Treating Hair Lice Effectively

One day our younger daughter complained that her head and the back of her neck were itchy. We didn't think much of it until she brought a note home from school saying that someone in the class had hair lice, and therefore each student in the class should be examined for nits. We knew nothing about hair lice, so we looked on the Web for information. We found sites with pictures of the nits - tiny beige eggs stuck to individual hairs. After finally examining our daughter's hair, we found nits. We asked the advice of the local pharmacist and were told to clean all our bedding and stuffed animals in hot water, shampoo the rug, spray our furniture with a product for killing lice, and wash our hair with a very nasty commercial lice treatment containing pyrethrins in a solvent of benzyl alcohol and diphenyl ether. By this time my wife also had lice. After the nits were painstakingly removed from my wife and daughter's hair, they used the chemical shampoo. Unfortunately the shampoo strips all oil from the hair, so haircuts were needed to remove split ends shortly after.
This would have been acceptable if it had worked, but it only cut down the louse population for a few weeks, and then their numbers came back. We repeated the fruitless procedure a few times, constantly picking nits, until I found a very simple remedy on the net.

The Treatment

The procedure is simply to suffocate lice using mayonaise by letting it sit in the hair for an hour or two and then washing it out. The remaining nits are loosened from the hair by washing the hair with vinegar and combing them out. Any nits remaining must hatch within ten days, and the hatched lice can't lay eggs for a week, so using the mayonaise treatment again after a week will kill most of these, or using two treatments at intervals of six days should get all of them.
The treatment was completely effective for our family. Our daughter didn't like the smell of the mayonaise, and I reasoned that any vegetable oil should work instead. Using canola oil instead of mayonaise seemed equally effective, and instead of one or two hours we left the oil on overnight, under a plastic bag, before washing out with copious shampoo. A single re-treatment at 14 days takes care of any immature lice that hatch, as long as eveeyone in thevfamily is treated at the same time.

Several years later, the following article appeared, announcing a "new" product that suffocates lice, apparently using the physical properties of stearyl alcohol. Stearyl alcohol is derived from stearic acid, which is derived from animal fat. Stearyl alcohol is a waxy solid, like coconut oil. My impression of this product is that it is a solution for a problem that doesn't exist - that lice take six hours to suffocate. If that were true, then my family would still have them, because one-hour vegetable oil treatments are the only thing we can credit with getting rid of them. Unfortunately, this product will probably cost, in total, millions of dollars for a treatment that ought to be free. Given the activity of this web site, many people must have tried the vegetable oil treatment, but I haven't been informed of the outcomes. I would be happy to post such reports (positive or negative) on this web site.

San Jose Mercury News (California)
September 15, 2004
Section B; Pg. 1

By Esther Landhuis, Mercury News

    They're the bane of school-age children and their parents -- contagious crawly creatures that infect the scalp and require heroic measures to eradicate. But a Menlo Park dermatologist has found a new weapon for fighting head lice: a glob of clear gel that chokes the itch-inducing critters by forming a shrink wrap when rubbed and dried onto the scalp.

    "Head lice are just like us -- they have to breathe," said Dr. Dale Pearlman, whose research was published in the September issue of the journal Pediatrics. "How about if we suffocate them?"

    Sounds simple, but Pearlman has been toiling for the past eight years to design a product around this concept. Finally, it appears he has succeeded. His lotion -- applied to the hair and then dried with a hair dryer to form a film that plugs the louse's breathing holes -- eliminated head lice in 96 percent of 133 local patients in a trial last year. Ninety-four percent were reported lice-free six months after treatment.

    What's more, Pearlman's lotion seems to defeat the condition even when lice eggs were not removed from the hair using fine-toothed metal combs. Experts say the non-toxic product should avert the chemical resistance problems that plague many insecticides used to treat head lice, which afflict up to 12 million children nationwide each year.

    "He's got a novel idea," said Dr. Al Lane, chair of dermatology at Stanford University Medical Center, who consults extensively with companies developing anti-lice therapies. "By using a physical method to kill the lice, it would be much more difficult for the lice to develop resistance."

    In 1994, pyrethrin, a nerve toxin found in many existing treatments, wiped out lice in 95 percent of cases. However, a 2002 study reported that its cure rate had dropped to 34 percent, presumably because lice were becoming resistant to the chemical.

    About 70 percent of the patients in Pearlman's study had hard-to-treat lice that had survived prior treatments. The remaining third went to him because of panic-stricken parents who flinch at labels such as ''can be poisonous if used improperly'' on popular over-the-counter products.

    Pearlman's lotion consists of stearyl alcohol, propylene glycol, sodium lauryl sulfate, water and other ingredients "generally recognized as safe" by the Food and Drug Administration, according to the published report. Almost as troublesome as the stigma suffered by schoolchildren with head lice are the painstaking housecleaning procedures typically demanded of their parents.

    "It was just much easier to apply this method than what was normally recommended, which was going through and tearing your house apart to make sure you didn't get reinfected," said Menlo Park resident Kerry Champion, who used the lotion last fall to treat his 11-year-old daughter's head lice as part of Pearlman's study.

    Participants in the study did nothing more than launder the patients' clothing as usual, wash brushes and combs and run the bedding through the dryer. Lotion was applied once weekly, up to a maximum of three applications. "Within a week we saw that it worked," Champion said. "You could see it was physically pulling the nits and lice out of the hair."

    Anecdotal reports suggest that people have managed to suffocate head lice using household products like petroleum jelly, mayonnaise and olive oil, but there have been no published studies to assess their effectiveness, Pearlman said.

    Another problem: Killing a head louse requires cutting off its oxygen supply for more than six hours. But "how do you expect your child to go to school with oil in her hair?" said Champion's wife, Julia, who praised Pearlman's treatment because it was not only easy to use but also inconspicuous. "The product made her hair look like it normally would," she said.

    Currently, the lotion is available only to patients in Pearlman's dermatology practice. Pearlman hopes to find a commercial partner to secure FDA approval and take his product to market.

    For more information about the lotion, visit

    In 2017 our grandson brought home hair lice from school, so we repeated the vegetable oil treatment. While still effective, there are now commercial treatments (spinosad or ivermectin, derived from soil bacteria) which claim to be 85% effective after a single ten minute treatment.

    In the past several years I have received exactly ONE report of the outcome of this method. Please send your results to me if you would like to have them posted.