We’ve posted previously about the effectiveness of a wide range of home remedies for treating head lice and nits, and one of the topics on our list was the use of essential oils.
Recently, a pharmacologist released an article in a medical journal, reviewing all of the evidence for using essential oils to treat children for a variety of issues, including head lice.
What do I need to know about essential oils?
Edward A Bell, PharmD, BCPS, Professor of Pharmacy Practice at Drakes University in the USA has reviewed a range of studies and reported on the results, though he noted that most studies into essential oils do not include children, making it harder to find out if their use is effective or not.
One of the other issues he identified was that the studies have significant methodological limitations, including lack of placebo control or description of the specific product purity and content of the oils they’re testing. The active ingredient in essential oils can vary significantly, sometimes due to the plant species or part of the plant that was used to extract the oil.
In practical terms, this means that whenever you buy essential oils, you can’t know how potent they are or how pure they are. On top of that, there is no regulation for essential oils – as there would be for medicines – so they are not tested for safety or effectiveness before being sold. The only restriction – which is significant – is that essential oils can’t be labelled as ‘treating, diagnosing, curing or preventing’ any disease. This control exists for good reason, because if you cannot prove something then you shouldn’t be able to claim it.
Are there benefits to treating children with essential oils?
Of the studies that did look at how effective essential oils are for children, very little data could support the idea that oils have benefits.
One study looked into the benefits of using lavender and ginger oils to reduce distress in children. Researchers found no difference in the level of anxiety and distress in the test group compared to a control group.
Lavender essential oil was also studied to test its pain-killing properties in children who had undergone a tonsillectomy. In that study no differences in the intensity or frequency of pain were found between the control group and the test group. Orange and lavender oils were tested in yet another study into pain, and again showed no discernable benefit.
What about head lice? Are essential oils effective?
Although essential oils are often suggested for the treatment of head lice, the American Academy of Pediatrics did not recommend their use in their 2015 review of head lice treatment options. The variances in content and purity, as well as a lack of evidence for their safety and effectiveness, made it impossible to recommend essential oils as a treatment.
In a more recent study, researchers tested a number of different oils to see if they would be effective at killing head lice. They did find some effects from clove oil and Yunnan verbena oil, however their study had some significant weaknesses that mean more research would be required for these results to be considered proof of effectiveness.
For example, the lice that were exposed to the oils had been removed from the hair prior to testing, and were exposed to the oils within a test tube. This is a considerably different environment than would occur in reality, making it very difficult to say whether or not the effects might translate to the real world.
The tests were also focused on live head lice not the eggs (nits). As a method of killing off an infestation, removing the nits from the hair is a vital part of the process. To achieve this, combing through the hair with a nit comb is the only method that has been found to be effective, and it is almost certain that essential oils will not have any direct clinical benefit on this.
So, are essential oils effective?
The studies that we have discussed all showed limited effects of essential oils on treating childhood concerns. A lot more robust research is needed to see if essential oils are of any benefit in the fight against head lice or other diseases.
Please note that all of the essential oils studied were diluted before being applied as it is dangerous to use undiluted essential oils in any capacity, especially on children. They can burn the skin or scalp. Issues arising from essential oils, including diluted oils, can include rashes, eczema, dermatitis, breathing difficulties and even hormonal fluctuations. For these reasons, it is extremely difficult to test the safety and effectiveness of essential oils, which explains why the head lice study used test tubes.
At present, the most effective treatment for head lice is repeated and diligent removal of the head lice and their eggs using a nit comb.