Combing: The Simple But Best Way to Get Rid of Lice

Combing can be more effective than over-the-counter remedies

Combing Toddler's Hair
Robert Llewellyn / Getty Images

Dealing with lice is, for most of us, an unavoidable reality facing toddlers who are in daycares and preschool settings. But as lice become resistant to common pesticide-based over-the-counter remedies and more parents are becoming hesitant to expose their children to chemicals used in those products, parents should consider putting down the chemicals and picking up the comb. 

"A lot of people think, "I have to bomb the entire house," said Melanie Jones, owner of Professional Lice Mom.

"They get to a point where they're going to try everything. But 95 percent of the focus should actually be on treating the people."

Lice Remedies That Aren't as Effective

Jones recommends that parents step away from so-called natural remedies, such as mayonnaise and vinegar, as well as other over-the-counter removal attempts with hair dye, which are all tactics Jones has seen people try when dealing with a lice infestation. Instead, she offers another solution, simpler solution—a DIY kit with natural treatment products and, what she says is the real key, the proper lice-removing comb.

"I disagree with every lice treatment out there," Jones said of the chemical treatments that have people apply the product, let it sit, then comb it out. These treatments are not always shown to be effective, especially when up against the so-called super lice that are pesticide-resistant.

According to Jones, where people fail, and why there can be an a infestation issue, is that people treat the hair and wait a week to check to see if it worked, instead of doing follow-up combing for 5 to 10 minutes every day.

A Simple and Effective Lice Solution: Combing and Follow-Up

"Using the comb every day is the simplest thing to do," she said. "The lice comb turns into your best form of prevention and should be used to do regular, weekly head checks."

Deborah Altschuler, president of the National Pediculosis Association, agrees that more children are contracting lice.

"An entire nit removal industry has emerged because of a great need for help," she said.

Altschuler also strongly recommends combing as the best way to get rid of lice. She said the association's mission is to "protect children from the misuse, abuse and unnecessary exposure to pesticide treatments for lice that bring more risk than benefit." As part of that mission, it developed the LiceMeister comb in 1997.

"Combing is a scientifically reliable method to remove all lice and nits, which is another way to say it can end an infestation—literally," Altschuler said. "Combing is the safest and most cost-effective approach that accomplishes what chemicals cannot. It enables families to be self-reliant, proactive, and preventive. It allows for regular screening and early detection which makes the combing approach even more practical and realistic."

"The comb is the key to everything," Jones said, adding the focus when dealing with lice should be on manual removal. "There's nothing magical we can put on the head to make them go away."

The comb she recommends—the Nit Free Terminator—looks like a stainless steel pick. Compared to other combs, the Nit-Free Terminator's teeth are longer, closer together and smaller in diameter so that it moves through the hair more easily, Jones said.

It also has micro etched grooves on the teeth, which grips onto eggs and pull them out. The correct way to comb is front to back and side to side, beginning at the scalp.

Eggs are laid on individual hair strands and at an angle. "By changing that direction you're always going to get more out and better results," she said.

And as for nuking your home, parents need to know that the longest lice can live off of the host (your toddler's head) is 24 to 48 hours. It is important to clean sheets, clothing that has been worn, and stuffed animals that your toddler heavily plays with regularly or sleeps with every night.

And it doesn't hurt to run the vacuum over carpets and furniture, but remember: Heat is what kills lice. So washing the sheets, blankets, clothes, and other items, is important, but it's really drying them on high heat that's going to kill the bugs and eggs.

It's also a myth that your pets can get lice—don't worry, it won't spread to animals—and lice don't live on other parts of the body either. In fact, if caught early, lice can actually be relatively containable and easily treated.

Prevention Is Key

"People think that eggs are going to hatch off the head and that's not the case," Jones said." Lice use heat to incubate the eggs. They don't burrow through bedding." There isn't reliable data on how many people get lice a year in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). However, the CDC does estimate that 6 to 12 million infestations occur each year in the United States among children 3 to 11 years of age. Lice is mainly spread through direct head-to-head contact—they can't jump or fly—and many experts agree that infestations are becoming more common.

Jones believes that the increase is due to the popularity of smartphones and tablets. Children are spending more time together sitting side-by-side playing video games, watching apps, and taking selfies. An easy way to prevent the spread of lice among children who are in close contact? Kids with long hair should wear their hair in ponytails, braids, or (even better) a tight bun. This makes it more difficult for lice to move from one head to another. "We're having a hard time eradicating infestations, and it's taking longer for it to go away," Jones said.

The CDC has said it's OK for children to attend school with lice, as it doesn't carry disease. A strict policy would likely cause long-term absences and potential loss of funding, she said.