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How to Treat Lice with Old-Fashioned Listerine

Listerine is an old-fashioned remedy that many people use to treat lice. Other home remedies such as Cetaphil also work.

Lice are a vexing problem. Even though they are not dangerous, they are disgusting. Parents often find it difficult to treat lice adequately so that kids can return to school promptly and not spread the critters to friends and family. Even adults may have difficulties eliminating these creatures. What works?

Several Ways to Treat Lice:

Q. When our kids came down with lice we used Ulesfia. It was expensive but it worked, 100 percent.

My son got lice again a year later and I tried soaking his hair in original Listerine and covered it with a shower cap for 30 minutes. The results were even better, with the egg sacks sliding off the hair shaft easily. Very inexpensive!

The key is to comb out ALL the lice and nits after any treatment. Repeat the process in about a week to ensure that all are killed.

A. Ulesfia is a prescription anti-lice drug containing 5 percent benzyl alcohol. It works by suffocating the lice. Each 227 g bottle costs around $190 with a coupon, and some people will need more than a single bottle.

Why Listerine Works:

We are pleased to hear that the amber Listerine worked so well to treat lice. We suspect it too works by suffocating them. The herbal oils in Listerine, such as eucalyptol, thymol, menthol and methyl salicylate, may also discourage lice. Thymol has been used in an herbal lice removal shampoo (Phytomedicine, Dec., 2002).

Thank you for pointing out the importance of re-treating after a week to kill the newly hatched nymphs. This is advisable for most treatments, as few of the compounds used against lice actually penetrate the nit to kill the larva inside.

Listerine and Nit Combing Worked to Treat Lice:

Q. My adult daughter got lice a few months ago. She tried using a drugstore lice kit. It didn’t work, even though she repeated it a few times.

I checked out home remedies and we decided to try original Listerine. This worked, and her head is now completely free of lice. The key is using a nit comb to remove all the lice and eggs from the hair at the end of the treatment.

A. Thanks for the advice on using a nit comb. Thorough combing every few days can make a big difference by removing nymphs and eggs that might not be affected by alcohol or herbal oils. Repeating the amber Listerine rinse after several days can help kill any remaining or newly hatched lice.

Listerine in Combination With a Hairstyling Iron Got Rid of Lice:

Q. I tried everything to get rid of lice in my daughter’s long hair—Nix, olive oil, tea tree oil, mayonnaise, and combing the hair every night. I washed her sheets and jackets nearly every day. Still after three months, I kept finding nits in her hair. The whole thing was absolutely exhausting.

Finally, I read about Listerine. Following instructions, I soaked her hair in amber Listerine for 30 minutes. Then we rinsed it, combed through it and used the blow dryer. Here’s the last step: a hot hairstyling iron on each little section. That was it! The ordeal was over!

A week later, we went through this process again even though I didn’t see anything all that week. But I wasn’t about to take a chance. I checked her hair frequently over the next few weeks and found nothing. I personally believe it was the combination of Listerine and the heat from the straightening iron.

A. We suspect you are right. We’ve heard from many readers who have successfully used amber Listerine against lice. One expert suggested that the high alcohol content of the mouthwash, in combination with some of the essential oils, may asphyxiate the lice.

In addition to washing sheets and jackets, you were probably also running them through the dryer. Lice die at 135 degrees F. Hair irons like the one you used can get as hot as 450 degrees F. Very likely that also contributed to you getting the lice and nits out of your daughter’s hair.

Other Readers Found Listerine Helpful Against Lice:

You are not the only one who has had success with Listerine, sometimes when all else had failed.

Here is one testimonial:

“My daughter ended up with lice several weeks ago. She most likely picked them up from one of the girls at a sleepover.

“We treated her with lice shampoo twice, and did every-other-day comb-outs. I also vacuumed, cleaned, washed and dried all her bedding and clothing at high heat.

“The first time I treated her, I combed out hundreds of nits and about a half dozen bugs. A week later with the second shampoo, I combed out 3 bugs and maybe a dozen nits.

“A week later I did the Listerine treatment. I combed out one bug and probably about half a dozen nits. After another week of treating with Listerine, I have found no nits and no bugs. It really does seem to work.”

Another parent wrote:

“I’m 48 and never had an experience with lice until now. My 7-year-old daughter was sent home from school with lice today.

“I called a friend who told me about the Listerine treatment. Man, did it kill those little buggers dead! My wife was picking dead bugs out of my daughter’s hair.

“We will do another treatment in a couple of days to make sure the lice are all dead. We used about four or five caps full, enough to soak her hair and get rid of lice.”

Problems with Commercial Lice Shampoo:

A number of readers have expressed frustration with conventional lice shampoos containing permethrin (Nix) or pyrethrin (Rid). Both get rid of adult lice, and permethrin also kills lice in eggs (nits). Over the years, however, they have become less than completely effective because the lice in many parts of the country have developed resistance to them. As a result, even repeated use may not get rid of the infestation.

A review of the medical literature suggests that commercial lice shampoos are no longer the first choice for treating lice (Prescrire International, July, 2014). Instead, it recommends a method that kills lice through physical mechanisms. The recommended choice is dimeticone because it smothers them. It is not available in the US, however. Many of our readers do use Listerine instead.

We first heard about using old-fashioned amber Listerine against lice nearly 20 years ago. A nurse told us that the secret ingredient in the mouthwash is the alcohol, which suffocates lice fast.

To treat lice, people often soak their scalps with Listerine, wrap damp hair up in a towel for half an hour and then rinse the Listerine and lice away. Repeating the process every five to six days will kill emerging lice as they hatch, since the mouthwash does not get rid of lice in eggs. Combing the hair to remove nits also makes the treatment more effective. It is fairly cost-effective as well, since Listerine is not an expensive product. Be sure to use the amber version, unless you want your child’s hair to turn blue or green temporarily.

Suffocating Lice with Other Compounds:

Other home treatments that readers have used successfully to treat lice also work by suffocating the lice. Research shows that suffocation (in this case, with benzyl alcohol) can be helpful against nits as well as against grown lice (BMC Dermatology, Aug. 24, 2011).

Mineral Oil or Petroleum Jelly:

In one recent study, a mineral oil-based shampoo outperformed a pyrethroid shampoo in lasting lice control (PLOS One, June 10, 2016). The research was conducted in Germany, and the brand of mineral oil shampoo used in the study (Mosquito® Med Läuse Shampoo 10, also available elsewhere in Europe as Paranix or Silcap) is not available in the US.

Desperate parents have used petroleum jelly (Vaseline) instead. While this effectively suffocates the lice, it can be extremely difficult to remove Vaseline from the hair. You can read about such travails here.

Cetaphil Cleanser:

Cetaphil facial cleanser, with an active ingredient of cetyl alcohol, can also be used to treat lice: Dampen the hair, coat it with Cetaphil and then use the blow-dryer. The Cetaphil hardens and forms a barrier that suffocates lice. Leave it on overnight, then shampoo it out in the morning (Pediatrics, Sept. 2004).

One reader related her experience:

“We are a family of 10: my husband, myself, 5 girls with shoulder-length or longer hair, and 3 boys. Last spring/summer, one of our girls brought home lice from camp. I started treating right away with over-the-counter treatments. Nothing seemed to work, although I followed instructions, washing, combing with metal combs, laundering everything etc. After a couple of months, I was frustrated and exhausted and took them to the doctor.

“Our insurance covered a stronger lice shampoo, so we tried that. Again, to no avail. The lice were resistant. The girls’ heads especially were getting red from all the treatments. We then tried several home remedies… coconut oil and apple cider vinegar, etc. Seemed to work temporarily, but they came back. So many hours spent washing, combing, laundering. It’s been over 10 months. Tried everything.

I found out yesterday that these resistance lice are prevalent as of the last 7 months in more than 20 states in the U.S. So, if this is hitting you, you are not alone. My heart goes out to you.

“We tried Cetaphil last night for the first time using the Nuvo method. It took me 5 hours to coat and dry all 10 of our heads. I have washed out 5 heads of hair so far today, and I did not see a single living louse. I am thrilled, as this has never happened before and I’m so hopeful this will finally work!”

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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