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Home Remedies for Head Lice: What Works?

There are a number of things to keep in mind when dealing with lice. First, while they can spread, they do not carry disease and they do not mean that you or your kids are in any way “unclean.” Second, there are times when all you need to do is use a lice comb to comb out the nits, nymphs, and adult lice in your child’s hair. If your child just got back from an overnight with friends and the friend’s mom just told you that one of the kids has lice, there is no need to panic. Chances are good that you have caught it early enough and you can simply comb out your child’s hair and repeat it every morning and evening for three weeks. Third, you can combine the combing with some easy—but sometimes messy—home treatments. Nearly all home remedies rely on some method to suffocate the lice. Using home remedies that work is probably preferable to putting harsh chemicals on your child’s head.

Smother the Lice!

Here are some of the natural “suffocating” or “smothering” treatments that work reliably1 well—remember, they work best if you follow the instructions. And, it’s important to note that some experts believe that it is actually the combing that does the work—the “suffocating” treatments just stun the lice and make them slower and easier to catch on the comb.

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  • Coat the hair with olive or almond oil. Some people suggest coating the comb instead of the hair—re-applying the oil as needed. You may have to try both methods to see which works best for you. Separate the hair into small sections, and use a hair clip to move them out of the way. Work under a good light so you can see what you are doing. Also, rinse out the comb often under running hot water as you go. Once you have completely combed your child’s hair, use his or her regular shampoo, rinse, and repeat! Make sure you wash all the towels used and clean out the lice comb—you can soak it in a 10% bleach solution or 2% Lysol solution for 30 minutes and rinse very well. As an alternative, you can soak the combs in vinegar for 30 minutes or boil in water for 10 minutes.
  • Follow this procedure every day for a week. Then, for the next two weeks, check (by combing) every night to make sure the lice are gone. (Vaseline and mayonnaise are not recommended—they are unnecessarily messy, and both can be difficult to wash out.)

Treat the lice with essential oils.

A number of essential oils have been shown to be effective—along with combing—in eliminating head lice. Before you use any essential oil, put a small drop on the back of your child’s hand. It is pretty rare, but some kids have allergic reactions to these oils—usually tea tree oil. If your child is allergic to one, move on to the next oil on the list. The oils that have shown effectiveness are:

  • tea tree oil2-4
  • lavender oil2-4
  • neem oil4,5
  • clove oil4,6
  • eucalyptus oil4,6
  • aniseed oil4,6
  • cinnamon leaf oil4,6
  • red thyme oil4,6
  • peppermint oil4,6
  • nutmeg oil4,6

Mix 2 ounces of olive oil with 15 to 20 drops of the essential oil. Apply to the scalp using cotton balls. Leave this mixture on the scalp and hair overnight—at least 12 hours. Comb out and shampoo, rinse, and repeat. An alternative approach is to mix the 15 to 20 drops of essential oil in 4 ounces of rubbing alcohol. Place the mixture in a spray bottle and saturate the hair with it. Again, leave it on for at least 12 hours. Once the lice have been eliminated, the alcohol spray can be used as a preventive treatment.

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Remember—combing out the hair is absolutely essential to remove the lice! 

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Article Resources
  • Head Lice: Smothering vs Lice Treatment Shampoos. Townsend Letter for Doctors & Patients 2005:24-.
  • Barker SC, Altman PM. A randomised, assessor blind, parallel group comparative efficacy trial of three products for the treatment of head lice in children—melaleuca oil and lavender oil, pyrethrins and piperonyl butoxide, and a "suffocation" product. BMC Dermatology 2010;10:6-.
  • Yarnell E. Essential Oils against Lice. Quarterly Review of Natural Medicine 1998:33.
  • Veal L. The potential effectiveness of essential oils as a treatment for headlice, Pediculus humanus capitis. Complementary Therapies in Nursing & Midwifery 1996;2:97-101.
  • Thawornchaisit P, Amornsak W, Mahannop P, et al. Combined Neem Oil 6% w/w and Eucalyptus Oil 16% w/w Lotion for Treating Head Lice: In Vitro and In Vivo Efficacy Studies. Journal of Pharmacy Practice & Research 2012;42:189-92.
  • Choi H-Y, Yang Y-C, Lee SH, Clark JM, Ahn Y-J. Efficacy of spray formulations containing binary mixtures of clove and eucalyptus oils against susceptible and pyrethroid/ malathion-resistant head lice (Anoplura: Pediculidae). Journal of Medical Entomology 2010;47:387-91.
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