How to treat head lice without using harsh chemicals

It's a common childhood affliction but also one of the most troublesome.

June 01 2018

Once you’ve discovered these little critters living in the hair of your family, you’ll probably head immediately to the pharmacy where you will be offered a variety of treatments. But what is in these treatments and are they perfectly safe to be liberally doused on our children’s scalps?

What is actually in head lice treatments?

Many of these readily available products contain neurotoxins called pyrethrin and permethrin, which kill lice by attacking their central nervous system. These chemicals are often found in house and garden pesticides. This can spell bad news for head lice, but also potentially bad news for your children.

Although pyrethrin is a naturally occurring substance, we usually see synthetic derivatives in products such as these. These not-quite-natural products may not be great on our skin, according to the Coordinator of the Natural Toxics Network, Jo Immig.

“Despite having a natural origin, being derived from chrysanthemum flowers, pyrethrins are chemically extracted and can contain impurities. They are usually mixed with a synergist such as piperonyl butoxide, which has its own toxicity. Piperonyl butoxide is a possible human carcinogen according to the US EPA and dermal exposure can cause redness and swelling,” Immig tells.

"It may be difficult to keep the pyrethrins out of the children’s eyes when using it which can lead to irritation. If it’s inhaled it can lead to respiratory distress and asthma-like symptoms such as wheeze, cough and breathing difficulties. They get washed down the drain and are highly toxic to aquatic organisms.”

Head lice treatments aren't as effective as once thought

There has been some debate as to how effective these treatments even are with a 2014 report by the Journal of Medical Entomology revealing 99.6 per cent of lice studied were “super lice” which were resistant to pyrethrin and permethrin. Considering this information, is it worth exposing our children to chemicals on the off chance it will be effective?

“Generally, we advise people to avoid contact with chemical pesticides whenever they can if safer alternatives exist,” says Immig.

Safer management of head lice is possible, via a few different methods, but whatever method you choose, you need to strike everyone afflicted at once or risk re-infestation.

"Parents need to take an integrated approach to managing head lice. It's best to coordinate the whole class and family to undertake treatments at the same time and maintain management while there is a head lice outbreak. Use a combination of product and nit combing and you’ll likely need to repeat the procedure seven to ten days apart,” Immig says.

Chemical-free head lice treatments

Until now, traditional products have not been able to kill eggs, meaning the treatment, be it chemical or natural, had to be repeated in a week’s time, however, scientist and Executive Director of Research and Development at Sue Ismiel and Daughters, Nadine Ismiel-Nash, believes her product is the solution we’ve been waiting for.

“As a scientist and mum to two young girls, I wanted to develop an effective, pyrethroid-free head lice treatment that was easy for parents to use and hassle-free for kids. That’s how NitWits All-In-One, Australia’s number one head lice treatment, was born,” tells Ismiel-Nash.

“We recognise parents want what is best for their kids, particularly when it comes to their health and safety.”

NitWits All-In-One is a physically acting treatment, rather than a chemically acting one. It kills lice using a non-poisonous action – either stripping away their waxy coating causing them to dehydrate or blocking the opening to their airways, disrupting their ability to manage water.

It is pyrethroid-free and considered low-toxic and a safer alternative to most over the counter products. The entire NitWits range offer a head lice solution for every head.

“NitWits offers three different types of treatments: physically-acting treatments which work differently to chemically-acting treatments through a non-poisonous method to kill head lice and eggs; wet combing which involves a combing solution and lice comb to comb out the lice and eggs; and natural treatments that use natural actives such as tea tree and eucalyptus oils to treat lice by entering the louse’s central nervous system paralysing the lice,” Ismiel-Nash explains.

Head lice is not a sign of poor hygiene and can strike anyone at any time so when possible, prevention is better than cure.

One pesticide-free method of eradication, which is recommended by the James Cook University, is the “conditioner and comb” method. This method requires complete saturation of dry hair with conditioner, before methodically combing sections with a nit comb and disposing of any lice and eggs (nits) in boiling water. This method requires a repeat performance to ensure no eggs went undetected.

Ismiel-Nash adds that, unlike most kids, head lice love going to school!

“The facts are head lice are common all-year-round, and preventing head lice is easier and more pleasant for kids and parents than dealing with it! A good routine will make it much less likely that your child will be affected,” says Ismiel-Nash.

“Secure long hair in a bun or a plait to minimise ‘hair-to-hair’ contact. Apply a repellent like the NitWits Anti-Lice & Detangling Spray to deter and defend against head lice daily.”