Are there really good natural solutions for head lice?
Nits, cooties, pediculosis humanus capitis, whatever you may know them as, all parents will agree that head lice are THE WORST!
Imagine the scenario; you’re lovingly combing out your child’s glorious hair, feeling those silky locks glide between your fingers and daydreaming of your child becoming the next cover star of Families Magazine, when you’re woken from your reverie by a cry of “Mum, my head itches!”
Oh, the horror!
Yes, you can hope it’s just a bit of dandruff or a mozzie bite, but if your child has recently returned to school there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to see some crawlers – the dreaded lice and nits! But if you not a fan of harsh chemical treatments and pesticides, how can you get rid of head lice the natural way? Well, before we get nit-picking over the details, let’s take a look at what we’re dealing with…
What are head lice?
Head lice are wingless blood-sucking bugs that crawl through the hair and draw blood from the scalp. The ones you see crawling (about the size of a sesame seed) are the lice, and the little bits glued to the hair are the eggs, otherwise known as nits – light for hatched, and darker when the resident is still at home. Head lice are highly contagious and notoriously difficult–but not impossible–to get rid of.
How do you catch head lice?
Contrary to common belief, HEAD LICE CAN’T JUMP! Neither can they fly. The most frequent way that head lice are transmitted is by close head-to-head contact – close enough for head lice to crawl from one head to another. Children are more at risk of catching head lice because they don’t have the same personal boundaries as adults, and will often put the heads together in play and friendship hugs.
Sharing headgear is probably the next most common way of catching head lice. Children commonly share hats, headbands, hairbrushes and headphones, and these are all places where head lice can find themselves stranded and looking for a fresh food supply.
How do you get rid of head lice?
This is the tricky bit. There are lots of chemical treatments available in pharmacies and supermarkets, and they all claim to work miracles, but harsh chemicals aren’t the ideal choice for everyone. Never fear; there are some scientifically backed – or at least scientifically merited – natural home based methods of head lice annihilation that are worth trying, and other ‘urban legend’ modes of head lice removal that are best avoided. We’ll start with the good stuff.
Scientifically proven natural solutions for head lice
Even the earliest humans did battle with head lice, but that’s small consolation to the parent tasked with head lice removal. Thankfully we have less hair nowadays than our cave-dwelling ancestors, and thousands of years worth of head lice removal experience to learn from. Unfortunately head lice have also evolved and learned to dodge our attempts to eradicate them like smallpox, but don’t despair! There are tried-and-tested methods out there that, with a little patience and effort, can see you ditch the head lice itch the natural way.
1. Nit Comb is the BEST natural solution for head lice
To be honest, if you’re patient enough, this one is fool proof and time proven – but you have to be thorough. Head lice combs are available in supermarkets and pharmacies, in metal and plastic, but it’s worth investing in a good metal one with fine teeth close together.
The nit comb works by trapping the lice between its teeth, and scraping the eggs (nits) from the hair strands.
If your child has long or curly hair, by all means brush it through first and enlist the help of hair conditioner, detangling spray, or natural oil like olive or coconut oil, and work out any knots from the bottom of the hair to the top. This will make it easier to get the nit comb through. Then get yourselves comfortable and settle yourselves in for a spot of thorough grooming.
The comb method is quite time consuming and, depending on the length of your child’s hair and your determination to get them all in one go, you may need to allow a couple of hours for a thorough removal. It’s a good idea to have some kitchen towel or tissues handy to wipe the comb between strokes (or a glass of vinegar to drown them in), and drape a cloth around your child’s shoulders to catch any lice you dislodge. Then, working in sections, simply comb through your child’s hair as thoroughly as you can, wiping the lice and nits from the comb (and crushing the little suckers) as you go. Head lice have a kind of sixth sense when you’re trying to get rid of them and have a few favourite hiding places; pay very close attention to the nape of the neck and behind the ears.
Nit comb is most effective on: both live lice and nits.
• Focus is required! If you have other children, enlist your partner or someone else to look after them while you treat each child.
• Distract a small or wriggly child with a favourite movie or TV show.
• Have snacks and drinks handy; you could be in it for the long haul!
• Get older children to practice their reading and read to you as you comb.
• Use the time wisely; practice times tables, the alphabet, sing songs – whatever is appropriate for your child’s age group.
Don’t forget to keep checking your child’s hair daily for several days after the initial treatment, and re-treat every couple of days as necessary. It takes around a week for nits to hatch, so missing any can lead to re-infestation. Wash bedding, towels and hats that your child has used (head lice can survive 24-48 hours off the host; long enough to lie in wait on a pillow for your child’s bedtime to roll around again) and treat siblings too.
2. Coconut Oil as a head lice remover
This one is not quite scientifically proven, but a host of mums and mummy bloggers swear by it, and scientific trials in the UK have shown it to be reasonably effective compared to certain traditional pesticides. The scientific thought behind this one is that the oil suffocates the lice and loosens the glue that sticks the nits to the hair.
To treat your child with coconut oil you simply lather it on right down to the roots, wrap the hair in an old towel, wait an hour or so for the lice to die, then comb out thoroughly with a lice comb. While coconut oil might smother the live lice, the unhatched lice are pretty safe in their eggs, so don’t skip the combing stage to get them out! The result (hopefully) after shampooing will be beautifully shiny nit-free hair, and a soothed scalp.
Coconut oil is most effective on: live lice; can loosen nits for easier removal.
Many parents swear by adding an extra element to their coconut oil to enhance efficacy. Try the following …
• Coconut oil and tea tree oil – a popular choice but use with caution: tea tree oil works like a pesticide in that it attacks the nervous system of the louse. Tea tree oil has also be known to trigger unpleasant side effects on people too, so only add a drop or two per 100ml of coconut oil.
• Coconut oil and apple cider vinegar – all vinegars (apple cider vinegar or white vinegar) can assist in dissolving the nit’s shell and loosening its glue, leaving it without the protection it needs to survive and hatch. Blend equal amounts with your coconut oil.
• Coconut oil and eucalyptus oil – eucalyptus oil is actually a poison. As with tea tree oil, use only a drop or two per 100ml of coconut oil.
• Coconut oil and lavender oil – apparently lice don’t like the smell of lavender (it’s an irritant to their breathing tubes) and will retreat from it.
• Coconut oil and lemon juice – like vinegar, concentrated lemon juice can dissolve the nit’s shell. Blend equal amounts with your coconut oil.
• You probably have these ingredients to hand in your pantry – no need to make a dash to the pharmacist!
• Your child’s hair will be super smooth and shiny.
• Who doesn’t love the smell of coconut oil!
• It’s pretty messy! A thorough combing will require an equally thorough shampooing to be sure all oils have been removed.
• You may need to re-treat every couple of days for any newly hatched nits.
• Essential oils may be natural, but that doesn’t mean they’re harmless to humans. Always read the safety precautions and do your own research before using essential oils, and never apply neat essential oils directly onto the skin unless the packaging says it’s safe to do so.
3. Using Apple Cider Vinegar on nits
If you don’t fancy all the mess involved with oils, try dousing your child’s hair in apple cider vinegar, or even just plain white vinegar. This one is best done over a sink or in the bath!
Pour sufficient apple cider vinegar over your child’s head to ensure ALL strands are coated from root to tip, taking care to AVOID GETTING VINEGAR IN THE EYES! Wait a while as it loosens the glue that holds the nits, then rinse and comb thoroughly.
There is no real science-backed evidence that apple cider vinegar kills live lice, but it can weaken the nit’s shell and loosen its glue, so it’s a good natural method to use in conjunction with nit combing and other treatments.
Apple Cider Vinegar is most effective on: nits; not so good at removing live lice.
• It’s cheap.
• If the scalp is already irritated or inflamed, vinegar can make the irritation worse. Use on undamaged skin only.
4. Vaseline (Petroleum Jelly) as a natural solutions for head lice
Because Vaseline is pretty greasy and hard to wash out, it hasn’t really found popularity as a natural head lice treatment, but that scientific boffins have had some success with Vaseline as a head lice treatment in clinical trials.
Vaseline works on live lice, and may have some effect on the nits too. The petroleum jelly coats and suffocates the live lice whilst also potentially dissolving and destroying nits. To use Vaseline as a head lice treatment it should be applied to dry hair. Coat the hair thoroughly and allow it to stay on the hair for a long time – several hours at least! You can wrap the hair in a shower cap if you choose but we don’t recommend that for small children or an overnight treatment because of the significant suffocation risk to the wearer.
Vaseline is notoriously difficult to wash out (this is a weekend treatment!). A mild dishwashing soap can help dissolve the Vaseline, followed by several thorough shampoos. You will still need to comb your child’s hair or use a vinegar wash for nit removal, and potentially re-treat after a few days for any newly hatched nits that you missed.
Vaseline is most effective on: live lice, potentially some effect on nits.
• Totally harmless to humans and safe for very small children and pregnant women.
• Because it is so messy and time consuming, this one’s probably better for use on short hairstyles.
5. Burn baby, burn! Blast those nits with heat!
Heated air has been shown to be highly effective in the treatment of live lice AND nits. The heat dehydrates the lice and their eggs, and scientists have even developed a special machine, the LouseBuster, to deliver just the right amount of hot air – at just the right temperature – to do the job. Can you DIY this at home? Maybe.
There’s no harm in trying to replicate the results with your own hairdryer, particularly if you have access to one of those old-fashioned ones that inflates a bag over your head, but there are risks involved. If you don’t have adjustable heat settings on your hair dryer, you may end up burning your child’s scalp. Likewise, if you focus the heat in one area for too long you could cause a significant injury. But if you’re confident your blow drying skills are on point, then it could be worth a shot after nit combing and shampooing out the treatments listed above.
Heat is most effective on: both live lice and nits.
• Risk of burn injury – take care!
For children old enough to sit still, treating nits with hair straighteners can be decidedly satisfying for parents!
The science behind this is obvious – you’re frying the little buggers! This isn’t particularly effective on live lice (they can move out of the way) but if you can get close enough to the scalp without causing injury to the child, then this is very effective on any live nits that you manage to trap between your hair straightener’s plates.
Parents who have used this method describe a hugely satisfying POP and sizzle as the nits are destroyed – great if you’re one of those people who love the Dr Pimple Popper videos! (Not so much if you’re squeamish…)
Straighteners are most effective on: nits; not so good at removing live lice.
• Risk of burn injury – take care!
Harmless – but not necessarily effective – natural head lice treatments
If you’re a social media user, or chat with other parents in the schoolyard, you may have come across some of these slightly whacky alternative methods for natural head lice removal. Yep, they may be harmless, but there are better uses for these natural solutions for head lice
6. Coca Cola as natural solutions for head lice
This one leapt aboard the urban legend train following the release of a meme in early 2016. Maybe it’s the acidity angle that they were going for here, or paralysing the lice in the sticky sugar content, but there’s no scientifically backed evidence that cola will have any effect on head lice whatsoever. Apparently, pouring a litre of full sugar coke over your head and allowing it to dry will kill lice.
Oh well, better over you than in you!
Most effective on: Toilets
7. Mayonnaise as natural solutions for head lice
Some people swear by mayonnaise as a natural solutions for head lice, and the principle behind it as a lice killer is the same as for coconut oil – it suffocates live lice. Any thick viscous liquid, like oil or petroleum jelly, will have some effect on the breathing capabilities and mobility of live lice, but the trouble with mayonnaise is that it’s often not quite oily enough. And even though mayonnaise contains vinegar or lemon juice, the concentration is not enough to loosen the bonds between the nit and the hair shaft.
Most effective on: Egg sandwiches.
8. Mouthwash as natural solutions for head lice
The Listerine Lice Killer myth has gained a life of its own recently; in fact, you could say it’s blown up like the ‘explosion in your mouth’ from Listerine’s advertising campaign, but there’s absolutely nothing in the ingredients list that could have an effect on head lice. Sure there’s alcohol, which could have a diuretic effect (see dehydration in the heat treatment above), and all that minty freshness could irritate their airways, but there are definitely more effective methods out there.
Most effective on: Do we really need to spell it out? *whispers H-A-L-I-T-O-S-I-S.
9. Vodka as natural solutions for head lice
Really? I’m not even going to go there.
Most effective on: restoring Mum’s sanity.
Definitely DO NOT try these not so natural head lice removal methods!
We know you can desperate, especially when your child suffers constant re-infestations of head lice and nits, but that’s when you call in the experts or speak to your doctor about a prescription medication for head lice (they exist but they’re for extreme cases and not frequently prescribed).
Some parents have become so desperate that they have resorted to other non-tested methods of head lice removal, but we cannot stress this enough – DO NOT USE THESE METHODS!
10. Frontline, and other flea and tick treatments
Frontline, and other common over-the-counter flea and tick treatments, are for the treatment of pets only. Animals have a different skin composition and pH to humans, and respond differently to the chemicals in these products. Point in case; tick treatments are safe for dogs, but toxic to cats – what damage can they do to humans?
Following a surge in reports of people treating head lice with Frontline, the Western Australian Department of Health issued this warning against using animal flea treatments on humans:
“The active ingredient in the products of concern is Fipronil. Fipronil is a phenylpyrazole insecticide and acts to block the normal functioning of the central nervous system in insects and also mammals. Fipronil has been reported as causing eye irritation, skin reactions, nausea and nervous system effects in adults.”
Yes, over-the-counter flea and tick treatments may kill lice, and will continue to do so for a month or so while their chemicals are pounding through your child’s bloodstream, but you’d be putting the health of your child at significant risk too. Is it really worth the health of your child when a bit of extra effort and vigilance with the lice comb can get you the same result naturally?
Kerosene, petrol and other flammable liquids were frequently used as a head lice treatment back in our grandparents’ childhoods, but putting anything flammable on your child’s head is a VERY BAD IDEA! There are numerous cited cases of serious burns and even death resulting from fumes igniting. All it takes is a pilot light or gas stove igniting, or any flame to be struck, and the consequences can be devastating.
Please, not even as a last resort, DO NOT USE FLAMMABLE LIQUIDS TO TREAT HEAD LICE. Head lice might be annoying and unsightly, but they are ultimately harmless. If you are at your wit’s end with treating head lice, seek the help of your GP.
It’s true, some parents have suggested urine as an effective head lice treatment, but there is absolutely no scientific backing as to why this should work. Urine is sterile, basically pH neutral (though it can veer towards alkalinity and acidity depending on the individual), and … smelly.
Why would you want your child to go through the indignity of having urine poured over their head? … And whose urine do you use anyway?
No, this method, though it won’t do any harm beyond embarrassment and grossness, is definitely NOT recommended for the treatment of head lice.
Head lice preventatives
So now that you’ve got rid of them, how do you stop head lice coming back?
• Frequent checking and combing is one way. Head lice re-infestation is common, especially if you missed a few live nits during the initial treatment. Most treatments methods require re-treatment daily, or every couple of days until you are sure there are no more viable nits or lice.
• Lavender Oil in a spray is a pleasant deterrent to use. As mentioned above, lavender oil irritates the airways of head lice so they’ll always try to avoid it. Add a few drops of lavender oil to your shampoo or conditioner, or a detangling spray that you use daily, or add a few drops of lavender oil to a spray bottle of water to create your own DIY repellent spray.
• Avoid close contact with other heads that are infested, and don’t share hats or hair accessories.
• Wash bedding, towels, hairbrushes etc. that may have come into contact with nits, and tumble-dry where possible. Items like teddies that can’t be washed can be put into a sealed zip lock bag for 10 days to allow time for nits to hatch and die. Vacuum carpets and soft furnishings thoroughly for any nit-wielding strands of hair that may have fallen from the scalp.
• Keep long hair tightly braided so there’s less chance of it coming into contact with an infested head.
Check out or other article about the BEST head lice treatments for ALL the… errrr… BEST pharmacy bought head lice solutions! (So, not natural, but you know… still good!) CLICK HERE.
Myths and truths about head lice and nits
And finally, a few things it’s good to know and remember about your enemy…
• Head lice can’t jump. They don’t have the right sort of hind legs for jumping.
• Head lice can’t fly. They are wingless.
• Head lice can only crawl, but they can crawl very fast. The easiest way for them to move from head to head is by close contact during play.
• You can’t catch head lice from pets, neither can you pass head lice on to them. Head lice have evolved to only survive with a human blood food source.
• It’s not true that only dirty people get head lice. Head lice prefer clean hair because it’s easier to move through and bond their eggs too. (That doesn’t mean you should forego shampooing – dirty hair can be a home for lice too!)
• Head lice can survive off the scalp for around 24-48 hours. Be sure to treat bedding and hats at the same time as you treat the person.
• Head lice can’t swim, but you can’t easily drown them either. When showering or swimming, head lice will cling tightly to a hair strand and go into a state of suspended animation, meaning they can hold their breath for quite a long time!
• The life cycle of a head louse is around 45 days. The nit hatches 6-9 days after laying, and for the next seven days the louse is an immature nymph incapable of breeding. After that, and for the rest of their 30-day adult life, each louse can lay around 8 eggs per day! Those numbers can add up to a bad infestation head lice pretty quickly!
So, have we left you scratching your head, or did that clear things up for you? Let us know what works for you in the comments below.
This article featured in Issue 32 of our printed magazine, published February 2019.