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Scientific proof for tea tree oil as a treatment for headlice

Headlice and nits are a constant nuisance in many households which generally occur in children from head to head contact at school or other social occasions. We have had to deal with the problem many times and through trial and error, have found the best solution to the problem. I have heard from other parents that tea tree oil hasn’t worked for them or that other natural stuff just doesn’t work. The problem usually is not that the treatment did not work, but that is was not executed correctly. I am constantly frustrated with some parents who refuse to de-lice their kids, and thus spread them to others, but have found the best course of action is prevention. My kids still get nits, particularly when they are around infested kids, but far less frequently than they used to.

The NSW Health Department advises against using tea tree oil

I cannot believe that this article has been written by the NSW Department of Health regarding the control of head lice and nits. Firstly it advocates that using chemical treatments is ok, and preferred over natural treatments like tea tree oil. (Department of Environment and Health, NSW Government, 2014.) Lice are pretty hardy creatures and many of them are resistant to chemical pesticides anyway. Secondly, it actually states that using natural methods such as tea tree oil is not advised (see figure 1.) Department of Environment and Health, NSW Government, 2014.) Thirdly, the only non-chemical way that it advises is the mechanical method of using a nit comb and conditioner. (Department of Environment and Health, NSW Government, 2014.)

NSW health advises no tea tree oil for nits

Figure 1: NSW Health advises against natural treatment for nits. (Department of Environment and Health, NSW Govt. 2014.)

 

I will address these points one by one to explain why I think this is misinformation and I will provide scientific proof that tea tree oil is an effective, and safe treatment option for head lice and nits.

  1. Using chemical treatments on children to control headlice is not the best way to proceed as essentially it involve putting potent pesticides on children’s heads which can penetrate into the skin, especially when there are open wounds from headlice feeding on their scalps. The table below provides information about some chemical treatments and their effect on the human body.
Chemical Headlice Treatment

Figure 2: Chemical treatments for headlice and effects on the body

2.Ok here is where I am about to get scientific and provide scientific proof for tea tree oil as a treatment for headlice & nits. Contrary to this ill advice from the NSW department of health, a                  study conducted in 2012 looking at the effects of tea tree oil and nerolidil oil (another essential oil) combined and alone on head lice and their eggs found that;

  • Tea tree oil alone at 1% concentration obtained a 100% mortality on adult lice after 30 minutes of exposure.  (Di Campli, E., Di Bartolomeo, S., Delli Pizzi, P., Di Giulio, M., Grande, R., Nostro, A., & Cellini, L., 2012.)
  • Tea tree alone at 2% concentration had a 100% lice egg abortion rate at 7 days after infestation. (Di Campli, E. et al, 2012.)
  • Tea tree and other essential oils have been found to have a higher success rate of killing chemical resistant lice, and can be used repeatedly with the same killing rate. (Di Campli, E. et al, 2012.

3. The mechanical method, while it can be an effective method for some, it does take persistence and re-infestation is very common. I have tried this method many times on my own children,                  only to find that they present with re-infestation every couple of weeks. It is a very time consuming method, especially for my daughter who has medium length hair.

Scientific proof tea tree oil kills nits

Figure 3: Graph showing findings of study tea tree oil and lice. (Di Campli, E. et al, 2012.)

 

My method for treating and preventing head lice & nits.

  1. Add 20ml of 100% tea tree oil (use gloves) to 200ml of water, put the cap on and shake well. This will create a 10% concentrated formula.
    Tea tree oil headlice treatment

    Figure 4: Tea Tree Oil Headlice Treatment

  2. Test 2 drops behind the ear and leave for 24 hours to check for irritation if this is the first time treating this way.
  3. Lie your child on a towel on their back with their head over the edge of a couch or table. (see figure 5.)
    Natural Headlice Removal Method

    Figure 5: How to safely apply the solution

  4. Put a towel over their eyes and instruct them to close their eyes, tightly.
  5. Using your gloved hands, pour some of the mixture directly on the head, over the bucket and massage all over the head until covered well.
  6. Still holding the towel on your child’s eyes, have them sit up slowly and use the towel to wipe excess from the forehead.
  7. Leave on the head for 3 hours minimum
  8. Wash out with warm water in the shower. Apply conditioner, and rinse.
  9. Lay a towel on your lap and have your child lay on the towel, gently comb the hair with a nit comb, and remove castings with a paper towel.
  10. Repeat in 7 days.
  11. Use a prevention spray of water, eucalyptus oil and tea tree oil every day on their hair before school or large gatherings. Spray inside of hats too. To make this, get an empty spray bottle 500ml and fill with water, add 10mls of eucalyptus oil and 10mls of tea tree oil, shake vigorously.

 

Some warnings about tea tree oil

While I absolutely love tea tree oil as a natural and effective head lice treatment for my children, I understand that not all people can tolerate it, and that it is imperative to use caution with such a potent product. Here are some guidelines for safely using tea tree oil.

  1. Before using this method on yourself or your child’s scalp, put a few drops behind the ear and wait for 24 hours to see if there is a reaction.
  2. When mixing 100% essential oil in water or other bases, always wear gloves. 100% essential oil can cause irritation on the skin, and gloves can save a lot of pain later on.
  3. Always keep away from eyes, as it can be extremely irritating to the eyes. I always lie my kids back over a bucket and cover their eyes with a towel, making them keep them closed. If they do happen to get some in their eyes, I quickly rinse with cold water and we have never had a problem.
  4. Always rinse their hair in the shower with their heads back so the water runs down the back of their hair, making them close their eyes.
  5. NEVER use tea tree oil on pets as it can be very toxic to them.

Until my next post, be well xx

References:

Di Campli, E., Di Bartolomeo, S., Delli Pizzi, P., Di Giulio, M., Grande, R., Nostro, A., & Cellini, L. (2012). Activity of tea tree oil and nerolidol alone or in combination against Pediculus capitis (head lice) and its eggs. Parasitology Research111(5), 1985–1992. http://doi.org/10.1007/s00436-012-3045-0

NSW Department of Environment and Health, NSW Government (2014.) Headlice Treatment. Retrieved February 4th, 2016 from: http://www.health.nsw.gov.au/environment/headlice/Pages/treatment.aspx#bookmark4

Pesticide Research Institute (2016.) Headlice Control: Pesticides. Retrieved 4th February, 2016 from: https://www.pesticideresearch.com/site/?page_id=3331

Mindy Bridgeman

About Mindy Bridgeman

Mindy is currently a student Naturopath and is happily married with four kiddies and a dog. She is interested in living in a frugal, sustainable way, focusing on emotional, spiritual and physical wellbeing. She loves to write about her journey as she travels around, living the best way she can in the hope that she can inspire others to live their best life and achieve wellness on the whole.

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