Why I spent £400 on getting rid of my children’s head lice

Her kids’ hair was infested with nits but Carla Power found an effective solution – at a price

By Carla Power (Weekend Family section)

I’m writing this to help defray the cost of delousing my daughters. Had anyone told me that I would turn into the kind of woman who spends £414 having nits picked from my children’s heads, I would have told them I had a better chance of winning a Nobel for physics. But last month, I became such a woman, handing over my debit card, again and again, to The Hairforce, a deluxe nit-picking boutique in north London.

Am I stupid, you may ask, or just ridiculously rich? I can rule out the latter. I’m a freelance journalist who is married to a civil servant, so we’re hardly the sort of household with spare hundreds to spend on hair care. When it comes to haircuts, we’re strictly Sunday-nights-with-the-kitchen- scissors folks. Occasionally, I’ll treat myself to a £12 cut at my local salon, but that is pretty much the extent of our household hair budget.

Until last month, that is. My five-year-old, Nicola, had had nits for months. Her older sister, Julia, seven, had been infested with them for the better part of a year, her thick hair so crowded with lice that I could see the hum of nit highways crisscrossing her head from 20 paces, or so I convinced myself. One afternoon, just as I had finished reassuring her teacher that we were nitting religiously, a particularly bold louse scampered across her forehead.

I hadn’t been lying: we were pretty assiduous. I hadn’t the nerve to blast my darlings’ heads with headlice shampoo and chemicals, so we’d sit, me with my blue plastic nit comb and a bottle of spray conditioner, the two girls in their nightgowns, lulled by a DVD. Lit by the bedside lamp, we looked like some ghastly Victorian tableau. They were patient, but even so, after entire seasons of such nights passed, both girls were in revolt. There were tears, pleadings, scenes. And despite gallons of tea tree oil and lashings of over-the-counter headlice shampoo, the insects kept going forth and multiplying.

Earlier in the year, I had read about The Hairforce, which gets rid of nits for £40 a session. At first, I had dismissed it: calling in the professionals was for the rich or timid, not us. We could handle this ourselves. By late August, I had changed my mind. School was starting in a week, and Julia’s head remained a megalopolis for nits. I gritted my teeth and ferried the girls to the elegant Primrose Hill terrace in north London, where Dee Wright runs her business in her former living room.

Julia was met by her so-called Lice Assassin, Aileen, a young woman wearing medical magnifying goggles and a white lab coat embossed with the slogan “Comb to Kill” in lavender. Would the girls like a DVD or a game? With Julia transfixed by a film and Nicola happily jabbing at a games console, Aileen went to work. She parted Julia’s hair into sections, then combed, then wielded a giant vacuum cleaner fitted with a nit comb. Within minutes, she had the bottom of a tiny paper cup littered with lice corpses. Soon, she was calling for backup. Hairforce counts the lice and eggs (or nits, as eggs are known), in a chart for each child. “You need an intelligent clearing system,” explains Wright, a crisply articulate former ad executive who launched Hairforce in 2007. “A quantitative approach helps you understand an infestation, so we can educate you. That way, we take out the fear factor and make it a clear, understandable process.”

Britain’s £30m nit and lice market, argues Wright, is far from transparent. “Eighty per cent of what you buy is ineffective,” says Wright. “It’s pretty much a rip-off industry.” She thinks her own business, by contrast, is performing a crucial social service, as lice can affect everything from children’s schoolwork to their self-esteem. “We’ve had children sitting in the back of the class, because they were so embarrassed by their lice,” she says. “Or being too shy to audition for the school play because of them.”

Globally, nits are a growing industry, with boutiques and mini-businesses popping up to counter increasingly virulent strains. Classified as the second most communicable childhood disease after the common cold, lice can do more than simply itch. Bacteria on their faeces can cause runny noses, and they can interfere with sleep and focus. “They’re a brilliant opponent, really interesting,” says Wright, who cites their nimbleness – “they’re like monkeys” – and speed: 23.5cm a minute. “They can become immune to products, but not to hand-clearing.”

Julia had, according to her assassins’ log, “thousands” of lice and “zillions – uncountable” numbers of nits. “So is this the worst case you’ve ever seen?” I ask, perversely chuffed at our spectacular score. “It’s a heavy infestation … ” agrees Wright. Even with two women labouring over Julia’s head for nigh on two hours, combing by hand, peering through their magnifying goggles, she was so infested she had to go back the next day. In the end, she had multiple sessions with a couple of people working on her scalp, while her sister, who also had “thousands” of nits, plus 250 fully grown lice, needed several sessions of her own.

As happily nit-free as we are – at least until the next infestation hits school – I still feel a bit of a fool for parting with so much money. One mother told me about a £15 electric zapper that works, another about barber shops that do head-clears for £20. Would they work? Who knows? But I do know that I haven’t seen a louse for a month – and that’s worth a lot.

Link to The Guardian article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2009/oct/24/nits-head-lice-infest

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