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Herbal treatments and aromatherapy

BMJ Group Medical Reference

Introduction

This information is for people who have a child with head lice. It tells you about herbal treatments and aromatherapy, treatments used for head lice. It is based on the best and most up-to-date research.

Do they work?

Herbal treatments and aromatherapy products haven't been properly tested, so we can't say whether they work.

What are they?

These treatments are mixtures of herbal oils that are put on the hair to help get rid of head lice and stop them coming back.

Herbal or essential oils contain chemicals taken from parts of a plant, including flowers and roots. Aromatherapy oils also come from plants but depend on their scent for their effect.

There is no standard combination of herbal oils to treat head lice, so the mixture might vary from practitioner to practitioner. For example, one might recommend you use lavender and camomile extracts, while another recommends a mixture of six or more herbal oils. You can buy these products from pharmacies.

You use these oils simply by applying them to your hair and brushing them through so that each hair strand gets a good coating of oil. You still have to use a louse detection comb to get the head lice out, but once you have got rid of them, it's thought that brushing the oils back into the hair every day may help stop the head lice coming back.

How can they help?

These treatments have not been studied much, so we don't know for certain whether using herbal and aromatherapy oils helps to get rid of or prevent head lice.

One recent study looked at a herbal product called Chick-Chack that is popular in Israel and contains coconut oil, aniseed oil, and other ingredients. The study compared this product with a spray containing chemicals such as malathion. The herbal remedy and the spray worked equally well. [37]

A spray containing coconut, anise, and ylang ylang was also tested, and shown to work better than the insecticide permethrin. Unfortunately, the concentrations of herbs in the product were not recorded in the trial. [38]

But we need more studies to say for certain whether herbal products can help get rid of head lice.

How do they work?

One theory is that putting oil in the hair makes it slippery, so the head lice are easier to remove. Some oils may suffocate the head lice, and some may have a toxic (poisonous) effect on them.

Aromatherapy oils, it is claimed, can repel head lice by disguising the hair's natural scent. However, as far as we know, head lice do not have any way of detecting human odours. Because they live on human heads, they do not need to seek them out. In any case, the powerful smell from these oils disappears after a short time.

Can they be harmful?

There's no evidence that herbal oils for head lice are harmful, but we don't really know because they have not been tested much. However, there are concerns that some essential oils may be toxic (poisonous) to people. [39]

In the study of coconut, anise, and ylang ylang spray, 17 out of 50 people said reported stinging or burning sensations from the spray. [38]

How good is the research on herbal treatments and aromatherapy?

Although we found some studies of herbal treatments for getting rid of head lice, they were mostly small and of poor quality. That means we can't rely on them.

Citations

For references related to Head lice click here.
Last Updated: June 22, 2012
This information does not replace medical advice.  If you are concerned you might have a medical problem please ask your Boots pharmacy team in your local Boots store, or see your doctor.

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