How to get rid of head lice

I mentioned long, long ago that we had an epidemic I wouldn’t be ready to talk about for a long time.  Now that a long time has passed, I’m ready.

Pediculus humanus capitis

We had head lice.

The fact that I was so embarrassed at the time just illustrates that I had fallen prey to the undeserved stigma associated with head lice.  I know it’s not limited to dirty people.  I know anyone can catch it, regardless of personal hygiene.  I even know that lice prefer clean hair, because it’s harder for them to attach their eggs to oily hair.  I knew all this and I was still ashamed to admit that we had head lice, because bugs crawling around in your hair are gross.

But when we received a call from a mother whose children had recently played with mine, my stomach hit the floor and I knew right away that we were in for it.  One of the kids had already mentioned an itchy scalp, and I was naive enough to brush it off as, you know, an itchy scalp.  Silly me.  Lesson learned.  These days, when I hear the words, “Mom, my head – ” I’m all over that kid with 3 combs and a flashlight.  If she finishes the sentence with the word “aches,” that’s ok.  You can never be too careful.

But my friend’s kids had head lice, and she called me to ask for tips on getting rid of them.  And her kids had recently played with mine.  And one of my kids had an itchy scalp.  Now the truth was out, and the battle was on.

We had head lice once years before, and the harsh chemicals had damaged the hair of some of the girls for years afterward, so I wasn’t eager to go that route.  Since we caught our infestation very early this time, I tried the natural approach: I checked each child thoroughly to determine who needed treatment, and started combing.  I spent hours each day combing for bugs and picking out eggs, thankful that only one or two scalps showed any signs of life at all.

We also bought individual hairbrushes and outlawed all sharing, boiling them frequently.  We wore our hair up, we cleaned bedding, we vacuumed everything in the house, and did all the standard stuff – but without poisons.

After a week, I was horrified to discover that the lice had spread to one or two more scalps in our house.  I stepped up the efforts and began researching other methods of control.  I don’t remember what else I tried, but I do remember the growing sense of desperation as one method after another failed, evidenced by the slow but steady population growth and spread of the beasties throughout the heads in our household.

Finally, I did it.  I went to the drugstore, prepared to shell out $100-200 for bottles of poison that would give my children ugly hair and cancer.  I didn’t want to do it, but we were leaving for a vacation in a few weeks and I didn’t want to risk infecting the friends and family we would be visiting.  It would take multiple doses a week apart, and we had to be done with this by then, hopefully with a safety margin.  We simply couldn’t waste any more time.

Determined to get it right, I asked the pharmacist on duty what brand she recommended.  If I had to go the chemical route, I wanted the best.  I wanted the one that would really, truly, actually do the job.

Her answer shocked me.

“You can buy over-the-counter treatments for head lice and try them, but lice have become very resistant to most of those.  If you really want to kill them, try this: mayonnaise and tea tree oil.  Really douse the hair, wrap it tightly in plastic, and leave it on for at least 6 hours.”

Really?  I was waving a fistful of dollars at her and she didn’t want them?  I was a little disappointed and a little relieved.  I was glad not to spend a lot of money on a cure I didn’t trust, but also a little nervous that this new suggestion would fail us.  Then who would get the blame?  Me?  Her?  Nobody?  And what would we do about our vacation?

I did it.  I bought a gallon jar of mayo, several ounces of tea tree oil, and went to work.  The boys had already been shaved, but every girl in the house wore a plastic-topped mess of highly scented mayo for the rest of the day.  We used about 1 cup of mayo with 1 tsp of tee tree oil for each head, and covered our hair with plastic grocery bags pulled tight like shower caps.  We repeated the process a week later, and for good measure we did it once more.

By the time it was over nobody smiled at being called Mayonnaise Head, and some of us still associate the scent of tea tree oil with head lice, but our hair was never so shiny and healthy.  And we never saw another creepy crawly head bug again.  And we all lived happily ever after.  Except the head lice.  They died and disappeared, never to be seen again.

The end.

PS. My friend decided to go the chemical route, and guess what?  It didn’t work.  They followed the instructions to a tee, and after the prescribed 2 treatments, they were still finding live bugs.  The cure that eventually worked for them: mayo and tea tree oil.  Ba-da-BING!

image credit: Eran Finkle 


  1. We have similar resistant lice here in Czech Republic. We do not have running hot water in our house, just hot water heated with wood, so the thought of trying to wash out mayonnaise with only hot water in the tea kettle was daunting! So, we use a different method that works great. Listerine! Cover hair with listerine and wrap in plastic, let sit two hours, rinse it out. Cover hair with vinegar, wrap and let sit one hour. Wash out of hair and nit comb etc. Repeat in 7 days.
    P.S. since lice is so prevalent here we have the kids wash their hair weekly with a little tea tree oil in the shampoo as the lice do not like the smell of it and tend to stay away….just a little preventative!

  2. How much tea tree oil do you use with the mayo? What are the measurements of both?

  3. Brilliant post. It would be great to use something more nice smelling than the chemicals. Last time we had an infestation of headlice, we used the chemicals, and it smelled disgusting and it wouldnt wash out as well. It took half a bottle of shampoo per child (on our kids with long hair anyway) to wash it out and it still made their hair look greasy when it had dried.

  4. after you do the treatment with the mayo and tea tree oil, do you comb it out with the nit comb? thank you so much for sharing this. you’re helping a lot of people. 🙂

    • You probably want to comb out all the nits, but it’s not strictly necessary. They are very difficult to kill even with harsh chemicals, so you treat every 7 days to catch hatchlings before they can reproduce. After 2 treatments, all the nits you see should just be empty shells. Not something you want in your kids’ hair, but also not something to stress over after the battle is won.

      • I had lice years ago and read about the mayo and tea tree oil–but also about heating your head with a hairdryer to kill all the eggs and not have to keep combing or reapplying the mayo mixture. I had them BAD but this worked. I applied mayo and tea tree oil THICK in my hair–wrapped it in plastic wrap tight and then held a hairdryer to it all until I felt as though my head was ablaze–then wash it all out and tada! You have killed all the hatched ones and the eggs! I have also heard if you will use a shampoo with tea tree oil, it will make you less likely to get lice.

  5. We had success with a similar treatment; cheap shampoo mixed with salt and left on heads for 1 1/2 hrs (head wrapped in a big towel). Worked wonderfully!

  6. I sure would love to pin this in hopes that I NEVER need it! You need an icky bug picture! lol! Seriously, thanks so much for the info. I know it cost you something to share this. <3

  7. Joy @ Caspara says:

    Thanks for posting this! It’s very good information! The only problem is that I read the headline for it in my Bloglovin’ feed last night, but not the post, and promptly dreamed about the whole family getting lice! 😉

  8. I have never had to deal with lice…yet. But like whooping cough which I didn’t think we would ever get, well we all got it last year…all four kids and myself. So I now think how anything really is possible. Thank you for sharing this. I am going to keep this in my special “oils folder” so if it ever happens I won’t have to go to the chemical route. As with the whooping cough we too cured it with essential oils. No chemicals in our bodies and it didn’t last the 3 months that it usually takes to get rid of it.

    • We have came through the worst of what we believe was whooping cough in our children. Although, over the worst, I am still curious which essential oils you used. Did it make the lingering cough just go completely away? Thanks for any information. It has been very challenging!!

  9. My mom, sisters, and I contracted head lice when I was in my late teens. We all had long, thick hair (we don’t cut our hair), so it was almost impossible to get rid of. We tried everything. We ended up having it for 6 months. My mom was ready to shave all of our heads! Finally, in desperation, she talked to the pharmacist, and they recommended the robicomb, an electric comb that electrocutes the lice, but doesn’t harm the person. It worked wonderfully and all the critters were gone in a few days.

  10. I don’t know how I’ve managed to not deal with this issue in my house yet! My kids even had a brief stint in public school… where I got it as a child. But so far they haven’t gotten it.

    I had a friend years ago who swore by the mayo treatment, and was even planning on writing an ebook about it to make money (she never did get around to it). Thanks for the info! We do tend to like overkill here in the US don’t we?

    Interesting side note: when my family started to eat a lot of coconut oil, we all had itchy heads for a week. I carefully examined my children’s hair over and over and never found anything – and I was itching too – but it went away. I came to the conclusion that the coconut oil was killing off the yeast/candida in our scalps. Candida causes “cradle cap” so it makes sense that most of us would have some of it in our scalp (that manifests as dandruff or flakes or whatever). Just FYI. 🙂

  11. Tea Tree Oil is really amazing! I had a cluster of warts on my pinky toe (yuck!) for seven years (no exaggeration there) that did not respond to repeated liquid nitrogen treatments. I had pretty much given up on them ever going away, but with little hope I started putting a drop or two of tea tree oil on my toe every night. It didn’t seem to be helping much after over a month so I stopped and tried not to think about it until I could get them burned off again. But you know what? When I went to the dermatologist, there were no warts to be found! (I had failed to notice since I kept my toe tightly covered in white athletic tape to contain the virus).

  12. We had an infestation that just would not go away a while back. I even wound up getting them (YUCK!) Gave up using the chemicals and all the other suggestions and just combed with nit comb every other day. Supposedly it takes 48 hours before one can lay eggs so we got them out before they had a chance. The third combing came up empty, did a fourth just to be sure. When my daughter got them again, almost exactly a year later, we just combed. So glad we haven’t had any problems for several years now.

  13. Dear Kim,
    Thank you for sharing this with us. I remember this moment of yours but was waiting patiently for you to tell us the story. I had imagined worse so this is nothing. What a great remedy-never heard it before but you can be sure I’ll not forget! Best regards to you and have a wonderful day tomorrow.

  14. I had been guessing that what you had referred to was either lice or bedbugs. Thanks for writing about your experience. This is VERY good information to know. I strongly hope that my household will not ever have to go through this, but if we do, I’ll definitely be trying the mayo and tea tree oil treatment.

  15. For all of the vaccuum-obsessed- don’t forget the car seats! If you are in the car at least once every 24 hours, it’s a good idea to vaccuum the car seats.

  16. Raising Olives did a post on this topic after two of her foster children arrived with lice:

  17. We use coconut oil with tea tree oil. Same effect. I use essential oils in regular shampoo for whoever in the house does not have the lice at the time of infestation. I use tea tree oil and lavender. It repells lice. I also sprinkle pillows, mattresses, and couches with diatemaceous earth mixed with lavender essential oil. It kills the little buggers and their eggs.

  18. The first time my son had nits – thats what they call it here, because of the eggs – we went the chemical route. It worked, but I got a terrible headache and felt ill for days afterwards. All subsequent times have been dealt with with cheap conditioner and a nit comb. It seems to work on the same principle as the mayonnaise – slather on thickly, leave it for a good long while, and tada! Dead bugs. Egg allergies preclude the use of mayonnaise in this house, but cheap conditioner works!!

  19. We just dealt with lice also… first experience. I went a similar route – tea tree oil mixed with olive oil. Really doused the hair with it, combed it through with a nit comb, and the kids slept with shower caps covering it….so it was on there at least 10 hours. We did the combing for several days afterwards, then treated with the oils a week later…even though we didn’t see anything in their hair. Seems to have worked great!

  20. ugh. been there, done that. says:

    I laughed out loud when I saw the title of this post, because just this morning I was thinking about the stigma associated with head lice & wondering if you would ever post something about it if it ever happened to your family! 🙂 Our family’s “Louse Extermination of 2013” (yes, we named it) is a bit too fresh–as in this past weekend–to actually post it on my blog, though, so I’ll just remain anonymous for now.

    We tried two kinds of the medicated stuff more than once, then when two more live ones were found (on *my* head!) after all that, I texted my cousin who knows a lot of herbal remedies. We did 30 drops of rosemary essential oil in 2 T. of olive oil, slathered it on each head and wrapped with shower caps or shopping bags. Left it in overnight, and we haven’t seen another live one. Yet. Praying all the nits died also and we don’t have a reinfestation. All our pillows and non-essential bedding are bagged up in quarantine for a couple of weeks and our home has been vacuumed numerous times. We are tentatively optimistic. I keep checking heads, and so far, all looks good.

    It’s a shame that there is such a stigma associated with having lice. (But, I just have to say that it *is* totally gross to have bugs crawling in your hair! Yuck.) Too bad you didn’t post about this a week ago…

  21. I’m sure I’m not the only one whose head started itching the moment she read this…

    I had lice years ago when I was studying abroad in Wales, and it was interesting to compare the British system for eliminating lice with the American system. I did wash my hair with special shampoo, but I didn’t even have to change the sheets. I was told that lice don’t live long without a human host, so there was no point. The minimalist treatment (with chemicals) worked without ruining my hair, so I’m not complaining.

    • Katherine,
      That was something else I learned in my research. Americans love to buy solutions for their problems, so manufacturers are more than happy to sell us solutions. We didn’t spray poison all over our house and bedding, we didn’t wash all of our fabric possessions, and we didn’t sterilize anything. We washed pillowcases and hairbrushes, and tried very hard not to share anything hairy, but once we eradicated them from our heads the problem simply went away.

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