Hunting for Head Lice: 6 Tips from Industry Experts

September is head lice prevention month, which is a perfect time to learn what the experts know about detecting head lice.  The fastest and most effective method to detect lice is by using a high quality lice comb. Learning the finer points of how to comb-out your child’s hair, then doing it on a weekly basis will ensure your child never has a full blown lice party. A comb-out is the process of running a lice comb through the hair in search of lice or eggs. Why a comb out? Why not just take a look at a couple of random spots on their head?  In short, the lice comb is infinitely more effective at identifying lice on your child’s head than you would be picking through like the monkeys that you’ve likely seen on the Discovery Channel.  As soon as you part the hair, lice are on the run…and they are fast; they move 9 inches per minute on a strand of hair.  They are also tiny chameleons, blending in with their environment better than the most accomplished camouflaged animals. A comb-out with a quality lice comb improves your chances of lice detection ten-fold.

Cleopatra and I have one thing in common, if we were allowed one weapon in the afterlife it would be our trusty, ever-faithful, never let us down lice comb. Pharaohs were entombed with all the objects Egyptians believed they would need in the afterlife, like supplies of food and oil, clothes, jewelry, furniture, and weapons. Cleopatra, made it clear to her servants to bury her with her favorite lice comb.  Even Cleopatra, notably the most powerful woman in Egypt, had to deal with lice.  And, thanks to scientific discovery and modern advances in product design, we have more effective lice combs in the 21st century, although Cleopatra’s comb was likely made of gold. Lest you think all lice combs are equally effective, they in fact, are not. The most effective lice comb based on scientific research is the Terminator comb.

Knowing which comb to purchase is important, but knowing how to use the comb is paramount.  Head lice professionals recommend checking your kids for lice on a weekly basis, specifically, every seven days on the same day of the week.  The weekly recommendation has everything to do with the lifecycle of the bug.  One female lays 10 eggs per day, those eggs will hatch in 7-10 days.  Seven to 10 days after hatching the lice are physically mature adults able to reproduce. Doing the math, a single female can quickly produce a full blow lice party within a couple of weeks.  In our salon we recommend combing out once a week for this reason.  Don’t wait for your child’s school to notify you, or their best friends Mom to call you 2 weeks after the sleepover, take control of your own destiny, comb your child’s hair weekly for 3-5 minutes…it’s time well spent.

Here’s what you need to know:

1.      Detangle the hair before starting the comb-out - use a brush or detangler comb to remove the tangles, it’s much easier if you start with a smooth, detangled head of hair. Comb out wet or dry – some hair is easier to comb wet than dry, experiment.

2.      Position the teeth of the comb all the way down to the scalp – remember, lice live, and lay their eggs next to the scalp so be sure to put enough pressure to pick up the louse on the comb.

3.      Comb in all directions - Lice hang out and lay eggs on all sides of the hair shaft so it’s important to comb top to bottom, side-to-side, and bottom to top near the nape of the neck.

4.      Comb all the way through the hair – don’t pull the comb out mid-hair shaft, if you do you will let whatever might be on the comb go free.

5.      Comb out wet or dry – some hair is easier to comb wet than dry, experiment.

6.      Periodically look at the comb for evidence of lice or nits (eggs) - If you’re not certain, an easy way to see what the comb has picked up is to bang the comb onto a paper towel and run your thumb nail along the teeth to loosen the debris.  Lice are 2-4 mm in length and vary in color from grayish white to brown. Lice eggs (nits) are dark brownish ovals the size of pepper flakes that are attached to the hair shaft near the scalp. Once the eggs hatch, however, they appear white.


For short hair and thinner longer hair, place the comb at the forehead, teeth of the comb at the scalp and pull the comb all the way through the hair down to the nape of the neck.  Repeat on each of the sides. 

For longer, thicker hair, it is often more effective to comb the hair in layers.  Section the hair into 1-2 inch layers starting from the nape of the neck. Take the rest of the hair and twist it up into a bun and clip it to the top of the head.  Position the teeth of the comb against the scalp and comb at an angle slightly less than parallel to the scalp. Think of it like scooping things out of the hair, versus scraping. Move to the next 1-2 inch section of hair, twisting the hair above into a bun on top of the head. When you reach the crown, part the hair down the middle.  Place the comb at the part and comb down the sides of the head, straight down from the part.  Complete this process on both sides of the part.  And finally, comb from the front of the head to the nape of the neck.

Combing-out your child’s hair with a quality lice comb on a weekly basis will ensure your child never has a full blown lice party.

May you forever be lice free…

About the author:

Kelly Merriman is an epidemiologist and co-owner of The Lice Lounge, a lice treatment center in Minnesota.