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Why use the olive oil protocol to treat head lice infestations?

Excerpt from the book Head Lice to Dead Lice by the Lice Ladies, Joan Sawyer and Roberta MacPhee at Sawyer Mac Productions.

The Lice Ladies at respectfully disagree with some of their esteemed colleagues over some issues in the treatment and prevention of head lice.

We believe that informed consumers, in collaboration with their health care providers, are fully capable of deciding which treatment approach is best for themselves and their families. So, here is the information we feel you need to make an informed decision in the face of conflicting recommendations.

Can suffocating agents like olive oil eliminate head lice infestations?

Lice Ladies:

We were introduced to the concept of using olive oil to smother head lice by a group of entomologists in Israel who were concerned about over-using pesticides on their own young children. In Israel, resistance to permethrin developed ten years before it developed in the US because Nix was introduced in Israel a decade before it was introduced here.

Intrigued with the idea of developing an effective, safe, non-pesticide protocol for eliminating head lice, we asked Dr. Richard Pollack at the Harvard School of Public Health to conduct laboratory tests using olive oil to smother head lice. As a preliminary test, we provided the Harvard School of Public Health with live lice and asked them to test whether head lice could be smothered by olive oil. The following is a letter from Dr. Pollack regarding the results of this experiment:

Harvard School of Public Health
Department of Tropical Public Health
Laboratory of Public Health Entomology

6 June 1997

Dear Joan,

I commend your efforts to identify treatments for head lice that are effective, safe and provide an alternative to traditional methods. As you know, reports from earlier in this century occasionally made reference to olive oil as one component of a more complex formulation for treating infested patients. Olive oil itself has recently been touted by numerous people who attest to its value as one facet in a program designed to eliminate the lice. You convinced us to measure the effect of olive oil on live adult and nymphal head lice. Accordingly, we removed one dozen active lice from the hair of one child and completely submerged six in olive oil. Lice in oil ceased moving within five minutes. Of three lice that were removed from the oil after one hour, two recovered and regained normal activity. None of the three lice treated for two hours recovered. The remaining six non-treated lice remained fully active well beyond the duration of this test. Any insect will undoubtedly succumb to anoxia (lack of oxygen) if submerged in oil for a prolonged period. Olive oil (or other similar product), if applied in copious amounts to the scalp and maintained for a prolonged period, may offer a means of reducing or eliminating the active stages. We have not tested the effect of oil on the eggs (nits).

Your video, "Head Lice to Dead Lice" was informative and amusing. I wish you well in your efforts to identify alternative treatments.

Best wishes,

Richard J. Pollack, Ph.D.

Dr. Pollack on the Harvard web page: "It would be an error to extrapolate from data of such an informal test; therefore, we do not recommend the use of olive oil (or other such substances) as a treatment for head lice."

Lice Ladies:

The entomologists at the Harvard School of Public Health offered to conduct further tests in Ethiopia for a fee of $10,000. For Harvard to test the protocol on children in the U.S. would have been prohibitively expensive due to Harvard’s complicated testing procedures when working with children in this country.

Dr. Pollack explained that we would not be able to publish any results from such a study until it had been formally published and there was a good chance it would never be published because it is already common knowledge that oil smothers insects.

As such, we elected to conduct further testing on our own, with children in the United States, using our olive oil protocol, administered by the children’s own parents and under the supervision of a professional nit-picker. This approach allowed us to adjust the olive oil protocol until it worked consistently for normal parents who were inexperienced in removing head lice.

While this would not be considered "a formal study" in the scientific community, we felt it was the best way for us to develop a realistic protocol that worked on real North American kids in real North American homes. It also allowed us to publicize our findings immediately.

Mary Ward, a professional nit picker, worked with dozens of families in their own homes to develop the Five-Step Battle Plan. Our standard for success was the complete elimination of the infestation-- the entire family had to be nit and louse-free for ten full days following completion of the 21-day protocol.

The result is our Five Step Battle Plan as taught in the book and video entitled, "Head Lice to Dead Lice."

Harvard web page warns:

"Olive oil (or any similar food-grade product) would seem intrinsically safe, but may have associated hazards, nonetheless. Oil may cause accidents (slips), and would be difficult to remove from the hair and scalp (detergents can cause irritation). Do not use motor or machine oils, as these materials can be harmful."

Lice Lady:

We have yet to hear of anyone "slipping" on olive oil, but we suppose it could happen. Common sense would dictate that you not pour olive oil onto the floor or bottom of your tub or shower. (If you are prone to do that sort of thing, please don’t tell us why.) Washing hair in the sink would seem to solve the problem, in any case.

Olive oil is not difficult to remove from the hair and does not require the use of harsh detergents. Simply shampoo with any clarifying shampoo for oily hair like Prell or Herbal Essence Clarifying Shampoo for Oily Hair. Massage the shampoo onto the oily hair without wetting it first. Work up a lather, then add water, rinse and lather again. It’s easy! (Gee, we would have thought scientists would know this.)


Today the big problem related to head lice may be the chemicals used to treat them. Because most people want head lice off their heads sooner rather than later, they spend millions of dollars on louse treatment products. The makers of pediculicides (the chemicals used to treat head lice) take in over $150 million a year from assorted insecticidal louse shampoos, crème rinses, and sprays.

Any chemical that kills pests is a pesticide, and all pesticides have the potential to cause serious side effects. The general consensus among public health professionals is that people need to worry more about the pesticides they are pouring on their children’s heads, they need to check with their physician or pharmacist, to make sure the brand they choose is effective and safe for their child.

Be careful with products that claim to be "natural" yet kill lice on contact. If a product is capable of killing an insect on contact it is a pesticide and should be used with extreme caution. Children's scalps are especially absorbent and parents must decide if these pesticides are worth the risk.


Many essential oils are extremely potent and should not be used on young children, babies or pregnant women. Products like Hairclean 1-2-3 contain essential oils. Please report incidents of miscarriage, or any other side effects following the use of products containing essential oils to Please state the name of the product used, list side effects and tell us how and when this product was used.


The NPA (National Pediculosis Association) promotes nit combing (with their trademarked nit comb) and manual nit removal alone as the best choice for eliminating head lice infestations.

Lice Ladies: Nit combing with a good metal nit comb is essential as one step in a head lice treatment protocol. However, combing alone is akin to shoveling snow during a blizzard. It may work eventually, but it would be unnecessarily difficult and time consuming. Our experience has shown that no comb alone will remove every single louse and nit. It is simply too easy for a louse to avoid the nit comb unless it’s system is first shut down by the olive oil.

Most comb manufacturers claim that their combs are 100% effective in removing nits. However, these combs are generally tested in laboratories on body lice eggs which are larger than head lice eggs.
3. Combing techniques

The NPA suggests having two or more people combing at the same time to "catch" the live lice. They also suggest using scotch tape to catch live lice.

Lice Ladies: Most families we know have a difficult time finding one adult with enough time to treat infestations, never mind several. There’s no harm in this method if nit combing is a passtime your family enjoys, but for those of us with other obligations, we feel that shutting down the lice with the olive oil and having one person assigned to combing is more realistic. And it is probably less intimidating to the child to have only one adult hovering over them. Of course, this would depend on your own family culture.

We found the Scotch Tape Technique a little tricky to accomplish without also catching hairs on the tape, which pulled the hair. When we tried this, mobile children were quickly up and out of the chair long before any additional lice could be spotted.

Pediculicidals, Shampoos and Crème Rinses
DISCLAIMER: A listing on this product information chart does not mean a product is endorsed by the AHLIRC. Individuals should consult with their Doctor and/or Pharmacist before using any product. Individuals may also wish to patch test a product inside of their arm to determine potential allergic reactions. Product costs may vary.
Brand Name Manufacturer Active Ingredients Killing Method Cost # of Applic FDA Approval Warnings Potential Adverse Effects Lice Ladies Experience with Product
Rid Warner Lambert Piperonyl, Butoxide 4%, Pyrethrum extract, equivalent to .33% Pyrethrins. Chemical: affects central nervous system. $13.99 - 4 oz. Includes plastic comb 2, second treatment 7-10 days later Yes Ragweed sensitivity, African chrysanthemum, check with doctor before using on children under two, pregnant women and nursing women. Don't ingest, protect eyes, potential skin irritation, avoid contact with mucous membranes (inside of nose, mouth, vagina). Lice highly resistant.
Pronto Del Pharmaceuticals Same as above. Same as above. $9.99 - 22 oz. Comes with comb: Metal teeth, plastic handle, gloves. Same as above. Yes Same as above. Same as above. Lice highly resistant.
CVS CVS Same as above. Same as above. $8.99 - 8 oz. Comes with 2 plastic combs. Same as above. Yes Same as above. Same as above. Lice highly resistant.
A-200 Hogil Same as above. Same as above. $7.25 - 2 oz. Same as above. Yes Same as above. Same as above. Lice highly resistant.
Nix Creme Rinse Pfizer Permethrin 280 mg. 1% Same as above. $12.39 - 2 oz. 1 or 2 Yes External use only, protect eyes, no contact with mucous membranes, don't use on children under two, pregnant or nursing women check with doctor. Breathing difficulties or asthmatic episodes in susceptible persons, itching, redness or swelling of scalp. Lice highly resistant.
Ovide (prescriprton only) Medicis Pharmaceutical Corp. Malathion, 0.5% Chemical $35 - $40 1 or 2 Yes Counter indicated for neonates and children under 6, pregnant or nursing women. Flammable, may cause dandruff or minor skin and scalp irritation, mild conjunctivitis with eye contact. High resistance reported, especially in Europe. Click here for more information on Malathion.

DISCLAIMER: A listing on this product information chart does not mean a product is endorsed by the AHLIRC. Individuals should consult with their Doctor and/or Pharmacist before using any product. Individuals may also wish to patch test a product inside of their arm to determine potential allergic reactions. Product costs may vary.
Brand Name Manufacturer Description Cost Type Warnings
Lice Comb Quantum Long metal teeth, short pick-like handle. $6.99 Manual  
Acumed Lice Comb Health Enterprises All metal, short teeth, long handle. $4.99 Manual  
Lice Comb Kit Health Enterprises Two sets of metal teeth, one long, one short. Long plasic handle. 5x magnifier, tweezer and cleaning brush. $9.95 Manual  
Lockomb Gicil Europe All plastic with two rows of short teeth. Not yet available in this country Manual  
Robi Comb Arr Health Technologies, Inc. Short, metal coated teeth. $29.95 Electric, battery operated Can't be used or handled by anyone with epilepsy, seizure disorders, heart disease, persons with a pacemaker or other neuro-stimulators. Cannot be used with the olive oil protocol. Not to be used on kids under three.
Licemeister NPA Long metal teeth, short pick-like handle. $14.95 Manual  
Nitcomb M-2 Shantys Ltd. Two rows of short metal teeth, long plastic handle. $9.90 Manual  

Why are there more head lice these days than twenty and thirty years ago?

Head lice are most often spread through head-to-head contact. Children, who are less inhibited than older people, tend to play together, tumbling around like puppies. These days, children also go to school younger and remain for a longer time each day. They have more frequent and closer contact with other children outside their families. Our classrooms are more open and children move around the class more freely instead of sitting quietly at separate desks. While this is great for kids’ social and intellectual development, it also means kids are exposed to head lice and other childhood illnesses at a younger age.

According to Common Sense Pest Quarterly, a surprisingly large number of people are willing to tolerate the existence of head lice on their heads. This may be a result of increased amount of work and the difficulty involved in eliminating the infestation.

Another major culprit in the head-lice wars appears to be the rise of new strains of chemically tolerant, pesticide-resistant head lice.

For several years the media, mothers, school nurses, and entomologists have been reporting that many head-louse populations have become resistant to the chemicals used to treat them.

While some scientists and public health professionals doubt the existence of resistant head lice, anecdotal and scientific evidence about the growth of such strains is now overwhelming. A group of Israeli researchers claim that their tests show that head lice are definitely overpowering the chemicals used to treat them. And in April of 1998, The Wall Street Journal reported that a study by the Harvard School of Public Health determined that head lice appear to have developed resistance to permethrin, the active ingredient in Nix. Because the molecule in permethrin is almost identical to the molecule in pyrethrin, the active ingredient in Rid, Proto, A200, and most other pediculicides, there is almost certain to be crossover resistance.

Reports of treatment failure when using Nix, Rid, and Clear (the most commonly used over-the-counter pediculicides) have been widespread and persistent despite assurances from the companies that their products are 99 to 100 percent effective. Indications are that prescription medications such as Kwell, whose active ingredient is the neurotoxin lindane, are also ineffective in eliminating many louse populations. (Lindane is toxic to humans and has been known to cause seizures, temporary paralysis, and death.)

Where once a single treatment of a pediculicide was sufficient to get rid of head lice, parents across the country now report treatment failure after multiple doses.

The idea of resistant head lice is not surprising. Living creatures are resilient. Over time they can become resistant to any chemical. Check out the long shelf life of cockroaches, bacteria, fire ants, mosquitoes, and the like. It seems that no matter what we humans do to control them, they just keep coming back for more.

Unfortunately, conflicting information over the existence of strains of pesticide-resistant head lice has caused tremendous confusion and frustration for parents. Depending on whom a parent talks to, the recommended treatments for a head-louse infestation can range from the ineffective to the potentially dangerous. And some of that misinformation can come from the medical establishment, which receives much of its information about head lice from the manufacturers of pediculicides.

In order to protect children’s health, parents and health professionals would be wise to adopt a conservative approach when dealing with head lice.

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