Image: Jack Dylan

I scrawled “VIGILANCE” in red Sharpie on my calendar, crossed off yet another day of battle, and consulted the complicated recipe taped to my wall involving coconut oil, eucalyptus, and Dawn dish detergent. I was exhausted. For two weeks, I hadn’t slept a full night. We’d broken the washing machine from overuse. On my thumbnail, I’d worn a groove from sliding it through a small person’s hair, over and over again. In the past week, I’d cried in public from sheer stress. Twice.

We were deep in lice land.

Head lice is a childhood scourge—as common a back-to-school ritual as supply shopping and new shoes. Yet, try to get parents to talk about these tiny insects that feed on human blood, their eggs clinging to hair like microdrips of hot glue, and they shudder and clam up. (Many local schools even have a policy of keeping mum about lice outbreaks to avoid “shaming” students.)

I was too tired to be embarrassed. “We’re dealing with lice,” I told a new coworker at an office happy hour. She pulled me into a tight hug. “It’ll be OK,” she whispered. “It. Will. Be. OK.” I had known this person for exactly five minutes.

Our saga began at summer day camp, a gaggle of rowdy kids trying on each other’s hats and goofing off on bus rides. It ended with my daughter scratching like a terrier, a Smurf-size colony feasting on her tender head. I let her binge Transformers movies for hours while I shampooed her hair with chemical lice killer from Walgreens. I combed her long locks as she whimpered in pain between CGI explosions. “I am a terrible mother,” I silently mouthed, accidentally pulling out another clump of hair. Two days later, she was still crawling with the buggers.

Lice, it turns out, have evolved. In at least 25 states, Oregon included, lice have genetically mutated to resist the most common chemicals in lice treatments. They’re the X-Men of vermin. In the end, talking openly about lice saved us. Turns out, a friend and fellow mom had come up with her own ad hoc plan of attack, involving death-by-coconut oil, eucalyptus spritzes (lice hate that stuff), obsessive housecleaning, and twice-daily comb-outs. (Details of this not-necessarily-peer-reviewed home remedy below.) It took two weeks, but we emerged lice free.

My family is a wiser crew these days. I talk about lice openly (some might say incessantly). My child does not share headbands. She once spot-checked a friend’s head before sharing a pillow. She smells faintly of tea tree oil and coconut at all times.

Vigilance. I tell myself. VIGILANCE. Don’t let the lice win.

The 10-Day Lice Treatment: A Portland-Parent-Tested Eradication Method*

This process seems tedious, but we tried the poison shampoo twice and it didn’t kill them and it cost a bundle, so I switched tactics and this actually worked. The key is the nightly comb through. The poison only kills actual lice, it doesn’t kill eggs. You have to comb through and physically remove them every day. The coconut oil treatment is less smell and awful than the poison and smothers the adult lice just as effectively. Lice HATE tea tree, lavender, and eucalyptus oils. When you spray it one you can actually see the horrible little buggers run out of the hair. (It’s gross but satisfying.)

I have had a handful of friends follow this plan, and it has worked every time so far. (In fact, it may take fewer days depending on timing and infestation level. A colleague declared victory and stopped at Day 3.) I now spritz my kid’s hair with tea tree-lavender-eucalyptus oil spray every few days after she takes a bath and she’s avoided lice so far—even when we’ve had outbreaks in her class. Good luck!

You Need:

  • Lice comb
  • Tea tree, lavender, and eucalyptus essential oils
  • Coconut oil
  • Dawn dish soap
  • Bobby pins
  • Patience, dammit
  • Teeny spray bottle (they sell them wherever you get essential-oil-type crap) 

Day one: Coat hair in coconut oil, tea tree-lavender-eucalyptus oil. Wrap in towel/shower cap, and sleep with the coconut ’do overnight.

Day 2 morning: Shampoo out all the oil. Comb through with lice comb, carefully picking out each and every nit. Dip comb water-Dawn solution between every section. If hair is long enough to braid, when finished braid hair back tightly. Spray with tea tree-lavender-eucalyptus oil spray. 

Day 2 night: Comb through with lice comb. Dip in water-Dawn solution between every section. When finished, braid hair back tightly. Spray with tea tree-lavender-eucalyptus oil spray. 

Repeat comb-through process Days 3–9. I know, it’s annoying. Just do it.

Day 9 night: Coat hair in coconut oil, tea tree-lavender-eucalyptus oil. Wrap in towel/shower cap, sleep in it overnight.

Day 10 morning: Shampoo out all the oil. Comb through with lice comb. Dip in water-Dawn solution between every section. When finished, braid hair back tightly. Spray with tea tree-lavender-eucalyptus oil spray.  

Day 10 night: Comb through with lice comb. Dip in water-Dawn solution between every section. When finished, braid hair back tightly. Spray with tea tree-lavender-eucalyptus oil spray. 

That should be it!

*A note that we are magazine writers, not medical professionals, and this is not meant to be medical advice.

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