When Courtney Emanuels, a Bellevue mother of four, spotted lice on her 2-year-old daughter, Anna, she went looking for a product that didn't contain the pesticides she'd used on her older daughter. She found Nuvo, which uses the gentle skin cleanser Cetaphil to suffocate, rather than poison, the lice. Although it is not approved by the Federal Drug Administration for lice removal, research published in the September 2004 issue of the journal Pediatrics found it to be 96 percent effective.
Emanuels used Nuvo on herself and on Anna and "it worked like a charm," she says. The lice did not return.
While lice may be more of a problem during the school year – when kids are sharing hats and hairbrushes more frequently – these unwelcome little critters can show up in a child's hair anytime. They can crop up at summer camps where children share communal quarters. Health officials estimate there are 6 to 12 million cases of lice infestation in the United States each year.
Many parents are looking for less-toxic ways to treat head lice, especially in the face of reports that lice are becoming resistant to pesticides, although the American Academy of Pediatrics still recommends the pesticide-based treatments.
And local health professionals agree that pesticides are becoming a problem. Jill Lewis, program manager for student health services (head nurse) for Seattle Public Schools, says the pesticides are generally more effective than methods that smother the lice with thick or oily substances, but repeated use can cause problems. "It's not a safe thing to use over and over again," Lewis says. "Parents must be really cautious to follow all of the directions on the box."
Nancy Wessenberg, a public health nurse for 40 years, works for the Child Care Health Program at Public Health – Seattle & King County. She states unequivocally that "the chemicals don't work – the lice are resistant to them."
She recommends Lice Out, a product sold at Walmart and derived from a women's personal lubricant gel. It traps live lice so that they cannot move. However, she emphasizes that any lice treatment will only work if it's accompanied by thorough combing to remove the nits and prevent re-infestation.
The FDA approved Ulesfia (benzyl alcohol lotion, 5 percent) in April 2009, as a non-pesticide prescription treatment for lice in children 6 months and older, and many companies offer products labeled as safe and effective, although they're not approved by the FDA nor scientifically tested. A Seattle company, Lice Free A.S.A.P., sells an enzyme nit killer called "Lice Good-Bye" with a "Terminator" nit comb, caps, gloves, hair clips, a cape and a lice-repellant conditioner.
Another area company, Lice Knowing You, treats customers at home or in their salon with a nontoxic, plant-based enzyme that dissolves the nit glue.
In the end it's a good idea to stay on the lookout for lice – in any season.
"Parents should watch for lice on a routine basis," Lewis advises. "They're something that can occur at any time."
Wenda Reed is a Seattle area health writer and frequent contributor to Seattle's Child.