Thursday, January 29, 2009


I'm hearing about lice outbreaks at schools--both public and private--from a lot of parents. And I have read that this is actually a problem across the country. Researchers have actually found that common head lice has become more resistant to antibiotics and the most commonly purchased, over-the-counter shampoos, Nix and Rid. As a result, parents are turning to alternative remedies such as tea tree oil. I'm working on a story about lice for SFGate and I'd love to hear from parents. You can email I'm interested in knowing if your school has had a problem and whether or not it has been ongoing. Also, if anyone feels comfortable being interviewed and featured in a story, please let me know. Thanks! Best, Kate


  1. Kate, so sorry you have gone/are going through this. It's a common rite of passage though! And as you mention, it spreads through both public and private schools with seeming abandon.

    Best thing I can say is, try to step away from the stigma. Best we all come out of the closet about it. After two bouts last year (including on me, waaah), I am not squeamish anymore. They don't tell you when you are dreamily pregnant how much of parenting will be about bodily stuff. Sleep schedules, food, bodily fluids, head lice, and above all, the logistics of moving little bodies from here to there and back again.

  2. Actually, it's not antibiotics that the lice are resistant to, it's pesticides. An additional problem is that the eggs (called nits) can't be killed with the active ingredient in the shampoos, so they have to be removed by repeated tedious combing.

    Last year I heard about an experimental method that uses a contraption like a hair drier to dry out the lice and nits and kill them. I don't know if it's commercially available yet, but it seems like a great idea.

  3. Combing is the gold standard. It's really the only thing that works in the long run. It helps if you apply a conditioner throughout the hair first because it immobilizes the live bugs and makes it easier to comb through and spot them.

    Another non-toxic remedy I have used with some success: Apply Cetaphil soap throughout the hair--soak it, have it be dripping off--then comb out the excess and look for bugs and nits. Then, blow it completely dry so that the soap is on the hair. Word is, the soap forms a seal on the individual hair shafts that suffocates the crafty little bugs. Leave on overnight (hair will look gelled, but the stuff is transparent). In the morning, rinse it out. Takes forever to blow dry, but it did work for me. Thing is though, you need to repeat about a week later and keep going with the process until you have been fully one week free of live bugs.

    Also: use the metal, not plastic, combs and a magnifying glass. Put the bugs in a ziploc baggie (you can then look at them through the magnifying glass and get really good at identifying them).

    And prepare to let your kids watch hours of movies or TV so they will sit still. Mine usually have limited screen time, so that was a bonus.

    Obviously, wash bedding and clothing in hot water. You probably do not need to wash upholstery and steam clean your rugs though. The bugs don't live more than 24 hours off of humans.

    Comb, comb, and comb again. No magic formula is out there.

    --Been There!

  4. I think an interesting angle on this story is the Hair fairies on Fillmore St. As yet another class divide, people who are able (and willing) to pay the price can take their kids to the Hair Fairies to have them deloused. This is generally a highly recommended approach in the fancier private schools! The business has a very cutesy awning for their entrance along Fillmore St, smack in the middle of the high-end Pacific Heights boutiques there.

    Our school has instituted school-wide lice checks (done by parent volunteers) on the day that the kids return from any extended break.

  5. Hair Fairies will cost you hundreds of dollars. Outsourcing for them that can afford it, but clearly not a solution for most of us.

    It's tedious, but combing really works and it will cost you under $20 for a good comb, magnifying glass and some conditioner or the Cetaphil if you want to try that. Opportunity to have quality time with your kid, too! :-) Or you can have de-lousing parties with your best friends who probably also have it, and the kids watch old Indiana Jones and you sip cocktails with the adults---make a day of it!

    Seriously, the advice to de-stigmatize the whole thing is good. Probably most kids go through this at some point. There was a huge epidemic at SFDS last year, I heard, and Clarendon too....

  6. The turn-it-into-a-party advice is great--if you only have to do it once. But it seems that lice infestation has become endemic in some schools.

  7. Yeah, I know. Sigh. But the party idea is good for helping first-timers overcome the fear, stigma, and sense that they do not know how to do it or even what to look for. More power in solidarity and all that. After that, it is a weekly or monthly chore to condition your kids hair and comb through it preventatively. This is a good thing to pair with a once-a-month Family Movie Night.

    Just trying to help. From experience, unfortunately.

  8. This guy has invented a machine that sucks the lice off kids' heads.

  9. Great. Now I can't stop itching. All psychological, but ewww.

  10. let's x-reference the free lunch %age list with lice prevalence! i think you'd be surprised. my daughter's school, clarendon, is crawling with the mother#@$%ers. we've had two major outbreaks this year. since everyone in our family has about 5x as much hair as a normal homo sapiens should, eradication almost broke me the first time. here's what worked for us:

    lice don't like tea tree oil or lavender, so shampoo with oil-infused products as a preventive measure and dab some on your kids' necks and behind the ears.

    smothering is a good way to aid in combing out nits. cetaphil, heavy conditioners and olive oil worked well for us.

    not everyone will get 'em. my son and husband didn't, for instance, though i'm pretty sure i did (from my daughter). (even though we all carouse together).

    put long hair up in buns as preventive measure.

    we did a lot of nightly smothering with hair slathered in oil and a plastic hair bonnet on, then combed in the morning.

    some lice haven't developed resistance to OTC pesticides, so if you're not afraid of the toxicity, it's worth a try (use nix -- our doc recommends against the prescription one -- name escapes -- as it is HIGHLY toxic). i used this one mostly on myself (since i'm already old and nuts).

    pray to whatever god you worship, because boiling everything in the damned house takes FOREVER.

    p.s. i've heard lice actually attach better to clean hair shafts, btw. maybe let kids' hair get nice and dirty?

  11. Just last week, we had another case well several to be exact in my daughter's class. It makes you crazy when you've gone through the delousing and the washing and bagging of all the linens and stuffed animals etc at home, only to find another round of wee beasties going around in school. I think the only way to help combate it is regular checks in school. And then when it strikes at home, combing, washing and tea tree oil.
    As for the hair fairies at 95/hour I'm reconsidering my career!

  12. One word of caution I've heard that both lavender and tea tree oil act as mild estrogens and should be used sparingly on boys, Still, the trade off sounds and smells a whole lot better than the OTC shampoo/pesticides.

  13. Olive oil smothers the lice is what I've heard from a family who's been through the process a few times.

  14. Love the cocktail-party-movie-night-comb-out idea. Dust off your blenders.

    We've been lucky so far (I hear they're harder to spot on blond kids so maybe I'm just deluded) but I don't know a school in California that hasn't had them. Our older child had them back when she was living with her biological mother, and her biological mother is totally obsessive-compulsive about personal and home cleanliness--I'm not kidding, this woman asked my in-laws for his & hers vacuum cleaners when she married my husband, vacuums her house six days a week though she has no pets and does not allow shoes to be worn in the house, and threw her (our) daughter out on Mother's Day because the girl had been shopping for a Mother's Day gift and not had time to shampoo her hair. So nobody, NOBODY, should feel a stigma about getting lice.

    They did a big lice control day at our school checking every kid's head with volunteer parents acting under the oversight of a parent who happened to be a knowledgeable pediatrician. They've also become quite strict not sharing hats, combs, pony-tail holders, etc. We haven't had a note come home in a while.

    I met the owner of a San Francisco business called "Lice Patrol" that will come out to schools and run checks. I don't know how much they charge but the web site says the fees are modest.

    Now my head is itching too :-)

  15. The BEST comb can be purchased here:

    We were visited last summer (thankfully only one child got them and we adults escaped). Here are my pearls of wisdom:

    1)I confess we did take one visit to the Hair Fairies. I advised against it but as I was out on the campaign trail all the time, my husband opted to outsource the first treatment. $200 all in once they got him for the fancy shampoo and combing cream and tea tree oil. Daughter did have a great time but this is not a necessary expense!

    2)Buy the Licemeister comb (link above) ahead of time and keep it handy because you WILL be visited at some point during your child's school career (public or private).

    3)When the inevitable happens, get a couple of economy-sized bottles of cheap store brand conditioner and a bottle of tea tree oil. Every night, saturate the hair with conditioner and comb for bugs and nits. (Comb hair in small sections, one section at a time, dipping the comb in water after every comb.) When finished, boil the comb for a few minutes. Every morning, dab tea tree oil on the hairline (forehead and nape of the neck, behind the ears).

    4)Launder all sheets, towels and clothing the child has come in contact with in HOT water. For stuffed animals that can't be washed, put them in sealed plastic bags and store away from the kids for several weeks. (We cheated and put the most irreplaceable animals in a hot dryer for 30 minutes; it seemed to work).

    Hope this helps,

  16. Oops, forgot to say to repeat #3 for two weeks.

  17. Pail Mitchell makes a lavender- tea tree shampoo and conditioner (use 2 times a week at most) which is a good preventative. Also tell your child to put his/her jacket in backpack when in school. For girls, hair in a pony. Also check with schools about removing headphones from computer lab. My child had nits in the beginning of the school year- we did go to Nit Pixies in San Rafael, but it was worth the extra money. Only way to get rid of them is to be vigilant in combing through with metal comb at least daily.

  18. At our school, my son got it along with all the most academic boys - and they got it OVER and OVER! I realized at school one day that they all sat around during reading time with heads together pouring over a favorite science encyclopedia.

    The biggest problem was the parents - my friends. They were ashamed to admit their kids had it and weren't fessing up. I didn't know what to look for - and after my son was complaining of an itchy head, had my quite well-known pediatrician take a look. Looking back on it, he was looking in entirely the wrong places (as a, NOW, very experienced lice hunting parent knows!) The next day, I looked at my strawberry-blond kid's head and realized that all those things I thought were tiny paint splatters were actually nits (oh, lord, it was wicked bad.)

    We 'came out of the closet' to the class and school in the hopes that other parents would too. And the only thing to solve it was comb, comb, comb every day for weeks.

    You're only done when you come for seven days in a row and you find no nits. That's a lot of combing.

    When friends of my younger child had lice, I was appalled that the mother was doing everything possible to keep it hushed up - and this happend several times. I can't help but think the subsequent repeat outbreaks are partially her fault!

    Knock on wood, we haven't had lice again since the wicked epidemic a few years back - despite the countless kids in our school who have it.

  19. Hi all! Fairy Tales Rosemary Repel Hair Care has rosemary, citronella, lavender and tea tree alls in it and these oils are organic. They also make Lice Good-Bye which is a natural way to remove them - along with combing. Enzymes dissolve the glue that nits stick to the hair shaft with so the combing out process is much easier. They also sell the Terminator comb which is the best metal comb on the market to comb out nits and lice. You can find there stuff online and in salons. We have not had one incident (after the first time) since we began using the hair products and both my kids have had outbreaks in their class.

  20. Parents noticed in our school the outbreaks came shortly after "picure day." It was discovered that the photographer were using the same combs on the kids.

    Word got out on this practice this year and kids brought their own combs. I did not get my usually notice of the infestation from school and my kid is lice free the first time in 4 year.

  21. ew. i hope someone said something to the photographer. totally unprofessional.

  22. If it's true that they need air, then olive oil is a safe bet. My previous roommate is a SF Elementary School teacher. She'd inevitably come home from school with the Lice alarm bells ringing. As a precaution, we'd watch a movie with our heads soaked in olive oil.

    I've never had lice. Hope this helps someone.

  23. Oh, I haven't checked the blog for quite a while but there's a lice outbreak in my kid's k and I thought I'd log on and suggest it as a topic but here you all are, way ahead of me. I'm still in the ICK phase, feeling like things are crawling all over my head. I found only one nit on my daughter's head a week after I started combing every other day. About a week and a half after the initial reports. I thought, one nit, can't be. My daughter's school nurse checked my long hair since I'm a single mom and can't check myself very easily. She said I was nit-free. When I asked the nurse how could we have only one nit she said maybe you had one louse who crawled off someplace. Crawled off WHERE??? I lost an entire day of work on that nit day, staying home to hot wash all our linens, bag comforters and stuffed animals, and vacuum like crazy. Four days now and still no more nits. But I'm weirded and creeped out enough to have made an appointment at Hair Fairies for tomorrow. I know that I'll get through this and some day be one of the parents who sees it as something everyone goes through and I'll get over feeling really grossed out, but I'm not there yet! Oh, and since I've read all this I'll get the tea tree oil conditioner thing going on too. Oh, ick. --Bernal single mom

  24. My son hasn't had lice yet, but I hear the word around his school and I know it's coming. I feel lucky that I have a place to read all of these helpful tips and tricks. I am really interested to know which schools are having outbreaks now, since it's not something people really talk about at school. If anyone wants to post it, please do. Thanks!

  25. 8:57, I know they seem really creepy and I guess most of us get itchy scalps at the thought of it. Just to say, having been through it a few times with multiple children, it's not that bad. Not desirable, obviously, but they won't kill you or even hurt you. I've actually been through both serious illness and tragedy in my family, and that puts it in perspective. This is more like mosquitoes that won't easily go away. Yeah, you have to deal with it. But humans have been dealing with lice for a long time. I think the biggest issue is that people think of it as nasty or dirty and there is shame involved. Dealing with a broken arm or an infectious illness would take just as much time and perhaps more worry, but the stigma isn't there with those. I would urge you to try not to internalize this stigma. I heard SFDS had a whole little campaign last year about de-stigmatizing lice! I thank Kate for putting it out there! Helps us all to realize how common this is.

  26. Hi 10:42. This is 8:57 again. Thanks for that. I agree that it's a stigma. It's also a reaction to the blood-sucking thing. Like tics and bedbugs. Just a creepy thought. But unlike those, you're right, these little guys won't hurt us. And you're also right to keep it in perspective. In any case, I went to Hair Fairies today and really really LOVE them. Just for peace of mind. Neither me nor my daughter had any evidence of a current infestation so weird as it was, that one nit was all she wrote. Of course, we're still at risk since they're at her school. I also learned a lot about how to look for nits and bugs and feel more empowered to deal with it when/if we get them again.

  27. We got lice for the first time this school year.

    I started trying to delouse the house - washing sheets, towels, anything worn....but that eventually became too hard to do. It quickly became too much after a week and we were still finding eggs, nits and lice in our kids' hair. We tried the homeopathic treatment found at Walgreens. I don't think it worked.

    So, we focused on combing, combing, combing with hair wet and with conditioner thick. I found that the only way I could remove an egg was with my fingernails, sliding it off the hair. Like a monkey mom.

    Eventually we must have picked out the last hatched bug, because we've been lice free for a while.

    To keep my older daughter still, we downloaded some stuff from Itunes and she watched on my computer.

    About once a week I check now, behind the ears and at the nape of the neck. About once every two weeks we've been sliding that metal comb through sections of her hair...just checking.

  28. To 5:28 "like a monkey mom"

    You are a fearless woman, indeed. So far, knock wood, the scourge has not descended on our house. But I'm ready if it does. I'm already a monkey mom: picking out ear wax, boogers, biting off toe nails. Yes, it's all quite gross to the uninitiated. But as mammal mommies, it comes with the territory.

  29. Yes, that is exactly how I came to think of myself--a mammal mommy, cousin to the great apes, enacting a ritual that is thousands of years old. Put it that way, and I'm just doing another daily or weekly or monthly (once the immediate crisis is past) household chore, like the dishes or the laundry.

  30. Monkey mom again. I forgot my other good tips.

    I put all our brushes, combs, and hard headbands into the top rack of the dishwasher and all our clips into the silverware rack - ours has a snap close lid so they wouldn't end up scattered all over the bottom of the dishwasher.

    Good information to factor into getting rid of lice completely:

    I learned that a hatched louse can only survive for 2 days if it doesn't find a human head home. Also, one adult louse can lay as many as 8-10 eggs in one day. Also, an egg hatches sometime between 8-12 days. So, you can calculate just how many days you will need to keep checking hair.

    A neighbor of mine just did lice treatments once and that was it. They kept coming back, week after week. The kids could have gotten them from school again, but it is likely that an egg or even a live louse survived the treatment and it was the same infestation coming and going.

    Last tip (oh my head is so itchy thinking about all this) is that we canceled all our playdates and so forth and didn't have anyone over to our home for the duration of the lice. We had the luxury of lice over the holiday break though. Can't think I would keep my kids home from school for 2 weeks.....which might be why it is such a problem at schools.

  31. Question: we are lice/nit free now but there are still cases at school. I think even in my daughter's class but no one is talking. Do we just keep combing through with conditioner and the lice comb every other day? For how long?

  32. This is from a parent at our school, this system works very well and takes time, but if you stick to it, you will have success and it is non toxic!

    i just wanted to pass on my experience(s!!!) with lice. we've enjoyed
    their company three times since my boys started at charter 8 years ago.
    this past summer i helped with an international summer camp, CISV,
    that lived on our campus for 4 weeks. we were very pro-active and
    checked the kid's heads as soon as they landed here. one of our
    members recommended a treatment that i thought worked extremely well.
    it involves coating the hair in cetaphil lotion over the course of
    three weeks. i know there is a no nit policy at school, but i found
    that using the right nit comb while the lotion is still wet in the hair
    does a pretty amazing job of getting most of them out. the Lice
    Meister comb is the best one for combing out nits. if you have a
    child with long hair i highly recommend this. if you have a boy who
    doesn't mind fuzzy stubble then nothing beats a buzz cut. you'll still
    need to do some picking, but this method, i thought, proved excellent
    to really clear the lice out for good. unfortunately these little
    buggers are persistent and can come back even if you thought your
    child's head was clean of them.

    feel free to contact me and i can explain more about the method. it
    seems to be pretty important to follow the instructions to the T, that
    includes buying the right lotion. cetaphil makes a number of lotions
    and they are not interchangeable in this process. also the way you
    apply it and the guidelines about how long to keep it in and what to do
    for the rest of the day should be followed as well.

    oh, one other thing. i will never use the over the counter chemical
    treatments again nor would i ever recommend them. one of my boy's
    burned his eyes and wound up being treated by an ophthalmologist.

    here's the link

  33. The Lice Patrol ladies have an enzyme spray that "unadheres" the nits. Use the Nit Free Terminator Lice Comb, the metal is scored and breaks apart the nits and lice.

    Lice Patrol sells the Terminator comb, or you can also google the term and find another vendor.

    I have no affiliation with Lice Patrol btw.

  34. To prevent lice - someone had mentioned Paul Mitchell's tea tree and lavender shampoo and I just wanted to mention that we use California Baby's Tea Tree & Lavender Shampoo and love it!

  35. ^^Thanks!!


  36. Make sure not to use the same hair brushes or combs, bedding, towels or clothes that a person who has head lice used,head lice can be really annoying, all those disinfection, laundry, trips to your local drugstore and research on how to remove them the natural way.