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10 Home Remedies for Lice That May Really Work

Lice is the four-letter word all parents dread hearing. Before you panic about an infestation, take a deep breath and consider using one of these parent-approved natural remedies

Lice love kids

About six to 12 million children between the ages of three to 12 turn up with lice every year in the United States, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. You can buy strong over-the-counter shampoos and lotions that can help you eliminate the bugs (here’s a list of suggested lice treatment products); but if you want to try a gentler route, says Bindiya Gandhi, MD, a family practice physician in Decatur, Georgia, you could try some of these DIY solutions: They can help ease your itching and scratching and lend a hand in delousing your family. Also, be sure to check out these tips from lice experts.

Delicious sour cream or mayonnaise. Vegetarian mayonnaise without eggs from mustard, milk, vegetable oil and lemon juice.Julia Wave/Shutterstock

Mayonnaise

Start by checking the fridge. Most homes have this sandwich condiment handy, particularly in the summer when picnics and barbecues are popular. Experts recommend spreading mayonnaise over the entire scalp, covering it with a shower cap, and leaving it on for a few hours or overnight in the hopes that the lice will suffocate from the mayonnaise, says Dr. Gandhi. In the morning, comb hair thoroughly—ideally with a special lice comb (you can buy one at most drug stores) to remove all the dead lice as well as nits, then wash your hair to cut through the grease of the mayonnaise. Don’t worry if it takes several washings. And you will need to repeat the process a week later to catch lice that hatch from the nits after the treatment. (This method won’t kill nits.)

teatreeoilAfrica Studio/Shutterstock

Tea tree oil

Pediatrician Danielle Fisher, MD, co-medical director at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, suggests trying tea tree oil as one of the home remedies for lice because it has powerful antiseptic properties. A 2012 study in Parasitology Research found that a 1 percent tea tree oil solution is capable of killing 100 percent of head lice within 30 minutes (keep in mind that this was tested in a laboratory dish, not a human head, so it might not be as effective in real life.) “The idea is…smother the lice and nits, and they die and can be removed.” Dr. Fisher warns, however, that there are mixed recommendations for how long to keep the oil on the head, and how often to repeat. Many recommend two or three treatments per week until there are no more lice or nits found when combing. Some people may develop a rash or skin irritation on the parts of the body where tea tree oil is used, warns the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Protect your skin by trying the oil on a small area first and full-strength tea tree oil should be diluted with vegetable, olive, or almond oil, Dr. Gandhi suggests.

 

Coconut oil in a glass jar on a black. Top view. Copy space.Geshas/Shutterstock

Coconut oil

Coconut oil is another one of the home remedies for lice via the smothering technique. “This is one of my favorites,” Dr. Gandhi says. She suggests using it in the same manner as mayonnaise. “Leave it on for a minimum of two hours, but the longer the better.” Again, any smothering technique that aims to kill the adult lice may not kill the nits. Repeating the treatment may help. Lice tend to hatch from nits one to two weeks after they are laid.  Don’t miss this map that shows where lice have become resistant to standard treatments.

petroleum jelly uses moisturizerPeopleImages/iStock

Petroleum jelly

Because some people have coconut allergies, another one of the more promising home remedies for lice involves using petroleum jelly, a household item you no doubt have in a drawer or closet somewhere. One caveat for the use of petroleum jelly, however, is that it is very resistant to cleansers. If you do apply petroleum jelly to the scalp, it may take several passes with a harsh dish detergent to remove all of the residue from your hair. Petroleum jelly may be a better option for those with very short hairstyles. “It’s the same concept as mayonnaise,” Dr. Gandhi says. By the way, there are about a million ways to use petroleum jelly around your house.

Woman with a comb in her hand on dressing room.Zynatis/Shutterstock

Wet combing

Vinh Nguyen, MD, a family medicine physician at MemorialCare Medical Group in Fountain Valley, California, suggests wet combing as one of the home remedies for head lice. “A fine-toothed comb should be used on wet hair, and adding conditioner can help. Continue combing each section until there are no more lice found,” he says, “Repeat every three to four days for several weeks.” This would also be a good method to combine with other natural treatments in order to get rid of the lice more quickly. Don’t miss these other reasons your scalp could be itching besides lice.

Women itching scalp ,itchy his hairsuriya yapin/Shutterstock

Nitpicking

No, we don’t mean nagging your kids for not being perfect, but literally picking out nits, which are lice eggs, from the hair. According to Dr. Fisher, this must be done with the utmost care. “Use various tools such as nit combs or even your fingers to go through each hair one at a time to remove the lice and nits.” Given the number of hairs on each child’s head, this method is time-consuming but does avoid the use of chemicals. Nitpicking requires several passes before all lice and nits are gone, and may not be as effective as other methods because each and every louse or nit must be removed in order to get rid of the infestation for good.

Cetaphilvia amazon.com

Cetaphil

The same gentle cleanser you trust for sensitive skin is so effective against lice that the regimen has its own name—the Nuvo Method for Treating Head Lice. The method involves coating hair with Cetaphil, combing it, drying it with a blow dryer until it hardens and shampooing it eight hours later. A study in Pediatrics of 133 children with hard-to-treat head lice showed that this method produced close to a 95 percent cure rate when it was repeated once a week for three weeks. The American Academy of Pediatrics cautions that Cetaphil is not approved by the FDA to treat lice.

vinegar in small bowl on tablemarekuliasz/Shutterstock

Salt and vinegar

The combination of salt and vinegar applied to the scalp is believed to be one of the better home remedies for lice for several reasons, Dr. Gandhi explains. First, the salt dehydrates the lice while the vinegar kills young lice and nits. Although it will not kill adult lice, the vinegar is believed to loosen the “glue” that allows lice to hold tight to hair strands.  The best way to apply it is to spray it on hair for 3 minutes before combing out nits. That said, there aren’t many studies supporting the use of vinegar as a lice treatment, the American Academy of Pediatrics cautions. Vinegars such as red wine vinegar may benefit your health in other ways too.

Vacuum cleaner on a carpet with an extra clean strip for copy spaceRosie Apples/Shutterstock

Pay attention to housekeeping

In addition to meticulously removing lice and nits from the hair and scalp of those infected, homes should be cleaned thoroughly, the AAD points out. Adult lice don’t live long when separated from their human host, but they can survive for a day or two on upholstery and stuffed animals. Particular care must be taken to launder all pillows, bedding, towels that have touched the person’s head in the last two days as well as to dry them on the highest setting possible. Stuffed animals or other items that can’t be washed should be sealed in a plastic bag for at least two weeks to make sure all lice and nits are dead. Next: Don’t miss the best way to get rid of the dust in your house.

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Medically reviewed by Elizabeth Bahar Houshmand, MD, on April 29, 2020