Uh oh! Your kids just came home from school, and now they are scratching their heads like crazy. Could it be… lice?! If you prefer clean beauty products and are looking for natural home remedies for lice that are safe, you’re in the right spot!

In this post, we’ll unpack:

  • What lice is (and how it spreads)
  • What lice looks likes
  • Home remedies for lice
  • Plus, how to prevent lice

What Is Lice?

As gross as it sounds, lice is a parasite that feeds on human blood, and believe it or not, there are actually three different types of lice: head lice, body lice, and pubic lice. Head lice—what we’ll be talking about here—is also known as pediculosis capitis. (source)

Though the term lice is broadly used, head lice is different than the other two forms of lice, so take heart in knowing that just because you or your child has head lice does not mean that you have body lice or fleas. And fortunately, head lice don’t carry diseases. Phew! (source)

How Do You Get Lice?

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t get lice from being dirty.

Lice actually thrive in clean hair, because they can stick to the clean hair better. (source)

So where the heck do they come from?

Lice is contracted from head-to-head contact with an infected individual.

So in school age children, this could look like touching heads to tell a secret, hugging, bumping heads, or smiling cheek-to-cheek.

Though it is possible to transmit lice from sharing hats, combs, clothing, and barrettes, it’s not the most likely method of transmission. In fact, in one study found there were zero lice on school carpets, even though there were over 14,000 (!!) lice on the children’s heads. (source)

How Common Is Lice?

For this reason, lice is most common in young kids. They are in close quarters at school or daycare, and they are likely to be close enough for head-to-head contact.

Once someone in your home is affected, it may spread quickly through other head-to-head activities include hugging, sleeping in the same bed, or cuddling.

Girls also tend to get lice more often than boys because girls, on average, tend to have longer hair.

What Does Lice Look Like?

There are three stages of lice:

1. Nit

This is the egg, which the female louse “glues” to the hair, about 4 mm up from the scalp. The egg remains in hair for about eight or nine days before hatching into the nymph.  (source)

The above image depicts nits; notice that the eggs are all attached about the same distance from the scalp. (source)

2. Nymph

Once hatched, the louse is referred to as a nymph; you may even see the empty egg/shell casing left behind. It takes a baby louse about 10 days to mature into an adult capable of reproducing. (source)

The image above illustrates the difference between the nits, nymphs, and adults. The nymph is directly in the center. (source)

3. Adult louse

The adults, which are about the size of a sesame seed, have six legs and are tan/white in color. (source)

The image above shows just how small the adult lice really are; those black lines are the teeth of a comb! (source)

Signs of Lice

Are you itchy just reading this? (Me too!) Creepy-crawly feelings aside, how do you know if you have lice?

Below are the most common symptoms of lice:

  • Tickling sensations on the head
  • Problems sleeping (lice feed more at night, so itchiness may be more severe at night)
  • Persistent itching of the scalp
  • Sores on the head
  • Bumps on the neck
  • Visible nits attached to the hair shaft

Nits vs. dandruff: how to spot the difference

Not sure if you have nits or dandruff? Try this quick test: brush your hair. Nits are usually stuck on and don’t brush right off, whereas dandruff can be brushed off.

What to Do If You Get Lice

If you or your children have lice, the number one rule is don’t panic! Remember lice do not carry dangerous diseases and there are many natural options. Lice is much more of an inconvenience than anything else. You got this, mama!

That being said, lice do spread easily so it’s important to act swiftly.

  • Treat infected people immediately (more on that below).
  • Treat your home shortly thereafter (we’ll cover that too).
  • If applicable, alert your child’s school or daycare immediately, so that other parents can catch lice early in their kids. Don’t be embarrassed to make this call. As mentioned above, lice are not an indication of dirtiness.

Conventional Lice Treatment

While it’s super easy to head over to the drugstore and pick up a lice treatment, I have some not-so-great news: Traditional lice treatments (both OTC and prescription) are loaded with chemicals and pesticides. In fact, there are some downright scary pesticides in those shampoos and rinses such as pyrethrum extract and permethrin.

  • One study from France found that pesticide-laden shampoos increase children’s risk for leukemia.
  • And another UK study found that traditional lice treatments increase the risk for brain tumors. (source)

And most (99.6 percent) lice are “super lice,” which means all of those pesticide-laden shampoos don’t have any effect on them. (source) Toxic chemicals without any real louse-killing benefit? No thanks.

Natural Home Remedies for Lice

Luckily, there are plenty of natural home remedies for lice that are very effective. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics says:

“The ideal treatment of lice should be safe, free of toxic chemicals, readily available without a prescription, easy to use, effective and inexpensive.”

1. Combing (aka the surest way to get rid of lice)

Combing the lice and nits out one by one with a fine-tooth comb is the most effective home remedies for lice, and it should be done regardless of any other method you choose. The other methods simply serve to make the combing process easier.

What you need to comb out nits: 

  • A fine-toothed lice comb (Skip the plastic combs, and use a metal one instead. They will hold up better. This one has two sides: one for long hair and one for short hair)
  • A magnifying glass, if your comb doesn’t have one
  • A bowl of clean, soapy water
  • Natural detangler spray, or diluted apple cider vinegar in a spray bottle
  • Paper towels
  • Clips to hold back your child’s hair in sections

How to comb out nits:

  1. Spray detangler or apple cider vinegar all over your child’s hair. (You could also use some fractionated coconut oil in a spray bottle.)
  2. Brush the entire head once over. Use a regular wide-toothed comb for this step.
  3. Part your child’s hair into sections. Clip it and secure.
  4. Starting at the scalp, use the lice comb and comb the first section of hair. Pull the comb from the scalp to the ends. You may notice lice and eggs.
  5. Dip the comb into your bowl of water and/or wipe it on the paper towel.
  6. Repeat each section a few times. Comb each section until you comb through the strands and no lice appear on the comb.
  7. To keep the combed hair separate from the uncombed hair, twist and secure clean hair in a mini bun close to the head. Use a clean clip to secure the combed hair.
  8. Repeat this process for each section of hair.
  9. When you’re finished combing, wash the hair.
  10. Clean your tools in hot, soapy water.
  11. Wash any clothes or towels that were used or worn during this process.
  12. Vacuum the area where you were combing.
  13. Repeat every two to three days until cleared.

Note: This process can take up to three hours, especially if your child has long or curly hair. Before beginning the comb-out process, make sure your child has had a snack, had a potty break, and is ready to sit for a bit. Many mamas take advantage of a little screen time here, but you could also try playing an audio book. If weather permits, some parents also prefer to do this on a back porch or stoop to minimize cleanup.

2. Suffocate the lice with oil

A 2010 study from Brazil found that coconut oil was more effective in killing lice than most OTC medications. (source) To suffocate the lice with coconut oil, you must let the oil sit on your hair overnight, then comb your hair.

Here’s what you need to do:

  1. Rinse your hair and let dry.
  2. Apply coconut oil, so that all of the hair is saturated.
  3. Apply a plastic shower cap.
  4. Leave the shower cap on for at least eight hours. (If you choose to do this overnight, throw an extra towel over the pillowcase to prevent staining the pillowcase.)
  5. Follow the comb-out method listed above.

3. Try garlic

Fun fact: Garlic is one of the oldest home remedies for lice. It has been used since the 600s AD! (source)

Simply rub garlic oil on the scalp to help kill any live lice. For extreme cases, you can try a garlic hair mask, which is more potent than the oil.

To make a garlic hair mask:

  1. Mash ten cloves of garlic.
  2. Add three tablespoons of lemon or lime juice to create a paste.
  3. Apply this as a hair mask, and let rest for 30 minutes.
  4. Rinse, then follow the comb-out method listed above.

4. Soak with hydrogen peroxide

Hydrogen peroxide has been used for decades for wound care, but hydrogen peroxide is also a staple in many naturally-minded cleaning closets. Many mamas find that this method is much easier for kids to deal with because it is does not have as strong of a smell as the ACV. As a bonus, this spray will help clean any scabs or scraps on the scalp that occur due to excess itching.

To make a hydrogen peroxide spray:

Hydrogen peroxide can also be used to soak your lice comb, as well as your barrettes and wide-toothed combs. Pour a little into a bowl and soak.

5. Try iodine

Interestingly, bathing in diluted iodine is a treatment for horses that have horse lice (source). Horse lice is not the same as head lice, but it is interesting that, anecdotally, many individuals have found that iodine has worked for them as well. Just don’t bathe in it!

To help kill the nits:

  • Apply two to three drops of liquid iodine on your scalp

6. Use apple cider vinegar

Remember that the female louse glues her eggs to your hair? Apple cider vinegar can help loosen the glue that holds nits in your hair.

Try soaking, rinsing, or spraying on the apple cider vinegar. You can use this as your detangler spray as well. Follow up with the comb-out method.

How to Treat Your House for Head Lice

Once you start treating your hair with the above home remedies for lice, you also need to treat your house. Treating your house may seem like a big production, but this will help prevent any further infestations. If it seems overwhelming, make a checklist and just focus on one task at a time.

  • Treat linens and clothing: Wash all clothing and bed linens in hot water (130F degrees or higher) for at least 20 minutes.
  • Treat stuffed animals and coats: Dry-clean anything that’s not machine-washable; alternatively, you can put these items—stuffed animals, coats, etc—in sealed plastic bags for two weeks.
  • Clean hair tools: Soak brushes and combs in hot, soapy water, then place in a bag and leave in the freezer for two days.
  • Wash the floors: Vacuum floors and furniture. Don’t forget to vacuum curtains as well. Empty the canister and throw away the trash immediately.

Do You Need to Cut Your Hair If You Get Lice?

Tempted to go chop off your mane? Before you cut your hair, know this: cutting your hair has never proven to be one of the more effective home remedies for lice, because lice live so close to the hair shaft.

To eliminate those nits (which are only 4mm away from your scalp), you’d need to shave your hair, which is not a desirable option for many people–especially when it’s not necessary. Instead, stick with the natural home remedies for lice listed above.

Do Pets Need to Be Treated for Lice?

Worried about having to do a three hour comb-out on your dog? Don’t worry!

Head lice don’t live on household pets, so you can leave that item off of your to-do list.

How to Prevent Lice

With all this talk about combing out lice and nits and eggs, you probably have one question on your mind: These home remedies for lice are great, but how do I prevent lice in the first place?! Unfortunately, it’s very hard to prevent lice with 100 percent certainty, especially if you have kids ages 3-11.

Use essential oils

Studies show that ginger, eucalyptus, tea tree, cedarwood, and lavender essential oils are highly effective ways to prevent lice.(source, source) There are many ways to use essential oils, but most mamas successfully keep lice at bay by:

  • Adding kid-safe essential oils into your normal shampoo
  • Making a preventive hair spray
  • Making a preventive hat spray

Note: Not all essential oils are safe for use around small children. Eucalyptus is not safe for children, but if you or your partner have lice, be sure to use it when you’re not around small children. Read this essential oil guide to learn more.

How to make a preventive hair spray

What you need:

  • A spray bottle
  • Detangling spray or hair gel
  • Essential oils

What to do:

  1. Add 2% of your essential oils (any combination of tea tree, lavender, cedarwood, and/or lemon) to your detangling spray or gel. (Note: For a 2% dilution, add 12 drops of essential oils for each 1 ounce of detangling spray.)
  2. Spray or apply each morning when you get ready for the day (or when you get your child ready for school).

How to make a preventive hat spray

What you need:

What to do: 

  1. Add 12 drops of your essential oils (any combination of tea tree, lavender, cedarwood, and/or lemon) to one ounce of witch hazel.
  2. Store this solution in the fridge and make only enough for one week at a time, as there are no preservatives in this recipes.

Other ways to minimize your chances of getting lice:

  • Don’t share brushes or hair accessories (and teaching your child not to share brushes)
  • Don’t share clothing, especially hats
  • Avoid close contact with anyone infested

How About You?

Have you or your children ever had lice? Which home remedies for lice worked for you?