Essential Oils Against Head Lice


Head lice are a recurrent problem all over the world. The lice are no respecters of income levels, general cleanliness and the degree of diligence of the child’s mother. The only thing they take notice of is effective anti-lice treatments. Even here, the laws of natural selection mean that what is effective one year might well be useless in the face of a new strain the following year.

One approach is to treat the scalp with pesticides. I am no longer as anti-pesticide as I used to be, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have any drawbacks. Lice have been tackled in the past with straight forward agricultural pesticides like DDT and Lindane. This will have some people jumping out the window in horror, but the risk was not great and when your kid has lice you tend to be a bit less precious about these things. But even if we discount the direct toxic effect of these chemicals on the children, they are still things you want to minimise the use of.

Essential Oils Pack a Punch

Which is where essential oils come in. In fact one of the reasons plants produce essential oils in the first place is to protect themselves from insects. They are natural pesticides. Some of the components of essential oils are also just as toxic as some synthetic pesticides. A good example is the myristicin found in nutmegs. This is a close analogue of another material called saffrole, which as it happens is also found in nutmeg at very low levels. Saffrole is used as precursor of some chemicals used in agriculture, and is also used by the manufacturers of various backstreet ‘legal highs’ as a starting point.

So it isn’t a surprise that nutmeg oil has some pesticide like properties. This has been put to use in shampoos intended to treat head lice. The perception is that essential oils are natural and therefore safe. Well in this case it has to be said that we are talking about a material that is both toxic and carcinogenic at high enough quantities. But you want something serious when you are dealing with head lice. It is just a question of getting the dose low enough to do you no harm and high enough to do the lice plenty of harm.

Essential Oils Against Head Lice – The Science

In a study reported last summer in Thailand, researchers really went to town looking at the effectiveness of essential oil based shampoos, nutmeg included. They found a lot of them worked as well as if not better than conventional agents. I admire their industry.

This isn’t at all a new idea. There are references in the scientific literature, and literature in general, about the effects of oils on insects. The Medicines authority in the UK have approved 11% eucalyptus oil as a treatment for head lice.

I think this is a great option for dealing with a troublesome problem. The ideal approach when dealing with head lice would be to continually change the active. This is the big problem with synthetic pesticides. The lice develop resistance to them after a while. The trick would be to continually switch treatments. With several suitable synthetics available, and a range of essential oils and essential oil blends to choose from it should be possible to continually hit the lice with a cycle of varying treatments over such a long period they are never able to develop a resistance to any of them.


Trop Biomed. 2013 Jun;30(2):315-24. Pediculicidal effect of herbal shampoo against Pediculus humanus capitis in vitro. Watcharawit R, Soonwera M.

4 thoughts on “Essential Oils Against Head Lice”

  1. Hi Colin,
    I stumbled across your blog this evening and have spent the evening trawling through your informative posts! However, I have a question about a particular chemical, and I would really appreciate if you could help me out! Google searches have left me rather confused.

    What is the significance of the ingredient Lauramide DEA in skincare products? Specifically, I am referring to Mario Badescu Enzyme Cleansing Gel. On a whim, I googled the ingredients and it has a relatively short ingredient list (all seemingly “good”)- but i noticed that it contains Lauramide DEA. A google search brought up some alarming reports about it possibly being carcinogenic. Also, I have been told that surfactants in cleansers are to be avoided. But Cocamide DEA is used as a foaming agent- does that mean that as the major component of Cocamide DEA, Lauramide DEA also has foaming properties? If so, why is the Enzyme Cleasing Gel purported to be non-foaming? Ultimately, does it contain a surfactant?

    Thank you so much for your time! Keep up the great work with the blog!

    1. Hello Andrea,

      Lauramide DEA and its cousin Cocamide DEA are very good surfactants for a number of reasons. The do boost foam but they are also good cleansers in their own right at lower levels. The carcinogenicity concern with them relates to impurities they can theoretically contain. Those impurities were always at a very low level in any case, way way lower than in the tests on rodents that brought up the concerns. They have now been reduced still further by legislation passed in the nineties. So what was always a pretty far fetched risk in the first place has now been removed.

      Avoiding cleansers that contain surfactants is pretty much to avoid cleansers. Soap is a surfactant for example. I’d need to know a bit more about why the person who said you should avoid them had arrived at that idea to comment on what they had in mind.

  2. The Fragrant Pharmacy (pg 246-47)gives some excellent advice and essential oil blend suggestions on this topic. Oddly enough, my son, who had short hair throughout grade school, never got head lice. His sister, who is four years younger, had long hair and caught them every year until she graduated to junior high school. As it seemed inevitable, I used to pick up lice treatment along with her school supplies every August.

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