checking for lice and nits

Lice are a source of tremendous frustration for families around the country (and even around the world). These parasitic insects that live by sucking human blood were not a big problem in most parts of the US in the middle of the 20th century, but by the time the century came to a close, they were everywhere. Worse, they had become resistant to many of the chemicals used to treat them. That left many parents with the urgent question: How do you kill lice most effectively?

Using Skin Cleanser to Kill Lice?

Q. We are a family of ten: my husband, myself, five girls with shoulder-length or longer hair and three boys. Last summer, one of our girls caught lice at camp. I started treating all the kids right away with over-the-counter treatments.

Nothing seemed to work, although I followed instructions to launder everything, comb with metal nit combs, etc. After a couple of months, I was frustrated and took them to the doctor. He prescribed a stronger lice treatment, so we tried that several times.

Again, to no avail. The lice were resistant. The girls’ heads were irritated from all the treatments.

Home remedies weren’t any better. Yesterday I learned that resistant lice are now common in many places. No wonder the shampoos didn’t work. It has been almost a year of struggle.

We tried Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser last night. It took me five hours to coat and dry all ten of our heads. I have washed five heads of hair so far today, and I did not see a single living louse. This is thrilling, as it has not happened before. I am hopeful this will finally work.

Is There Any Science Behind This Way to Kill Lice?

A. The Cetaphil treatment for lice was described as 95 percent effective (Pearlman, Pediatrics, Sep. 2004). This was based on two smallish trials, with a total of 133 volunteers. We’d certainly prefer to have more and better research, but this is more science than many home remedies garner.

To use this approach, apply the cetyl alcohol-based cleanser to damp hair and then blow the hair dry. Leave the gentle skin cleanser on overnight and shampoo it off in the morning. This suffocates the lice. It doesn’t kill the nits, though, so the treatment must be repeated twice, at one-week intervals.

Suffocating Lice:

Recent studies support suffocation as a way to kill lice. One recent study of a mineral-oil based shampoo found it was safe and 96 percent effective (Wolf et al, PLOS One, June 10, 2016). The authors concluded that this is a good alternative to insecticide treatments, and the physical mode of action means the lice are less likely to develop resistance. Unfortunately, the shampoo they tested is available only in Europe.

A recent study compared a silicone-free treatment (Licener® shampoo) to one containing dimethicone (Jacutin® Pedicul Fluid). Both products work by blocking spiracles so the lice can’t breathe, and both were effective (Semmler et al, Parasitology Research, July 2017). These are also European products, but they might be available online.

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  1. gg

    When my daughter was 9 and had thick, curly red hair to her waist, she had repeated lice infestations. Every two weeks, I was putting Permethrin poison (!) on my child’s head. After many months of this and growing frustration, I noticed live lice crawling on her scalp before she even exited the shower after a treatment. I went to the health food store the next day and asked about a natural remedie. I was told to try tea tree oil. It not only killed the lice, but it caused the nits to break down and fall out of her hair easily with just gentle combing with a regular comb. She had no more lice after that even though it continued to go around the school! The smell was STRONG and took a while to dissapate even after several shampoos. But still, no more lice, and especially no more poison on my child’s scalp, was so worth it!

  2. Jackie

    Would these remedies kill the nits from Scabies?

  3. mary
    Asheville, NC

    I have used Cedarcide ( available online) It is cedar oil, developed for the military for sand fleas in the middle east. I sprayed my whole head and hair with it and wrapped in plastic wrap for about 1/2 hour, then shampooed. As a side effect, it left my hair feeling very soft and fluffy!!
    I have used Cedarcide as an outdoor bug repellent and it works on bedbugs, too! Squirrels line their nests with cedar, and we used to put our linens in a cedar chest!
    It’s a bit pricey, but one bottle lasts me all summer.

  4. Lisa

    Yes, Cetaphil worked for our family too! After using an OTC lice treatment, I still saw live bugs in my daughter’s hair (ugh!). I went looking for other options. Dr. Pearlman, whose article is referenced above, has a website with complete instructions on the “Nuvo Method.” This will tell you exactly how to use the Cetaphil (timing is important, and three treatments at one-week intervals are required). The site can be accessed at I wish I had found this method right away. I have shared it with numerous friends!

  5. Idek
    Las Vegas

    Many years ago I tried to help my neighbor’s 9 year old to get rid of lice. It was based on the same principle. The lice will suffocate. I put a very think hair mask on her hair and covered it with a plastic cap for the night. We rinsed it out the next morning. It worked really well. We repeated it 3 times. In my opinion one can use any thick conditioner or hair mask. Bonus: really beautiful shiny hair!

  6. Ro
    St. Charles IL

    I had a head lice problem when I was 7. My aunt used vinegar hair rinses to kill the little suckers.

  7. Laura

    Years ago my oldest daughter came home from camp with lice. It was late at night when discovered, and I had nothing to treat her with. I had her lie down on the kitchen counter, with her head over the sink. I then poured a bottle of Isopropyl Alcohol over her hair/scalp and wrapped it in a towel for a while. When I removed the towel it was covered with dead lice. Of course the nits still had to be dealt with, but at least I could send her to bed and deal with them the next day when I was better prepared.

  8. Jenny

    I have used olive oil with tremendous success. It is a healthy way to suffocate the lice, while leaving the scalp healthy, and the hair super soft.
    I put a very small amount of olive oil on the scalp, cover the head (so everything else doesn’t get oily) and wait for about an hour. Shampoo a few times with regular shampoo, and comb with a metal comb-I have used Assy combs.That kicked the problem.

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