Back to school herbalism — natural ways to nuke nits

Fiann Ó Nualláin shows how to deal with an annual problem using natural products for head lice.

As gardeners, we are well used to dealing with pests, those of us who are active parents or grandparents are in the midst this week of a different infestation — one that some items from the garden may well help with.

Yes the dreaded nits aka head lice are on the back-to-school radar. Before we look at some natural cures let’s look at the issue a little closer.

Firstly nits are not a sign of poor hygiene; in fact they often favour clean heads.

Nits are actually the eggs of small lice — wingless insects that feed off the rich blood supply to the scalp.

The adult (technically a louse), has allergenic saliva that instigates itch and are a real torment to any child that catches them. They like to grip themselves to hair follicles and glue in their small eggs which are visible as specks of brown or pink to the scalp base or a hair follicle. Once attached they will feed until full or have fully completed a lifecycle before moving on.

So really it is a double infestation: adult and egg. Both adult and egg can be dislodged with shampooing and combing. Persistence is needed to completely remove a population from an infested scalp. The adults often drown in sudsy shampoo. The hardish coated eggs not so much.

There are essential oils and volatile oils from aromatic garden herbs and shrubs — lavender, thyme, rosemary, eucalyptus, peppermint — that can permeate that barrier and kill the egg by poisoning it or drying it out. It will still need to be combed out.

Those herbs and aromatic foliage can be turned into tincture, herbal vinegars or sun-infused oils and applied directly to the scalp as a tonic, deterrent, insecticide and cleansing aid.

Many of the over-the-counter remedies may have a flavour or aroma of one of the above, but are heavier on other chemicals that poison the louse. Some treatments kill the adult but not the egg, or damage the egg but don’t really wipe out the adult.

The natural herbs are a bit like a broad spectrum insecticide, hitting at all stages of development.

Those same aromatics in essential oil form can be added to oils, hair gel and shampoos or even applied neat to desiccate the egg and choke the adult.

The louse may crawl from one head to another during proximity of play, from the head to the desk to the next head, during any head down moments and from coat to coat or hat to hat to hat in the cloakroom.

Once it makes its way to a new head, it will begin to feed and lay eggs that hatch within one to two weeks. and again, these same fragrances can dissuade the insect from venturing closer.

Adult head lice will feed three to four times a day. Without blood they dehydrate and die. That takes about six hours in a dry climate and closer to 24 hours in a humid climate. Frequent combing dislodges many and they die off deprived of blood.

Not all will be combed out in a session but frequent combing also disrupts their feeding routine and weakens their ability to reproduce.

Some of the fast-acting treatments we can’t grow in this climate, but can pick up in healthstores are tea tree oil, neem and other stronger essentials can be added neat to the comb or to combing oils or into castile soap or an allergen-free shampoo/ conditioner at washing time.

Their strong aromas are also deterrents to dissuade adults from laying eggs or visiting the scalp in the first place.

There are commercially available ‘natural’ treatments often utilising the powerful insecticidal agent, pyrethrin from chrysanthemum plants, but there are issues about the human toxicity of that agent.

Here are my top five natural-based methods of attack

A little help from the kitchen cupboard

Apple cider vinegar is a scalp tonic, so it is good to perk up the scalp after infestation but it may help in the early stages too, as the acidity of the vinegar can loosen the nit glue and make combing out easier. The apple cider vinegar also stuns the adults making it easier to dislodge/comb them.

Think like a gardener

If you are a gardener you might think of lice as being like aphids. They breathe via air holes on the sides of their bodies. With aphids we use garlic to impair their respiration (also insecticidal) and soapy water to block up the air holes and suffocated them. The same can apply to lice.

A thick conditioner often does the trick and it makes combing out easier too, but oil is fantastically effective as well.

Be it a jasmine or good quality hair oil or a simple DIY olive oil treatment, the oiliness coats the air holes and suffocates them.

As previously mentioned, you can medicate the oil with essential oils to kill faster. It turns out peppermint and tea tree oil speed up louse respiration so they breathe in the oil quicker and die faster.

The shower cap treatment

Overnight applications of oil (olive or coconut) with a shower cap on will suffocate the adult lice but not their eggs but it will make combing and dislodging easier.

Infusing that oil with rosemary, lavender and thyme adds phytochemicals that are detrimental to the nits, but healthy to the scalp and person.

A tincture of those same herbs can undermine egg grip and damage egg membrane and can be used as daytime scalp tonic.

Essential combing oil

This helps loosen the grip of lice and clear them from the hair roots. To 50mls of olive oil add 20 drops of one of the following insecticidal essential oils; tea tree oil, lavender oil, thyme oil, peppermint oil or for a stronger medication keep the ratio but use 10 drops of two varieties of essential oil into the olive oil base.

You can make it stronger again for adults. This oil can be applied to a comb to help kill and dislodge adult and egg.

The oil unglues the fastened egg and makes it easier to catch and comb the adult. Or you can massage into the scalp and leave on overnight— or at least for 12 hours.

Shower caps protect pillows but also hold in the volatile oils for longer thereby killing more pesky lice too.

Head lice deterrent spritz

This works as a scent deterrent. Lice dislike strong fragrances on hair and look for a less- scented head to inhabit. Use a mini spray bottle and to 10 tablespoons of clear alcohol (vodka) add 10 drops each of tea tree and eucalyptus essential oil. Shake well.

Apply the mixture to the scalp in morning before going to school. Repeat for a week after which time the infestation has normally burned itself out. Both those essential oils are also toxic to lice, but safe for short-term use on human scalps. Do continue to comb. All that makes one think that the greenfly are not so bad after all?


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