Before using any product or treatment, you need to determine whether it’s appropriate in your specific situation. A head lice treatment may be appropriate and safe for one person, but carry unacceptable risks for another person of a different age or health status.
That’s why it’s so important to consult your own doctor, before beginning any treatment. While I was researching head lice treatments, I found information that surprised me about possible health risks associated with ingredients in certain head lice products and home remedies.
I include a few examples on this page to demonstrate why it’s important to do thorough research.
The following examples are NOT comprehensive or complete. Always consult your doctor before starting any treatment.
People can become allergic to any ingredient in any product. If someone in your family has allergies, then you probably already know how important it is to read ingredient lists carefully for known allergens.
Even if there are no known allergies, products containing common allergens should often be tested by limiting exposure to only a very small amount at first, in a limited area, to see if a reaction occurs. Your doctor can advise you on this.
NEVER use plastic wrap to cover kids’ hair. Use a shower cap or towel. Plastic wrap and plastic bags pose a suffocation risk.
Pesticides are not necessary to deal with head lice, and they should not be used on children. (You can get rid of lice and nits by combing alone. The only reason to use pesticides or any other product other than a good nit comb is to make the process easier and/or quicker … a potential benefit that does not justify the risk of putting pesticides on a child’s head.)
According to an FDA Public Health Advisory, Lindane puts patients “at risk for serious neurologic adverse events, and even death, particularly with early retreatment”.
According to the Journal of Pesticide Reform, permethrin "is a neurotoxin. Symptoms include tremors, incoordination, elevated body temperature, increased aggressive behavior, and disruption of learning. Laboratory tests suggest that permethrin is more acutely toxic to children than to adults."
According to articles published at the National Institutes of Health, pyrethrins and pyrethroids “can induce adverse health effects, more often in acute poisoning, but also due to chronic exposure.”
According to an article posted by the National Pediculosis Association, malathion is "chemically related to nerve gases developed during World War II. For decades, scientists have been debating whether such pesticides cause birth defects, cancers, and other health problems.
Studies have shown links between regular exposure to malathion and various human maladies, including non-Hodgkins lymphoma, childhood leukemia, anemia, chromosome damage, and weakened immune systems ... Malathion and other pesticides are especially dangerous to children, who are more vulnerable to neurotoxins than adults."
It’s probably never appropriate to apply an alcohol-based product to a child’s scalp and let it sit for any length of time. I would certainly never do this without asking my doctor first. For instance, trying the Listerine home remedy would likely not be safe for kids.
I’ve seen Denorex and other coal-tar shampoos recommended as effective for treating and preventing head lice infestations. However, coal tar in high concentrations is classified by the World Health Organization as a cancer-causing agent. So, while I might consider using a coal tar shampoo once to fight a lice infestation, I would not use it regularly for anyone in my family.
Lots of lice products contain essential oils. These are intended either to smother/kill lice, or simply to repel them. Often the marketers of these products promote them as totally safe to use, even on babies and young children.
However, many essential oils are not well studied. Some of them may well be safe to use frequently … but because they haven’t undergone rigorous controlled testing, it could be there are subtle harmful effects that haven’t been discovered yet.
For example, during my research into lice products I discovered that according to the National Institutes of Health, tea tree oil and lavender oil may have subtle hormonal effects when used long-term.
So, while I might consider using a product containing tea tree oil as a one-time event to treat head lice on my son, I would definitely not have him use a tea tree oil shampoo regularly in order to prevent head lice.
According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, "Eucalyptus oil should not be applied to the face or nose of children under age 2. People with asthma should use eucalyptus oil with caution due to the herbs' potential to trigger an asthma attack. Pregnant and breastfeeding women should not use eucalyptus."
According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, "Peppermint oil should not be used internally or on or near the face in infants and young children because of its potential to cause bronchospasm, tongue spasms, and, possibly, respiratory arrest. However, the amount of peppermint in over-the-counter medications, topical preparations, and herbal teas is likely safe in pregnant and lactating women and in young children."
Rosemary can stimulate uterine contractions at high doses. Pregnant women should either check with their doctors or avoid rosemary oil altogether.
According to The American Head Lice Information Center, "mineral oil (including baby oil) is not recommended because it can be harmful to mucous membranes".
Do not leave mayonnaise on a child's head overnight; it will turn rancid and the child could accidentally consume some of it.
Pregnant women should check with their doctors before applying any treatment for head lice (either to themselves or to kids).
If you use a remedy with oil or petroleum products in it, you may need to shampoo the hair several times with clarifying shampoo or dishwashing liquid to wash all the oil out.
Head lice can be removed safely and successfully. Just stay calm, follow through, make sure all lice and viable nits are gone.