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Yes, black people can get head lice. Here’s how to prevent it.

"The Truth Is In Your Roots": A weekly report with Kalae Whitman

Kalae Whitman-Natural Hair Specialist/Columnist

Kalae Whitman-Natural Hair Specialist/Columnist

My client had virgin hair. It was completely chemical free. She doesn’t oil her scalp often, if at all between appointments. Her hair was styled in box braids, and was washed regularly throughout the duration of the style. In fact, it had been washed two days before this appointment. The plan was to remove the braids, wash and condition the hair and install a new protective style without extensions. About one-quarter of the way through the removal, I had to stop services. There were small bugs crawling out near the bases of the braids.

But Black people don’t get lice …

Yes, we do. We can. We need to know how to prevent them, how to recognize them, and how to get rid of them.

There has long been a consensus in the Black community that it is impossible for us to contract head lice, or that if lice get in our hair that they cannot survive. I recently found out first hand that this is a misconception. It isn’t true and after the experience I had, research was necessary.

This is what I found out: Most of us think our hair is too dense, or too kinky for lice to hang on to, and while that is pretty close to the truth because the oval/elliptical shape of our hair strands, it only makes it a little difficult for lice to get a steady grip. This does not mean they won’t set up shop and make plans to stay. We have to protect ourselves through prevention.

Prevention is simple. Lice thrive in a clean, warm and dry environment. The key word here is “dry.” Since these tiny creatures breathe through their skin, oils will suffocate them. Lice cannot thrive in an environment where oils are present. Yes, that well-known childhood practice of sitting down to have your scalp “greased” was our saving grace. Back in the day, we used Blue Magic and similar petroleum-based products, but we are learning now to avoid petrol products because with prolonged use, they can block the pores, causing scalp irritation and dandruff.

There are natural options that will work just as well to prevent lice, with the added benefit of providing nutrients to the scalp. Jojoba and Macadamia nut oils are excellent for the scalp and are very similar in make-up to our natural sebum. Grapeseed oil is high in vitamin E, economical and very lightweight. Unless your scalp is very dry, it only needs to be lightly oiled once per week. If you are developing dandruff or experiencing chronic dry scalp and hair, it is recommended to set up a consultation with your local natural hair specialist and create a personalized regimen to restore your moisture balance. Dryness can have many causes both internal and external.

Do not wash the hair too often. It takes about 72 hours for the scalp to adjust after a shampoo cleansing and begin to produce natural sebum again. In general, the tighter the coils, the longer it will take the scalp to produce enough oils to cause any form of build up. Under normal circumstances, once per week is often enough to wash the hair.

PREVENTION IS BEST

Treatment of lice in Black hair can be a difficult and tedious task, so in this case, an ounce of prevention truly is worth a pound of cure. Check your child’s scalp regularly to avoid any issues, an infestation can take hold quickly in the right environment.

Lice are most commonly found on children from preschool age to around 12 years old. Without extreme caution however, they will easily spread to other members of the household. There is also a new breed that has appeared in several states across the nation that is known as Super Lice. This breed earned its name from its evolved resistance to current market lice treatments, also known as  pediculicides, pesticides and insecticides. Super Lice cannot survive natural treatments, so a combination of the various methods may be appropriate to ensure that treatment doesn’t become a repeat process.

Lice are tiny light to dark brown bugs, and their eggs can be mistaken for fine dandruff or follicle bulbs. The eggs are attached near the root of the hair, but are not easily removed. Should you find lice in your child’s hair, notify your child’s school through the teacher or principal. They will inform you of the school district’s policy and also notify other parents in a discreet manner.

AN OLD SCHOOL APPROACH

Over the counter and prescription lice treatments are designed to be done on straight hair and must utilize the specialized lice and nit (egg) comb to be effective.

The natural option is to use a combination of heavy grease (yes, this is where you break out the Blue Magic) and heat. 125 degrees is necessary to kill lice on contact. An electric pressing comb with a max temperature of about 325 degrees will definitely do the trick without damaging the hair. Part the hair into small sections and grease the hair, taking care NOT to get oil on the scalp. Once done with the entire head, part into 0.5-1 inch sections and press the hair from root to tip. A flat iron can be used near the root to avoid getting too close to the scalp if necessary, but be careful not to pull the hair too tight. Tension plus heat equals damage.

This is a situation where petroleum hair grease is a must have. I must admit, I never thought I would put those words together in a sentence, but in this case,  it fits the job description. It’s heavy and blocks all moisture. It protects from heat. It’s cheap. The process should  be done at least twice to ensure that all live bugs and eggs (nits) are killed and removed.

Save the conditioner. Creamy conditioners are not enough because they are water-based, and cannot be left on the hair for a long enough period of time to prevent or get fully rid of lice. They also tend to be more expensive, so to use up all of your best product and not kill every single louse is money down the drain.

While the hair is semi-straight, apply the lice treatment, if you are using one. Follow the directions exactly. All bedding and clothing should be washed on the hottest setting. Vacuum all carpets, chairs and couches. Items that are not washable should be sealed in airtight plastic bags for one to two weeks. This gives any eggs time to hatch and suffocate.

Do not make an appointment to be seen in a salon, braiding, beauty or barber shop with an active lice infestation. The same goes for other personal services where your hair may come in contact with shared spaces. Servicing clients with lice, ringworm, and other communicable conditions will result in hefty fines and possible loss of professional licenses. After my encounter, I did not service any clients over the next 48 hours and completely cleaned and disinfected my entire workspace three times. I disinfected a fourth time before servicing my next client almost three days later because overkill is necessary. I threw out all of the tools and towels I used that day. This cost me money and time, but had I not known how to recognize what I was dealing with and know my legal limitations, it could have cost me much more.

But Black people don’t get lice …

I believed it. But then I saw different with my own eyes. We have to protect ourselves through prevention and know how to handle this situation if necessary. With wisdom from the past, we can handle the present and ensure a prosperous future.

Kalae Whitman is a licensed/certified natural hair stylist, consultant and educator. She opened Sankofa Natural Hair in 2011 and provides holistic services for the East Texas natural hair and loc community. 

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