One of the most common questions I get when clients are here is “where do these critters come from? Why can we not just make them go away?!” The answer to this is quite simple-we have evolved with lice and for the time being they are here to stay.

The history of lice can be traced back to evolution and for as long as homo sapiens have been around. Then, in the early 17th-19th centuries, the aristocrats of Europe learned how to deal with lice, to comb the lice, even went so far as having beautiful gold crafted lice combs. Nits were even found on old Egyptian mummies and the nit combs were found in the Egyptian tombs.

Back before the 4th century, it has been said that the Chinese had discovered the powder obtained from the dried flowers of a species of chrysanthemum were effective in treating head lice. In the early 1300’s, it is said that Marco Polo may have brought some of this powder to Europe to help in the aid of treating head lice. Various other treatments were also tried during the early 17th century to treat lice as well and it was at this time that the first microscopic picture was published of a louse clinging to a human hair. In 1758 it was declared that there was one official species of the human louse: pediculus humanus.

In the early 1940’s, DDT was used by the US forces in WWII to stop the spread of lice and mosquito borne diseases such as typhus and malaria. There was widespread use of  this DDT in the US for a period of about 30 years and because of this, head lice outbreaks became more uncommon.

In 1951 until 2004, Lindane was introduced as a treatment for head lice in the US. In 2002, the state of CA banned its use because it was polluting the state’s water supplies. It is still approved by the FDA, although there are serious side effects from its use. Several countries have banned its use altogether. In addition to all of this, some head lice have become resistant to lindane. There are limitations on the use of lindane for women who are pregnant, infants, children, nursing mothers, the elderly and patients with skin conditions.

Nix or permethrin was introduced to us a head lice treatment in 1977. Around 1990, over 600 tons of permethrin were being used and produced mostly for agricultural use- as a pesticide. In 1978, insects were first documented as being resistant to such ingredients and today lice continue to be resistant to such products. Its safety in breast feeding is unknown.

Ovide, another pediculide, was introduced as a treatment for head lice in 1984. It contains Malathion, an alcoholic lotion. Marketing of this product was discontinued in 1994 and then in 1999 it was re-approved by the FDA as a prescription treatment for lice. It is not considered as a first line of treatment as it is flammable, has a very strong odor, and must remain on the skin for at least 8-12 hours.

Today, there is a new prescription available, called Ulesfia, which is a benzyl alcohol solution which has been very effective in the treatment of head lice when instructions are followed directly. It is very costly though.

It is plain and simple-when products are used time and time again, for periods of time longer than we can imagine, of course there is going to be resistance. We have evolved and so have the lice. The head lice have been our “gifts that keep on giving” and nothing beats the kindness of the comb. Hopefully this will clarify some of the “nitty-“ gritty questions concerning the history of lice and remember to have a “lice” day and SMILE:-)


Lauren Salzberg

Potomac Lice Lady