The People's Perspective on Medicine

How to Treat Lice with Old-Fashioned Listerine

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. 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.

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 a sampling of testimonials:

“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!”

You can learn about other home remedies for lice in our book, The People’s Pharmacy Quick & Handy Home Remedies.

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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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I am 47 years old, and I think it’s the first time I have ever had lice. I have really long, not thick, but tons of hair. Used an OTC shampoo twice but I just can’t get all the nits. I’m trying Listerine as I write this. No live bugs but nits have to hatch at some point so this will be my routine for the next few days. I hope it works.

Sounds great. My dog had got them when I was hospitalized and had a person that I did not care too much for look after my dog, but it was do or die. I came home and laid on my couch. I was petting my best friend and partner in crime on the back of his neck and was getting eaten up. I thought it was fire Ants. He was infested with them nasty little Critters. The guy who took care of him for me had a wild raccoon live with him and infested my whole house. I hope this works for my dog. I’ve tried everything else. I feel so bad for him. Thanks for all the input.

I am 67 & experiencing head lice for the first time, starting in May 2018. I have tried most of the recommended non-toxic remedies suggested. Since I am not a child and do not have a “mother” to assist me in this healing process, it has been long, tiring, and so far not 100% successful.

I bought the gold/brown original Listerine last night & am hopeful after reading the comments of success here!!!! I also wish to add a comment that I have not yet seen on the internet so far (it may be out there. I have mostly focused my energy in treatment, lengthy nit comb & brushing/drying combouts, as well as the cleaning, laundering, etc.). I have started combing my cat with his flea comb, because I saw a live nymph crawling on his fur. I have read elsewhere that cats do not get human lice, and I believe that his inevitable carrying of “hitchhikers” has been contributing to my inability to be 100% free of these nasty critters. Thanks so much for providing all the helpful information!!!!!

Lice are species-specific beings. Lice from birds, goats, dogs, etc will not infest humans. So I’m guessing that you were getting eaten up by your dog’s fleas, or the person who was caring for your dog also infested your home with human head lice.

My adult daughter got lice a few months ago. I initially treated her head with a CVS lice kit. Followed the instructions, but it really didn’t work. I did it again a few times, but I was still unable to clear her head completely. I thereafter researched all the home remedies and decided to try Listerine.

The Listerine worked and her head is completely clean now. I think that any one of the home remedies will work, whether it’s Listerine, olive oil, mayonnaise, etc. The key to every remedy is using a nit comb to remove all the lice, eggs, and bugs from the head.

All of the remedies, commercial or homemade, tell you to do this. So no matter what you do to get rid of head lice, make sure you use a nit comb at the end. Just my opinion based upon my experience. Good luck!

I have used Nix for the second time in 8 days. Before treating her. I checked her head. I found 2 or 3 tiny live ones and
probably a dozen eggs. Today, I bought Listerine. It is called Cool Mint but it doesn’t say original anywhere. I hope it will still work if we have more problems.

I was aware that lice has evolved into this “super bug” and was hard to get rid of nowadays because I had to deal with it another time when my daughter caught it in preschool. After 2 months of alternating between Nix and Rid with the nit-picking method they were finally gone!

Well, she recently got them again right before school, and I resorted back to Nix. To no avail, I was still picking out LIVE lice after leaving the treatment in longer than the recommended 10 mins! I started to search for other options, and the Listerine got great feedback. I bought the largest bottle of the green original Listerine, not aware that the amber would be safer for your hair color. I soaked her hair with it and left it in for about an hour with a hair cap over it. SUCCESS! I was combing out DEAD bugs. I tried this treatment on Sunday. It is now Weds, and her head looks completely clean. I will do this again Saturday just to be on the safe side. SO thankful the Listerine method was shared :)

When my daughter had them, we used the Fairy Tale Lice Treatment foam two days in a row. She slept drenched in coconut oil, followed by a comb out in the morning. Lengthy blow-drying sessions and flat ironing section by section close to the scalp (careful not to burn the scalp obvs). I also poured Coke over her head in the tub on the second or third day and let it sit on for a while. Then the Listerine, followed by comb outs each time. It was a lot of work, not to mention the washing everyday, vacuuming furniture, steaming floor but we were in the clear after a week. We did the follow up Fairy Tale Lice treatment a week after the first to catch any hatchlings but didn’t find any. I always have extra bottles of this on hand. It is safe and non-toxic.

Happy to find this cheap answer! We also rinse with vinegar. Then blow dry AND USE A STRAIGHTENER!!! The nits can’t withstand the heat!

Listerine most definitely works. Every time my daughter brought lice from school, this is how we would eradicate them. It works just as well as the pesticide shampoo, but the shampoo made my daughter nauseous. Soak hair with listerine, leave it on for an hour, while covered with a rubber cap or equivalent. Rinse, then follow with vinegar to get rid of the eggs. Worked every time. Follow with daily nit removal, if needed.

Listerine works!! We used the blie kind, as I forgot to specify to hubby which type to purchase, used it, and works lime a charm! We spent several weeks attempting to eradicate them with coconut oil and tea tree oil and was met with terrible luck. Two weeks free now after listerine treatment-with frequent checking and combing, of course. Listerine is the way to go!

Brown Listerine is THE WAY TO GO to kill lice! So grateful I found this on your site a few years ago. My two older children had never gotten them, but my youngest has been stricken at least four times at her elementary school. The brown Listerine has been a miracle every time. Important to comb EVERY day for a week after first treatment and to wash all bedding. For added insurance we put her comforter and pillow case in the dryer for 30 minutes on high every day for the first week and every other day the second week. We always have a bottle of this magic potion in our medicine cabinet.

Another method is using the hair dryer, either dry or with oil. This works well in killing the nits but must be done daily for a week or so before all the adults die a natural death. It is cheap and non-toxic.

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