Introduction: Loving Lice, or the Joy of Nit-picking

About: I am a paper engineer, writer, maker and chemist wannabe. In addition to pop-up cards I design and build furniture, lights, costumes or whatever I happen to need at the time. Lipstick, a mixing studio, all-pur…

It happened a few years ago, but the memory is still Technicolor bright.

My husband got the phone call all parents dread, and picked up our two boys from school immediately. I had no idea what had happened, so I was shocked when I arrived home to find all the members of my household, wet, buck naked, and each in very different states of mind. My husband was flustered, my elder son close to hysterics, and my younger boy was overjoyed, dancing around and singing. He couldn't care less about the special shampoo they all had to keep on their heads for ten minutes.

Pediculus humanus. Head lice.

Here I must admit to something shameful: I had been hoping this day would come, because there were various remedies I wanted to try out. So at first I was a little annoyed that my husband had already bought and applied medicated shampoo which contained pyrethrum extract (the same chemical ancient Roman soldiers rubbed on their heads) and piperonyl butoxide.

He was quickly forgiven: when you comb your child’s hair and the dandruff which falls out starts to scurry away, the last thing you want to do is to start blending a mild concoction of natural oils and herbs. All those dearly held principles about shielding your family from exposure to poisons? Gone! You will want to run out and buy anything and everything which will immediately kill, kill, KILL!

Still, just because my boys had already been treated with the standard insecticidal soap didn’t mean I couldn’t supplement with my own remedies.

Step 1: Neem Oil

I had some Neem oil, a dark greenish oil from India, which I’d bought to make some bug sun lotion, help relieve eczema symptoms and to make a bug spray for my plants. It repels insects but its strong garlicky smell repels most humans too, which is an advantage when you have a headful of lice. Close head to head contact should be avoided, so stinky hair is desirable. For the greater good of the community, you WANT your child to be a pariah.

But Neem does much more.

I was too impatient to mix it up with anything and just rubbed it pure right on both boys scalps. It was a bit itchy at first (it should normally be cut with another oil such as coconut or olive oil) but it went to work quickly: within 20 minutes, the nits, tiny little eggs which female lice glue to the bottom of the hair shaft, were sliding off instead of needing to be yanked out with the hair. By the next day the oil had completely cleared all the real dandruff away, which made it much easier to look for the stray louse, the tiny nits and all the teenage nymphs and nymphettes.

But there’s more! Neem doesn’t instantly kill bugs. It messes with their hormones, preventing them from moulting, which they need to do four times before they can reproduce at the grand old age of 8 to 9 days. This will keep them from making a comeback in case an egg or two escaped notice during the hours spent nit-picking.

Step 2: Nit-picking

Which brings me to the most important line of defense: no matter what chemical you apply there is sure to be one or two resistant bugs, three or four hardy little eggs left. That’s all it takes to start up a new colony. Tie up you own hair, settle down by a good light, give your child a good book, then pick away, checking every single hair on the head, preferably several times in a row, then twice a day for at least a week. The Nisska Lice Comb above won the gold medal at the 1926 Düsseldorf Health Exhibition, and it’s still the best around. Even so it won’t pull everything out. You’ll need to use your fingernails to pull out nits one at a time. The “gross” factor disappears quickly, replaced by a strange, primal contentment. Nit-picking is a very soothing activity. It's profoundly gratifying. The little eggs crunched between fingernails give a most satisfying pop. I was sad when they were all gone.

Step 3: Other Nitty Gritty Details

Besides inspecting everyone's heads, you will need to wash all bedsheets, pillows, etc, and then dry them at a high temperature. Obviously the same should be done to T-shirts, coats, hats, scarves, etc. -- anything which might have come near your hair. You don't necessarily have to wash the items (though it won't hurt to do so), just putting everything in the drier at high for 45 minutes will kill any escaped louse. Do this every day. Being neurotic and obsessive is a big advantage in this fight, so let your compulsive side shine through.

Grab all stuffed animals, plus any soft plush item on your beds and sofas and after a spin in the dryer seal them up in a plastic bag for 2 weeks.

Throw away your brush (just use a comb which you should inspect and wash after each use), and don't buy a new one until you have seen no sign of a louse or a nit anywhere for several weeks.

Note: this instructable is adapted from a blog post I wrote a few years ago on my (now sadly neglected) blog If you'd like to see or read about more recent projects, check out

Home Remedies Challenge 2016

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