Writer and mum-of-two Hannah Ebelthite spent most of last year battling head lice – and going a bit mad. Here, she shares her story and how she discovered what works to help get rid of nits, so you don’t have to go through the same trauma …
‘We need to talk about nits.’
That was the WhatsApp message I sent to my group of school-mum friends, as my seven-year-old twin boys and I sat with towels around our shoulders and cold, greasy lotion on our heads for the FOURTH time last year.
My message to them wasn’t just a cry for sympathy, it was my effort to break the silence.
We must have picked up head lice from someone at school, I didn’t blame anyone nor did I feel ashamed. I just felt we needed to get our heads together (or not …) and share solutions.
Despite me telling the school office and teachers numerous times, only two notes went home in book bags over the whole year, warning parents to check their child’s hair and treat it if they found anything.
The school doesn’t like to make a big deal, lest they embarrass anyone (a recent survey found 30% of mums and dads would fear judgment from other parents if their kids had lice).
I was quite happy for everyone to know. Maybe that way we’d stop getting re-infested.
It started around May last year. One of my sons said his head was itchy.
At the time, Sam had beautiful, shoulder-length blond locks, which he loved. I loved his style and desire to be different at such a young age.
And there THEY were. A few tiny little moving black dots (head lice). And plenty of translucent, poppy-seed sized eggs (nits) clinging to the hair near his scalp.
I rushed to the pharmacist and bought the lotion they recommended, for a shockingly expensive (I thought) £16. I had to apply it, then pull a tiny comb painstakingly through his hair (which he hated).
I also treated twin two, Theo, although he had much shorter hair and no sign of nits. But I wanted to be sure.
I threw their clothes, bedding and all our towels into the machine for a boil wash. Then I remembered they’d climbed into our bed that morning, so I washed all our sheets, too.
They only live on the head
But according to Ian Burgess, head lice expert and director of Insect Research and Development Ltd, I needn’t have bothered with the washing.
‘Lice are wholly parasitic, they can’t live in the environment, they only live on the head, feeding from your blood,’ he says.
Yuk. In fact, it’s your immune response to their bites that causes the itching, not them crawling around (which is what it feels like).
‘Even fully grown lice are only 3mm long, you can’t feel them,’ Ian insists. ‘Surveys have shown only 50% of people with lice have itchiness.’
This might explain why head lice outbreaks happen – unless parents actually check kids’ hair, they might not know.
Why some treatments don’t work
A week and a half later, the lice were back on both my boys. So we went through the whole darn process AGAIN. I was convinced I was itching, so I soaked my hair in lotion as well.
That was the start of it. And it went on like that until November. I’m not kidding (I wouldn’t joke about it, I’m still too traumatised).
I had Sam’s lovely locks cut off (he was OK with it). Still the nits came back.
Ian Burgess wonders if I was mistakenly buying an insecticide-type treatment. ‘Lice have been resistant to these since the mid-1990s, but unfortunately some are still on the market,’ he says.
‘The majority of treatments now are based on synthetic oils. The most effective are silicones, such as dimeticone. They work by blocking a louse’s breathing holes, which dehydrates it (lice ‘breathe’ water).
‘This makes them immobile and they die some hours later. Some formulations may also penetrate and damage eggs.’
Does combing help get rid of nits?
Stuart Gale, chief pharmacist for www.oxfordonlinepharmacy.co.uk, believes combing is, ‘by far and away the most effective and safe method for removing head lice’.
He suggests applying conditioner to dry hair, removing knots with a normal hairbrush, then sectioning and using a fine-toothed metal comb.
The key is that he recommends repeating the process every two days until all signs of lice and eggs have disappeared – easier with short hair. Less so if you have long or thick hair, or if you have to do it yourself, because you just can’t see if you’re doing it properly.
I bought a Nitty Gritty, a specially designed metal comb the pharmacist recommended. I recruited my husband to help – it took nearly two hours with lots of swearing.
Not exactly date night. It wasn’t the method for me.
Why did nits keep coming back?
What we could never work out was whether we were failing to get all the eggs out and they were hatching a few days later, or whether the twins were simply picking up head lice again because they were so rife in school.
‘It could have been either,’ says Burgess. ‘A good treatment shouldn’t require endless combing or leaving on for hours. But you do need to repeat it a week or two later, to kill any new lice.’
The good thing was, while my sons found the treatments tiresome, they weren’t upset by the lice themselves.
One night in bed, I scratched an itch and plucked a louse out with my fingers. Ugh.
Half the time, though, I couldn’t tell if I really had lice or I was imagining it. I’d ask my husband to check and more often than not, he’d say, ‘There’s nothing there, you’re fine.’
Trichologist Iain Sallis says all those harsh, drying lotions probably add to the itchy feeling: ‘Exposing your scalp repeatedly to chemical treatments may cause irritation, and along with the fine tooth combing, may make the scalp very sore and itchy indeed,’ he points out.
Often in tears
By October, I’d spent nearly £200 on treatments, tools and haircuts. I’d tried every brand my pharmacist sold. I’d tried lotions you leave on overnight, sprays you rinse out after 15 minutes. I tried natural alternatives.
I read up on old wives’ tales like applying mayonnaise, or mashed garlic all over your scalp at night, but decided that was a step too far.
I was often in tears and eventually I made my husband and both boys go to the barber for a grade one. Suddenly I was living with three skinheads. My poor husband had never even had lice.
Fortunately, he looked rather handsome with no hair and the boys loved looking just like their dad. I couldn’t bear the thought of cutting my own hair off, double standards I know.
Oh, and being a skinhead doesn’t mean lice can’t affect you, as we found. Head lice only need a few millimetres of hair, and I found nits in my boys’ hair again within a couple of weeks’ growth.
Finally, a solution to nits
So what worked, in the end? I stuck to one product, Hedrin Once, and repeated it weekly for a month (this isn’t an advert, another silicone-type lotion might work fine too if used consistently. Look for the ingredients dimeticone, octanediol or isopropyl myristate).
By the beginning of November, we were finally clear. I still itched. I still do today when I think about it. But I’m pretty sure it was, then and now, a combination of chemical irritation and my imagination. Phantom lice.
Now I check my boys’ scalps weekly and ask my husband to do mine. Burgess reminds me that if they do come back, I don’t have to make it such a big deal, strip all the beds and give ‘just in case’ treatments to everyone. ‘Just treat those who have it,’ he says.
What I hope most is that by talking openly (or whingeing incessantly) about my experience to parents and teachers at school, I’ve helped reduce some of the stigma.
If other families are affected, I hope they won’t feel embarrassed and can come straight to me to ask for advice – and not waste the time and money I did on ineffective approaches.
It’s about time we saw head lice as the (all too) common childhood issue they are, on a par with colds, tummy bugs or chicken pox.
Most of us will get them at some point. So let’s break the taboo – and wipe the little critters out, fast!
Blast those nits: what worked for us
*Please check labelling on these products as some may not be suitable for children.
This comes out best in trials and is the most non-nonsense, least messy one. Spray on thoroughly, leave for 15 minutes, wash off. Repeat a week later (and maybe a week after that). That bit’s key, don’t skip it to save money.
Nitty Gritty Comb
I actually think this is an instrument of torture and not great for hair, but if you have a lot of lice and eggs to remove and prefer not to use a chemical treatment, using this with a thick conditioner for a few days on the trot is pretty effective. It’s helpful for inspecting scalps thoroughly, too (apparently detection combing is four times more effective than simply ‘having a look’).
Kit & Coco range
I haven’t tried this range but it’s a plant-based product using coconut oil (which works like silicones do) so another one worth trying if you prefer that route. It comes with a nice hairband to wear to school and some fun temporary tattoos, so might be one to try if your child seems upset by having lice.
Vosene Kids 3-in1 Shampoo and Conditioning Defense Spray
These contain tea tree and citronella and smell like a summery insect repellent. Who knows if they really stop lice climbing on – but we haven’t had them back since I started using it on the boys, so I’m not stopping now.
Puressentiel Lice Repellent Spray
This is natural and has lavender in so it smells nice. The active ingredient is Citrodiol (from lemon eucalyptus essential oil) and supposedly lasts 24 hours. I spritz it over the boys’ hair on school mornings as an extra layer of protection. Burgess says there is some evidence repellents help.
Phil Smith Be Gorgeous Gently Does It Ultra Soothing Shampoo and Conditioner
Although tea tree and mint are key ingredients, these aren’t specifically designed to repel lice. I was recommended these for my sore and irritated scalp and have found them comforting to use.
This trichologist-developed supplement supports healthy hair growth and thickness, with protein, zinc, vitamin D, selenium and biotin. I’m giving it a try because I don’t think my hair’s ever been the same since Nitgate.
Nits: what’s the truth?
Lice only like clean hair
‘This was a line put out in the 1970s to try and remove the stigma and get middle class families to face up to nits,’ says Ian Burgess. ‘Personal hygiene is irrelevant, lice don’t discriminate.’
Only girls get them
They may hide more easily in long hair and girls may play together more closely, but boys are just as vulnerable. It’s not just school where they flourish, either – family parties, sleepovers, extra-curricular activities, anywhere sociable is a breeding ground.
They prefer long hair
‘Lice only need a couple of millimetres of hair,’ says Ian Burgess. ‘Short hair makes detection and treatment easier, and but they can still hop on, so no need to shave your children’s hair off.’
They can survive off the scalp
‘Lice can’t fly, jump, swim – or survive and reproduce away from their food source, which is your scalp,’ Ian Burgess says. ‘They can’t live on your clothes, towels, pillowcases or furniture, they will dehydrate within hours and die soon after. They only thrive on the head.’
Some people are immune
It seems so. ‘Just as some people never get bitten by mosquitoes while others attract them in droves, some scalps escape infestation while others provide luxury homes for lice,’ says Ian Burgess. ‘We don’t know why – you just have to hope you and your family are the lucky ones.’