Top ways to get rid of head lice
Head lice. Nits. Critters. Creepy crawlies. It’s enough to make your head itch even if you are not infested with the parasitic insects that feed on human blood and live close to the scalp. Nits are a fact of life around New Zealand schools and childcare centres, with many parents frustrated by the difficulty of getting rid of them.
Research at James Cook University has found that overtreatment with chemical insecticides has created resistance amongst New Zealand head lice, making them more difficult to treat and eradicate than in previous decades.
- What are nits and head lice
- How do you treat head lice effectively?
- How do you know if the head lice treatment has worked?
- The cheap and cheerful conditioner head lice cure
- 30 head lice cures suggested by real mums
- Nits are the term given to the eggs of head lice, which stick to the hair close to the scalp.
- An itchy scalp is the first symptom that we notice and a closer inspection may reveal live lice crawling close to the scalp or eggs (nits) stuck to the hair shaft.
- From the time when the egg is laid until the live insect dies is about 33-35 days, and during that time they go from nymph to mature louse.
- Head lice are transmitted by crawling from head to head or through sharing things like hairbrushes or hats - they can’t jump or fly, as the six-legged lice have no wings.
- Head lice mainly affect primary school age children, but can affect all age groups and are not related to bad health or hygiene habits.
There are all manner of head lice formulations and shampoos on the market, as well as electric combs, nit combs and so-called “natural” treatments which can still contain chemicals.
The most effective treatment recommended by James Cook University and Westmead Hospital is the “conditioner and comb” treatment, which involves combing conditioner through an infestation and dunking all lice and eggs in hot water to kill them.
Store-bought head lice shampoos must be applied to all parts of the hair, ideally with the same precision with which a hairdresser applies colour to hair, doing it in sections and applying it close to the scalp.
No head lice product or insecticide currently kills all eggs, but is likely to kill the live lice. The problem is that eggs hatch at various stages of the life cycle and reinfestation occurs if re-treatment is not performed.
A complete getting rid of headlice regime consists of two treatments , a week or so apart. The first treatment kills the climbers, and the second kills the juvenile lice hatched from the eggs over the intervening week.
In all headlice cases a second treatment is needed as no head lice treatment kills 100% of the eggs. So if the first treatment killed all climbers, at the second treatment one would expect only juveniles, hatched from eggs during the seven day period, and no adults. You must retreat on day 7 with the same product that worked on the first treatment
Westmead Hospital head lice expert Dr Cameron Webb says lice have claws on their legs, which make them perfect for holding on to human hair – fortunately the critters cannot live for more than one day off a human head.
That means that a head lice infestation does NOT require washing and cleaning around the house. No amount of laundry or house-cleaning will prevent another head lice infestation if you ignore treating the hair and scalp where the lice were originally found.
Also, head lice cannot be caught from dogs or cats, as they can only survive on a diet of human blood.
New Zealand has many different head lice products on the market, but only four active lice-killing compounds are used, which include:
- synthetic pyrethroids such as permethrin and bioallethrin
- organophosphates such as malathion or maldison
- herbal and essential oils
If you use one product that doesn't kill lice, look to see what the active compound is and then choose a product from another group.
- Cover your child's eyes while the treatment is being applied. Ask them to hold a towel against their eyes.
- Don’t use dangerous chemicals such as kerosene on children’s hair – it is not only flammable, but could seriously harm their eyes.
If a head lice shampoo or treatment is effective (ie. the lice are not resistant to it), James Cook University says the lice will be dead within 20 minutes. It recommends the following test to check whether a product you are using is resistant to lice.:
The head lice resistance test
Insecticide resistance in head lice is common, but it can be detected by assessing the effect of treatments. If live lice are found in the combings after treatment that has been correctly applied, the head lice are resistant to the product used, and possibly to any other product using the same active compound.
You can test if the lice are killed effectively by treatments with the 20-minute death check:
- After 20 minutes, use a fine tooth comb to comb the entire head of hair and then wipe the combings onto a tissue. This needs to be done at least twice and until little treatment formulation is visible on the hair.
- Examine the tissues and see if lice are alive or dead. Assess success of treatment and possible insecticide resistance.
- If all lice are dead, infestation is sensitive to product used.
- If some lice are inactive but alive, infestation may be partly resistant to treatment, but regard the louse population as "sensitive" if no lice are active.
- If some lice are active, infestation is resistant.
- For a sensitive population of head lice, the current treatment has been successful, but embryos in eggs will most likely survive. Retreat in 7 days using the same product.
- For resistant lice, the current treatment has been unsuccessful.
If lice are still present after two treatments, James Cook University recommends two options:
- Retreatment with same preparation a third time in seven days
- One week after the second treatment, put conditioner in the hair, comb with a fine tooth comb and check for lice.
- A good strategy to manage this situation is to use the conditioner and fine tooth comb technique between treatments. If conditioner is applied and then immediately combed out, the nymphs that have hatched will be removed. Do this at least twice in the 7 days between treatment 1 and treatment 2.
Some cases of head lice are horribly persistent and experts say the reasons for failure come down to one or several of the following:
- Inadequate application of the head lice product
- Lice are resistant to insecticide
- Failure to retreat to kill nymphs emerged from eggs
You can buy prepared chemical solutions in bottles, but with headlice resistance a common problem, university researchers and schools recommend the cheap conditioner and comb cure for headlice.
You need to know before you begin:
- Wear gloves.
- All combs should soak in hot water and disinfectant after use.
- Lice die in hot water at 60C in 30 seconds.
- Scrub the combs and check that they are clean before reuse.
- Try to use a very fine comb, and after use you will need to scrub it with an old hard toothbrush and perhaps a pin or dental floss used to remove eggs caught in the base of the comb. Check in good light that the job is done properly.
It does need to be followed precisely to be effective:
- Apply plain white conditioner liberally to dry hair.
- Cover scalp to the ends of the hair.
- De-tangle hair with regular comb – if you do it with the nit comb straight away, your child will squeal and never co-operate again!
- Leave conditioner in hair for five minutes
- Separate hair into sections.
- Comb through with the fine comb.
- Wipe the conditioner from the comb onto a tissue and look for lice and eggs (nits).
- Remove all nits to assure total lice treatment.
- Rinse conditioner from hair and clean the fine comb in accordance with instructions above.
- Repeat this if active cases of head lice reappear. They do come back! Check your child’s hair regularly.
Please take the following suggestions for what they are – suggestions and ideas! None of them are scientifically tested and proven and this does not constitute medical advice. It’s just a great selection of anecdotal tips and tricks to beat head lice once and for all.
“The parents of our school recently organised a day where we mums helped every student be done with a headlice comb and conditioner. We all signed a permission note and it was such an effective solution to the problem at school. Prevention is better than treatment.”
“Ours was an 18 month ongoing battle. I have tried literally every product on the market from herbal, natural, chemical, homeopathic and even burning the buggers with a hair straightener. In the end, we discovered that our seven year old daughter was collecting them from a friend at school. It is only since the school has not allowed the friend to attend that the problem is rectified. I am now partial to the "wet comb" method, where as the name says, you just comb through freshly washed wet hair with a leave-in conditioner sprayed on it. I have spent over $900 on lice remedies, and none worked better than this, so why spend more?”
“My best friend gave me her mum's concoction for dealing with these nasties and I swear by it!
Mix tea-tree and eucalyptus oils with men's hair tonic (a clear liquid they used to comb through their hair before brylcreem, it’s available at the chemist) and rub into the whole scalp. Leave it on overnight then wash out the next day. Weekends are ideal! Unlike the chemical preps it doesn't smell awful or burn the scalp. After the hair is washed, liberally douse the scalp and hair with white conditioner and in the sunlight repeatedly comb entire mop of hair with a lice comb to easily remove the deceased and eggs. I have tried all the usual preps from the chemist and supermarkets - even the expensive ones at hairdressers, none worked as well or simply.”
“Working in childcare, I have also found that using nit combs without any product - just on dry hair - also seems to work a treat as the conditioner was allowing the buggers to get all slimy and slip through the teeth of the comb. As long as it is done everyday to get all the new ones as they hatch, this has worked an absolute treat. I have even used this method successfully on myself as the products were too overpowering while I suffered morning sickness skin allergies from any tea tree oil products.”
“I can remember when I was a kid, mum used to rinse our hair once a week with white vinegar. She would mix one cup of vinegar to two litres of water, wash hair as normal and just before you got out the shower or bath mum would tip this smelly mix over our heads. I did this for my older two sons and only ever had head lice hit the house once through their entire schooling. I think it’s something about the nits not liking the smell of vinegar so they jump straight off - it worked for me as a kid and it worked for my kids.”
“Have tried everything and anything and without fail, the next week we start all over again. Have gotten to the point where I almost seriously considered shaving my daughters head!!! Needless to say she was horrified by the idea and never complains when it’s time to treat her hair anymore...”
“We have not had a bout of nits in approximately two-and-a-half years and I put this down to using a spray bottle filled with water and a teaspoon of tea tree oil daily. I have to spray my daughter’s hair every day any way to brush out the knots. My little lady is a total fashionista and loves to have her hair straightened regularly! So I totally agree that using a hair straightener helps. I have always thought it helped keep them away but had not heard of anyone else with the same thoughts.”
“I found using all those harsh shampoos eventually didn't work. My daughter always had nits no matter what she was treated with but now she is lice-free. You need to treat and then treat again in seven days and repeat if you still have them. I made up my own formula and it seems to work a treat – I spray a mix of a little eucalyptus oil and tree tea oil combined with water and conditioner every morning before school and it seems to keep them away. All I use to comb her hair out is a little olive oil and conditioner you will find if you use olive oil the lice eggs will be easier to come out.”
“I am pleased to see that I am not the only one that has problems with these horrible pests. I now only wash the kids hair twice a week and spray them with tea tree oil and water before they leave for school and when they get home, I have also added tea tree to their conditioner - so far so good. No nits this term.”
“I've used about nine products and have found that just conditioner and brushing through every day works just as well. I put tea tree oil in a spray bottle and spray my daughter’s hair with it every morning. You can also just add the tea tree oil to baby oil and run it through her hair. She goes to school smelling like a koala bear, but if I can get rid of those little suckers, I'm a happier mum.”
“I struggled with this for months last year. One thing I have found that is absolutely sensational (after you have done the treatments and pulled out the eggs), is to run your child’s hair through with hair straighteners. These are so hot that they tend to get to any eggs left over and scorch the life out of them. I did this with my daughter over a period of two or three days, and we never got them back. This was after a series of five ongoing episodes - I obviously didn't get them all the first time around.”
“I find a mixture of 1 tsp of tea tree oil, 1 tsp eucalyptus oil and white conditioner (to bulk out the oils) works well. Once I've got my mixture right through the dry hair, I wrap the whole lot up in a shower cap for at least an hour and then wash out and comb, comb, comb - though I never use a metal comb as these seem to pull out as much hair as you get the comb through. The added bonus of this mixture is that it makes the house smell quite nice too.”
“Hair spray! I spray my daughters hair before they go to school every morning and I reckon it keeps the nits from sticking – and it’s much easier than nit treatments.”
“I have worked in child care for over 20 years and every time I see a child scratching, I start scratching. It's one of the "yucky" things about my job, having to call a parent to come and collect their child because I think their child has nits. A few years ago I was a helper in my daughter’s classroom, and I observed a small group a children playing a game on the floor. I was horrified to see that each time that they bent forward to play the game, the ponytails and plaits all swung to the middle and connected. I could see how the nits could so easily be spread, even when the hair was tied up. So my suggestion to all is to tie back the hair so that it can't swing forward, especially as many of children's classroom activities are down on the floor.”
“They tell you will find the nits near the scalp but this is not true if you have a kid with waves or curls - the lice love to hide half way along the hair. We have tried everything from electronic combs to kero. Tea tree oil is good with a mild dose of nits.. We do use moov because I love the smell and it seems to work. The best way to keep nits at bay is a metal flea comb. We have one with two sets of teeth and named it Jaws. A fine flea comb from the pet shop costs around $14 and I run it through my daughters hair every night after school to see what crawlies she has bought home. I have found the hairspray doesn’t work but if you can keep on top with regular nit checks it’s the best way.”
“We had nits on and off for two years about and we tried all the chemist stuff but nothing worked until eucalyptus - leave it in your hair for five minutes and wash out or put glad wrap around hair. This even seems to kill the eggs, but it has to be a strong dose. Conditioner also is good whilst the kids have a bath - just put it in and comb with a nit comb until all the nits come out in truck loads. My kids have nits all the time even though these treatments kill them, they seem to just rub heads again at school. I do the kids in the bath every two days, but you wouldn't think I did with the amount of nits they get. On school mornings, I also put the eucalyptus in their spray bottle to do their hair. The nits don't like the smell so don't jump onto their hair.”
“I fell in love with the conditioner treatment. A cheap no name conditioner, comb through and style hair as usual, then rinse out at night. What you may all notice is the conditioner coats the hair in a film that stops the nits from being able to grab hold of the hair.”
“A few years ago before my daughter even started school a mum told me to use Pantene on her hair to stop her getting head lice. Apparently Pantene puts a layer of silicone on the hair which in turn the head lice can't stick to or don't like. I told my sister about using Pantene about five years ago as she has two girls who were constantly getting head lice and she had tried anything and everything available to stop the little blighters, but to no avail. Since using Pantene both her girls have been head lice free. My daughter who is now seven and has quite long hair - I also tie it back every day for school as well - has never, " Touch Wood", had them even though many around her have. I don't know if it is from using Pantene but I'm certainly not going to change shampoo and conditioner to find out.”
“If there's one thing we should all do as mothers to control lice is tie our children's hair back if it's long enough. The two treatments I've heard about are conditioner (Pantene is one recommendation), and the few drops of tea tree oil in the water spray bottle. Spray each morning on the hair, tie it back, then use hairspray. I'll be trying that one in an attempt to keep our virginal heads nit free.”
“I use Moov and leave it on for as long as possible - about an hour – and supposedly you just wash it out. I then use any conditioner, tons of it so that combs just slide through, and get out as many nits as possible. Follow up a week later and make sure hats are washed weekly with the same stuff. Unless there's stray hairs around I don't think clothes etc need to be washed overly but that's just what works for me! If it gets any worse I'm also going to get them each a spare school hat and alternate every few days. Oh, and I agree the good metal toothed nit comb is the only one to bother with.”
“My daughter is the Cootie Queen! I have been battling with these rotten nits for ages. The best treatment I have found is to use Tea Tree Shampoo & Conditioner, Tea Tree Nit Treatment (leave in for a minimum of 20minutes - I do half an hour). Also spray their hair with diluted tea tree oil. I HATE NITS!!!”
“Lareve 100% oils tea-tree rose lavender about 6 drops of each mixed in a spritzer bottle and sprayed on before school each morning. My daughter had such a bad allergic reaction to shop bought nit treatments that I went natural. I know the Lareve is expensive but you use so little.”
“To get rid of them I first bought a natural solution head lice treatment, which had to be left on for four hours (a fact which I realised after I got home!). You can imagine my daughter’s disgust at having the stuff in her hair that long! Needless to say we washed it out early. I then used a plastic nit comb to go over her whole head (for at least 5 minutes of combing, according to the manufacturers of the nit solution). I found about 15 dead lice in her hair. I also managed to comb out a few eggs. I then washed all of her bedding, hats and pyjamas in warm water and we repeated the whole process again with a different chemical solution that only took 10 minutes around nine days later. So far so good, but I have also turned into a mad woman checking her hair at every opportunity! My best tips are: get a fast-acting nit solution or a bottle of conditioner to kill the live lice to begin with. Treat the whole family at the same time. Get a plastic nit comb and comb wet hair after treatment, getting every nook and cranny by combing in different directions. Wash hats, bedding and pyjamas and anything else that may have been in contact with the scalp. Keep hair tied up and spray with leave in conditioner whenever possible if child is in a group or daycare situation as nits travel easily. Last but not least, pray that the nit gods are kind to you and the little buggers vanish!”
“I tried all sort of nit solutions on the market, but found the best thing was to use cheap hair conditioner. This suffocates the nits.”
“Gosh I spent a couple of hundreds of dollars last year on stupid nit treatments but the best thing was conditioner and a nit comb. I also have heard that nits/lice don't like the heat so I wash everything then chuck it all in the dryer. I also chuck the pillows in there (not sure if it works, but it puts me at ease) and make up this tea tree oil and lavender water spray to spray on their hair.”
“Apparently, there's no particular need for the chemical treatments. Just grab a cheapo bottle of conditioner and get the hair nice and lathered with it. Then use a nit comb to run through every strand of hair. Do it until you don't find any more nits. That's what my mum eventually did, and it worked - after trying every chemical in the chemist AND kerosene! Boy, didn't I enjoy stinking like a kero heater that week at school.”
“I always spray my sons hair with a leave-in conditioner of a morning when we comb it, so I’m hoping we can avoid the little blitters for good! I have heard a water/tea tree mix sprayed in the hair will keep them away too?? Otherwise to treat them I have been told any conditioner will work combed through the hair.”
“I was told to mix tea tree oil and vinegar together and spray that through hair twice a week and about half an hour before they wash their hair. It seems to work. My poor five year old got them so bad last year we had to give her a number one crew cut.”
“My daughter and I had been battling nits for years until last year when I finally got the mobile lice treatment people. They gave me some fantastic advice that has had us nit-free for nearly a whole year! Firstly we were told every single strand of hair needs to be treated, so I started using those hair clippie thingies that hairdressers use, as well as an applicator bottle (like the type when you are dying your hair) and smothered the scalp with the treatment, then rubbed it through the hair before leaving the cap on. After the ten minutes is up, rinse treatment out and shampoo hair but don't condition it. Secondly we were told that re-treatment is actually far more effective if done TEN days after the first treatment instead of the seven days that most bottles say. Apparently this gives any eggs that have been missed time to hatch without reaching the breeding stage. This helps rid you of the lice/nit cycle that is the main reason lice are so danged hard to get rid of! Thirdly, we were advised to use the plastic nit combs instead of the metal ones as they are far more effective, pick up more eggs and are less painful for the kiddies. I found some at the Chemist Warehouse and believe that most pharmacists have them now. I should also note here that it cut back the amount of time it took to comb the little beggars out of their hair by HOURS using the plastic combs! Fourthly, we were told to do a routine "lice check" once a week - shampoo and condition, then run the plastic comb through your child's hair while the conditioner is still in there to pick up any eggs that may have been missed, or any signs of a new infestation.”
“We use a Robi-comb on my step-kids and ourselves. It’s good for checking for head lice. They are a bit expensive, at around $45 from the chemist I think), but we got one a couple of years ago when the kids were coming over with headlice just about every fortnight. The comb is good for picking up the lice and will zap and kill the larger ones. When we have a big infestation I usually give the kids a treatment because I like to be sure to get all the really tiny ones as well. The Robi-comb is also handy because you can easily check your own hair with it.”
“My daughter got them for almost the first three months of school last year and I was ready to shave her head at the end of it. The only advice I can give though, is don't use the same product too often, apparently, the lice can get used to it. Also, in the end, I filled a spray bottle with water and some eucalyptus and citronella oil, and sprayed her hair every morning with it. They don't like hair spray or gel either. Also, I went to the chemist and discreetly asked if they could check my hair (very embarrassing,but I had to know), they were happy to help, and took me into a room so no one else could see.”
“I swear by the Robi-comb too, they run on a AA battery and 'zap' the little suckers. No bother with shampoos or the nits (eggs) hatching later. Just comb it through their hair morning and night when there's an infestation, just to be sure you get them all. And I used to do it about once a week when there wasn't just for my own satisfaction.”
“I am quite patient when it comes to head lice. I just use a pair of tweezers and crack each and every egg that I see and squish each "bug" that I find. (This can get gross!!) Just pop kids in the shower and wash their hair as per usual. Don''t use your good tweezers for this or ones from your first aid box. Buy a pair of cheapies. And keep them as your nit busters!!!”
“I tried a lot of products but found the best is conditioner with eucalyptus drops and tea tree oil drops. Combing that through has finally got rid of the little buggers. I also heard that hair straighteners work, something about the heat.”
“ The best thing I've found for ridding lice is castor oil. Coat hair and cover with disposable shower cap and leave on over night. In the morning, put shampoo on hair before you wet it! Wash twice so the castor oil is gone and so are lice. I do comb hair carefully to be sure there aren't any nits left. Hair is conditioned and looks great.”
“I got rid of them was to wash her hair twice a day and rinse with vinegar. The lice find it hard to eggs to stick on hair. You still need to pick through the hair and dispose of eggs. I found the best way was to stick them on maskingtape, seal them in a plastic bag and put them in the garbage.”
“We comb, comb, comb!! We try to comb at night, because it seems easier to catch the live bugs at night since they are very light-sensitive - although artificial light seems better than natural light. We rinse the hair daily with an essential oil blend of lavender, eucalyptus, rosemary, peppermint and tea tree, and comb out every day, dipping the nit comb in vinegar --- vinegar won't kill the live lice but it does loosen the adhesive the eggs are attached to the hair with.
Find more information and related articles on head lice:
This article was created by Alex Brooks for Kidspot New Zealand, from sources including Kidspot.com.au, James Cook University and headlice.org.
Last revised: Monday, 8 August 2016
This article contains general information only and is not intended to replace advice from a qualified health professional.