps sooth itchy skin. It may even be effective in preventing lice, when used as part of a regular hair-care routine.
At least one study concluded that rosemary oil was more effective than the active ingredients in conventional head lice medication.
Does vinegar kill head lice?
Reports on the effectiveness of vinegar as a home remedy for head lice are mixed. Most experts agree that vinegar is not effective for killing adult lice, but it may be helpful for loosening the “glue” that keeps nits cemented to hair follicles.
This means vinegar might be a very valuable piece of a complete head lice treatment. Even the most effective medications, smothering agents, and essential oils are usually only proven against adult lice or nymphs. That’s why treatments need to be repeated after about one week—when nits that were not killed begin to hatch.
If vinegar can loosen nits, they become much easier to comb out, making the second generation (if there is one) much more manageable.
To use, mix equal parts apple cider vinegar and water. Pour or spray it completely over the hair and scalp, and let it rest for about 15 minutes before combing.
Effective? Probably effective for loosening nits
Challenge: Adds a little more time, not effective against live lice
Head Lice In-Home Vapor Treatment
The final option for getting rid of head lice at home, without chemicals or pesticides, is a vapor treatment. Head lice vapor treatments combine vinegar and proven essential oils in a vapor that can be safely and effectively applied to dry hair.
These dry, vapor treatments use only natural ingredients, have been scientifically proven effective, and only take 10 minutes. The Novokid system, for example, primarily uses vinegar to loosen nits and rosemary oil to kill adult and juvenile lice.
How to Clean House for Head Lice
If someone in the house has head lice, you do not need to deep clean every corner of the house or fumigate anything. Keep in mind:
- Head lice can only live off of a host for 48 hours.
- Head lice do not live on animals.
- Head lice do not jump or fly.
That means that while it is a good idea to clean up in the wake of a head lice diagnosis, you can limit your field of battle to items that have come in direct contact with the patient’s head or hair in the past 48 hours. This might include:
- Pillows and bedding
- Coats and clothing
- Hats or other hair accessories
- Brushes and combs
- Other furniture
Anything that can be laundered should go in the washing machine—preferably with hot water. Other items can be tossed in the dryer on a high-heat setting for at least 30 minutes, soaked in a solution of bleach and water, or wrapped in plastic for 48 hours.
How to Get Rid of Lice at Home
Children’s skin is especially sensitive and vulnerable to chemicals and pesticides, and—fortunately—you really don’t need them (in most cases) to treat head lice at home. It is important, however, to understand which natural lice treatments have proven effective and which are just rumors.
If you’re facing a case of head lice, find a solution that’s proven effective, won’t trigger allergies or sensitivities in your child, and that fits in your schedule.
And if you’re not currently facing a case of head lice, now is the best time to decide on a treatment option. When head lice comes home, you don’t want to make an emergency trip to the grocery store or pharmacy to get what you need. Make sure you have the best in-home treatment option on-hand and ready when you need it.