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 Lice free, naturallyMost parents freak out when their child comes home with lice—and Jill Armus was no exception. “It’s embarassing! Even though getting lice has nothing to do with cleanliness,it feels like it does,”says the Jersey City mom, whose daughter, Gina, got lice two years in a row (and spread it to her mom both times). It didn’t help that the drugstore lice shampoos smelled awful and were packed with chemicals, says Armus. “It was just a horrible experience,” she says.

Like Armus, many parents are leery of the common delousing products that use harsh chemicals to kill the critters. Most shampoos contain pyrethrins and piperonyl butoxide, ingredients designed to kill lice (but not their eggs, called nits) by affecting their nervous systems, says John C. Watson, M.D., public health expert from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And you have to use the shampoo twice: once to kill the adult lice, and then a week later to kill any that have hatched since the first application, says Jennifer Shu, M.D., a pediatrician and mom in Atlanta. The chemicals can cause skin irritation, such as itching and redness, and there’s evidence that some lice are becoming immune to them anyway, says Watson. Like bacteria and viruses, lice can develop resistance to chemicals and pass that ability on to their offspring.

So what can you use instead? Forgo the sketchy chemicals found in most conventional delousing products for these natural—yet still effective—methods:

Comb them out

Removing nits and lice with a comb is one of the safest and most effective delousing treatments, says Deborah Z. Altschuler, president of the National Pediculosis (an infestation of lice) Association. It’s best to use a specially designed metal comb with closely spaced teeth to trap the fast-crawling lice and their hard-to-remove nits. Two good options: LiceMeister ($20, amazon.com) and the Nit-free Terminator ($11, amazon.com)

How to do it

Sit your child in a well-lighted place, wet her hair with conditioner to make combing easier, and separate the hair into small sections. Get the comb as close to the scalp as possible and gently pull it through each section several times. Dip the comb in a bowl of water after each pass to rinse off the critters and conditioner, and then wipe off the comb with a tissue, says Altschuler.

What to know

To make sure you’ve removed all the lice at every stage of the life cycle, you’ll need to comb your kid’s hair for 21 days in a row, says Lori Moll, owner of the Lice Clinic, a lice-removal service in the Seattle area.

Dry them out

It’s possible to kill lice with heat, and that’s the principle behind the Lousebuster, a hot-air device. After several years of using the comb-out method, Moll says she now uses the Lousebuster on her clients with excellent results.

How to do it

The Lousebuster looks like a small vacuum cleaner with a hose attachment, but instead of using suction, it blows a constant flow of hot air through a pronged applicator applied directly on your child’s scalp. After 30 minutes, the lice and eggs are completely dehydrated and can be carefully combed out.

What to know

Don’t try this at home—attempting to the dry lice out with a blow dryer could burn your kid’s scalp and isn’t terribly effective anyway. Only a trained pro can use the Lousebuster. Find one in your area at lousebuster.com.

Smother them out

Some moms swear by olive oil, petroleum jelly, mayonnaise, or essential oils like tea tree or rosemary to cover lice, plugging their breathing holes until they suffocate. There are also natural products made specifically for lice, such as Lice Ice, a hair gel infused with neem and tea tree oil ($20 for 8 ounces, liceice.com), and Licefree! Gel ($13 for one dose, licefree.com).

How to do it

Saturate your child’s entire scalp with your treatment of choice, and leave it on for two minutes. Comb out the excess product, and then use a hair dryer until the scalp, hair, and product are completely dry. Leave the dry product on your child’s head for at least eight hours, and then wash it out with regular shampoo. Repeat the process three times over the next two weeks.

What to know

Before you apply any product, check with your pediatrician, especially if your child is under 3, and follow directions carefully.

Lice 101

The enemy

These off-white, six-legged parasites are about the size of sesame seeds, and take up camp in human hair. They suck blood from scalps and lay oval-shaped eggs, called nits, on hair shafts. Though they’re less active when away from the scalp, lice can still live up to two days without blood, says John C. Watson, M.D., of the CDC.

Their transportation

Lice are usually spread through direct head-to-head contact, most often in kids ages 3 to 11, especially in girls. While less common, it’s possible to catch lice by using a helmet, hat, scarf, jacket, or comb that belongs to a child infested with lice.

Your mission

Avoid spreading the pests to other family members. Here’s how:

  • Wash all bedding, towels, clothes, and stuffed animals that your child with lice touched, in hot water (no need to buy special detergents—your regular one’s fine), and dry on high heat. 
  • Dry-clean clothes that can’t be washed and put fragile stuffed animals in a sealed trash bag for two weeks. 
  • Soak combs and brushes in very hot water or rubbing alcohol for 10 minutes.
  • Vacuum rugs and furniture (especially in the bedroom of your child with lice).
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