When a child has head lice, the first reaction of many parents is panic. Given the combination of fear and embarrassment that often surround a head lice infestation, parents want to get rid of the lice as quickly as possible. It’s no different here in Central Wisconsin. When your child gets lice, you race to the drug store, scan the numerous over-the-counter (OTC) lice treatment options, and grab whichever product looks most appealing.
There are three problems with this approach.
First, most OTC products are no longer effective, at least not in the United States. “Virtually all lice in the U.S. have developed resistance to over-the-counter and prescription shampoos containing the toxic chemical Permethrin,” says the website Beyond Pesticides, about the active ingredient in lice-removal products. Several recent studies have confirmed the widespread resistance of head lice to retail lice treatment products. Wisconsin is among those states with what are called “Super Lice”, lice that are resistant to most OTC and prescription Permethrin-based treatments.
“This isn’t really controversial,” said John Clark, a professor of environmental toxicology and chemistry at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and co-author of one of the studies of resistant head lice. “This is a problem we’ve been showing in development over a period of about 20 years. But our new work now shows that head lice are now almost 100 percent [resistant]. That means there’s an awful lot of resistant insects out there in the U.S. and elsewhere.”
Reason #2 not to use commercial lice-removal products: Using them may not be safe. Permethrin is a neurotoxin that kills lice by shutting down the insect’s central nervous system. Lice-removal products have been deemed safe when used as directed, but overuse is common – panicked parents often over apply the product – and serious health problems may arise as a result. Richard Clapp, an environmental health expert and professor emeritus at Boston University, has said that Permethrin, especially when combined with other problematic chemicals, can cause seizures and, down the road, behavioral problems. In a 2009 memo the EPA classified Permethrin as “likely to be carcinogenic to humans” in some conditions.
Another concern is that “environmentally relevant levels of Pyrethroids” – the class of pesticide that includes Permethrin – are also common in many homes where they are used in some household insecticide products. This means that using lice shampoo, even the amount directed, in addition to Pyrethroids already in a home can over-expose children to the pesticide.
The third reason for thinking twice before using OTC lice-removal products is that they don’t kill lice eggs, or nits, which are the more important problem when battling against head lice. “Pyrethrins (another type of Pyrethroids) can only kill live lice, not unhatched eggs (nits),” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nits are cemented to hair follicles with a very strong glue-like substance, and must be manually removed one-by-one. If even two nits are missed, you’ll simply get a new case of head lice a week or so after the treatment is applied. Many experts recommend manual removal as the only truly reliable way to remove lice at all. If you’re going to comb through a child’s hair strand-by-strand anyway, they reason, why risk the exposure to pesticides?
So, here’s a recap of the three reasons to pause before running to the drug store to buy a pesticide-based lice-treatment product: They don’t work; they may not be safe; and they don’t kill the lice eggs.
Fortunately there is now a pesticide-free alternative to lice-removal medications. It’s a medical device (instead of a shampoo) that uses heated air to dehydrate and kill head lice and 99.2 percent of lice eggs. It has been clinically proven to be safe and effective, and has been cleared for use by the FDA. It is called AirAllé, and treatment using this device is available exclusively at Lice Clinics of America treatment centers throughout the United States and around the world. In almost all cases the head lice are removed in a single 60-90 minute treatment, and the treatment is guaranteed.