Loving Lice, or the Joy of Nit-picking





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-p...

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 www.makeanything.net. If you'd like to see or read about more recent projects, check out www.makepopupcards.com

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    19 Discussions

    During my son's 'bringing headlice home from school' phase, I made a very pleasant discovery.

    I suffer from outbreaks of psoriasis and use coal tar soap and shampoo when I do as it helps, so I always have some handy.

    During one episode of these unwelcome crawly visitors, I also had an outbreak and viola! I found the coal tar shampoo got rid of them quick-smart!

    Whether it kills them or just knocks them out so they can be combed out, I don't know or care, and I never kept any around to see if they reanimated (zombie lice!).

    Let the lather sit in your hair for about 10 minutes then rinse out. You can leave it longer just to be sure, but I found this was plenty of time.

    You still have to comb out the eggs and dead lice, and if the eggs are really stuck in there, a diluted vinegar rinse will help break down the compound that glues the eggs to your hairshaft, then apply a liberal amount of hair conditioner and comb, comb, comb!

    I found if I did this over three days, we'd be lice free.

    Coal tar shampoo is a bit stinky and if you get it in your eyes it stings like hell, so be aware of this if you're treating kids and act accordingly. I used to get my son to put a washcloth on his face while I treated him. Alternately, you could use one of those shampoo visor thingies which would be very useful for littler kids.

    You do have to heat treat bedding, clothing, hats and soft furnishings and toys if you want to avoid a return of said creepy crawlies, but if you use coal tar shampoo regularly as we ended up doing, it knocked them on the head and kept them at bay so we only had to do the heat thing occasionally after the first time as they never really had a chance to establish themselves.

    Licedoctors.com - call them - they make house calls & treat everyone in the family. Put you at ease! My son & I have hair half way down our back. I told him if he shaves his head I'll shave mine (he's 11). He said no way. Having lice is annoying but no big deal. It was my first time ever (I'm over 40). I called the school nurse but she doesn't report it anymore. So I contacted my son's friend's parents. They were thankful. One boy had them. Your Instructable is basically what we did except we used olive oil. Great info! Thanks for letting people know lice aren't the next plague! :)

    Good tips, here's a good place to get a cheap strong metal tooth comb. At a dollar store in the pet section.

    My hair type is fine and very long. Decades ago I house sat for a miserable week, ignorant acquiring 100's if not 1000's of very hungry head lice. I knew nothing about them but I learned a lot. And nothing worked better than using a metal comb a few times a day over a white sheet. Place some clean hair strands for them to gather on like kids playing on a jungle gym and they will stay there until your ready to fold it up to dispose somehow...possibly just throw in dryer or vacuum them. ( if I vacuum bugs I stuff the opening so they don't come back out. )

    You can make little traps for them around the bed, putting your own hair in a bath cap. The trap can be a square of tissue paper, hair from a brush, a little hanging over and another tissue square on top for privacy. If you don't believe me in a jar, put a thread of cotton, thread of polyblend , animal fur, and human hair with a few buggers.

    Nicely done.

    (Proofreader's note ;) — You might want to put the "y" in the first blog link, and make the second link's appearance match the actual URL).

    3 replies

    Thanks! No matter how hard I try, typos creep in there!

    You're welcome. As a proofreader, you could say I do a different kind of nit-picking.

    Reminds me of my uncle who would "pay" us $1 per lice if we found any. He always got a long head massage for free.


    2 years ago

    I am a little surprised the husband didn't opt for the "shave it all off" approach. Boys sometimes consider the shaved look to be cool and if there is no hair there are no lice. Yep, naked and BALD, now your talking.

    1 reply

    Thank goodness I arrived home when I did... he might just have shaved them otherwise!

    This brought back memories of our four daughters, all with long and what seemed like lice magnet hair! Each year during lice season, they never failed to come home with them. I actually got to be a pro at killing lice. I started with the o.t.c. stuff but quickly moved on to essential oils and lots of combing and washing. Thank you for the flash back. lol

    Oh my god, I'm having flashbacks! When I was in elementary school I got lice and my mom mixed mayonnaise with lavender and tea tree oil, slathered it on, and wrapped my head in plastic wrap overnight. I had to wash it out with Dawn dish soap to get it all out, but it did the trick, along with lots of combing. To this day, I cannot fully appreciate the smell of lavender or tea tree oil though! haha

    There is a longer toothed version of the nit combs sold at various places including ULTA. and AMAZON; the metal teeth are angled and wavy to "sever" the nits from the hair; this does NOT cut the hair but makes it so much easier esp on long hair. We had to treat a kid with hair so long she can sit on it. There are also combs that will alert you TO the nits and live lice and that will KILL them but don't zap the kid. A good magnifying glass--not the stupid plastic ones sold with some of the combs--is invaluable here!

    There were lots of dark mutterings during this protracted process of cutting the kids hair but--these two things plus Tea Tree Oil and some commercial stuff were finally effective. The best thing to do is KEEP COMBING. Also heavy applications of really cheap conditioner and wrapping up the hair in shower caps or plastic wrap helped. Don't waste the good stuff and shampoo with something that will cut thru the conditioner AFTER you do this.

    1 reply

    Yes, I was lucky enough to be dealing with fairly short hair... Add a few teaspoons of Neem oil to that conditioner you slather on for even better results. I'd never heard of combs that zap the live lice though, sounds interesting!

    With very thick hair, the insecticide shampoo was totally ineffective, and there was NO WAY that horrible comb could get through my hair. I mixed 4 oz. olive oil with 20 drops of lavender essential oil. After soaking my entire scalp and mane for two hours, I washed it out with Dawn; then saturated my hair with pure apple cider vinegar, soaking for five minutes before washing that out. The vinegar stings; but it dissolves the nit glue, completely. Those horrid things never came back. I found this solution online in a forum for parents of special needs and chemically sensitive children.

    1 reply

    Vinegar and tea tree oil or eucalyptus oil works well. spray on, put on a shower cap for a few hours then wash off and use a nit comb.

    Hey belsey, I enjoyed reading this post. I had to deal with head lice one time when we had a full house. I think we figured out the source was a barber who was an old man who probably did not go through the proper procedure of cleaning the hair cutting tools. We quit using him and never had to deal with it again. There are a lot of useful information here. Thanks so much for sharing and do have a great week~


    I love the humor in your write up! Thanks for posting this! :)