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The head louse is a wingless parasitic insect that lives among human hair, feeding on extremely small amounts of blood drawn from the scalp. Although they are not dangerous and do not spread disease, lice are contagious and their bites typically cause the scalp to become itchy and inflamed. Persistent scratching may lead to skin irritation or infection.

Some important facts about head lice include:

  • Lice can only live 24 hours off of a human host.
  • Daily shampooing will not protect against head lice.
  • Head lice do not jump or fly; they are spread from person to person by direct contact or sharing of recently infested items.


The most effective way to control head lice is through diligence and mechanical controls, which typically involve removing lice from hair one by one with a nit comb. A pesticide-laden lice shampoo followed by fastidious nit combing is the most common treatment recommendation.

Some experts believe the greatest harm associated with head lice results from the well-intentioned but misguided use of caustic or toxic substances (pesticide shampoos) to eliminate the lice. As published in the June 2006 edition of Archives of Disease in Childhood, researchers found that 80 percent of lice were resistant to the chemicals in commonly used lice shampoos. The head louse’s resistance to pesticides is just one reason why alternative treatments for lice are sought, the other being the forethought to spare children from exposure to caustic chemical preparations.

Effective Alternative Treatment

When it comes to head lice, the essential oils used in aromatherapy are proving to be one of alternative medicine’s best kept secrets. When applied to the hair, oil coats the exoskeleton of adult lice, basically preventing them from getting oxygen and ultimately suffocating them. A study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health found that lice submerged in olive oil for two hours died but those submerged for only one hour recovered. To effectively coat the lice, thoroughly saturate the head with olive oil mixed with essential oils. After a minimum of two hours, the oil can be washed out and the remnants removed with a nit comb. To account for the life cycle of the head louse, this process may be repeated every four days to kill emerging lice before they mature and can lay new eggs.

*Note: synthetic oils, such as kerosene or motor oil, are dangerous and should never be used.

When using essential oils, perform a skin test to determine a person’s sensitivity to the oils you plan on using. If the skin test uncovers any irritation, choose a different treatment. If irritation is experienced during treatment, shampoo the mixture out immediately. Various sources have touted the use of the following essential oils for the treatment of head lice:

  • Tea Tree
  • Lavender
  • Rosemary
  • Lemon
  • Geranium
  • Ylang ylang

The Proof

In addition to countless reports from moms and healthcare practitioners everywhere, scientific research confirms the superiority of essential oils in treating head lice:

  • In a study published in the March 2004 edition of Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology, Irish researchers investigated tea tree essential oil’s ability to kill head lice. The results concluded that the insecticidal activity of tea tree oil made it an ideal ingredient in fighting lice infestation.
  • In 2002, Israeli researchers conducted a clinical study comparing a natural remedy with a known pesticide spray to halt head lice infestation. The natural remedy used was a commercial preparation with the following ingredients: coconut oil, anise oil and ylang ylang oil. Of 940 children with lice, treatment was successful with the natural remedy in 92.3 percent of subjects, while treatment was successful with the pesticide spray in 92.2 percent of subjects. Researchers concluded that the natural remedy using essential oils was just as effective in controlling louse infestations as a pesticide, and it caused no serious side effects.
  • In a 1996 study, researchers in Iceland looked into the use of essential oils of aniseed, cinnamon leaf, red thyme, tea tree, peppermint, nutmeg, rosemary and pine to treat lice. This study found all of these oils except rosemary and pine to be effective against head lice when applied in an alcoholic solution, followed by a rinse the next morning with an essential oil/vinegar/water mixture.

At least one of ten children will contract head lice before they reach the sixth grade. As these pests become increasingly resistant to chemical pesticide solutions, alternative treatments must be sought. In addition to the scientific support, people who have persevered through a louse infestation are grateful for the wonders of essential oils. Being prepared for a personal plight against these critters, advising clients how to best handle them or playing a role in preventing their transmission can all benefit from an education in aromatherapy.

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