Bugged Out

Two new weapons for panicked parents in the war on head lice

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Science Faction/Corbis

Lice only live off their "host" for a day, so bagging your belongings is a waste of time

Nancy Gordon winces at the term nitpicker. She prefers lice-removal technician, which is what she calls her employees who pick out nits (the pinhead-size white eggs that lice lay twice a day, four to five at a time) and the critters that hatch from them at Gordon's LKY Salon — Lice Knowing You, natch — near Seattle.

Business has been booming at such boutique operations ever since the head louse, or Pediculus humanus capitis, developed resistance to the traditionally prescribed shampoos Rid and Nix. But two new treatments — one a mechanical desiccator, the other a potion whose secret ingredient is a lowly bacterium discovered in an abandoned Caribbean rum still — mean that high-priced hand picking has some serious competition.

Various methods of lice removal were all theoretical to me until one morning this winter when my 5-year-old daughter announced, "My head itches." Her kindergarten teacher recommended LKY, and by that afternoon, I was there with my three kids: we'd all been infested. And LKY did not disappoint. We were spritzed and sprayed and combed this way and that with the fine-tooth Terminator comb. We were also soothed — with mimosas (offered to frazzled moms) and cupcakes, candy and unlimited Wii (for the kids). I left utterly relieved but nearly $500 poorer, despite a multihead discount. LKY's going rate is $95 an hour, and the average head requires 1½ to two hours.

So you can see why the arrival of the LouseBuster, a contraption that dries up lice in 30 minutes by blowing warm air at the hair's roots, where they tend to hang out, has been met with such celebration. Fans say it feels like a scalp massage. More significant, it gets rid of 99.2% of shampoo-resistant nits, according to a study published in the Journal of Medical Entomology. The machines are leased to companies that collect flat fees, starting at $125, so all that hot air can end up being cheaper — as well as quicker.

Meanwhile, bacteria-based Natroba is as hotly anticipated as summer vacation. Approved in January by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for kids 4 and older, the solution has worked nearly twice as well as Nix in clinical trials. Its active ingredient, spinosad, is so safe that it's approved for use on organic crops. And its $36 price tag seriously undercuts both salons and the LouseBuster, though its kill rate is less than perfect, at 86.7%. Available by prescription, it's expected to debut in the next few months, but manufacturer ParaPro gets calls every day begging for the magic potion. "They ask, Can I fly there and get it?" says Bill Culpepper, ParaPro's president.

Natroba boasts that because the drug kills the lice — and lots of their eggs — there's no need to comb. But I think you'd be hard-pressed to find parents who would be content to let their progeny waltz around with a coif of dead bugs. Nancy Gordon is banking on it, having opened two new LKY storefronts in the past few months, with another planned for Portland, Ore., in April. "Maybe the kids couldn't care less," she says, "but the moms? No way."