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Can tea tree oil prevent head lice?

November 30, 2015

For parents of school-aged children, the mere mention of that four-letter word L-I-C-E can send us into a panic and fast!

We don’t even like to say the word aloud; if we must talk about those pesky little bugs, we whisper in secret as if they were a deadly plague. In reality, though, head lice aren’t deadly or even harmful. However, an infestation becomes a huge inconvenience that costs us a lot of time and energy (and sometimes even embarrassment).

We would all be quite happy to avoid that headache (and head itching!) if possible.

What is tea tree oil?

You may have heard of tea tree oil in recent years with the rise of the essential oils craze. And while I’m generally not in favor of , tea tree oil does appear to be one of the few oils that may have some merit.

Tea tree oil is derived from the tea tree (not to be confused with the common tea plant used for making teas that we drink), and it is sometimes used to treat bacterial or fungal infections of the skin.

Different formulations containing tea tree oil have been used to treat athlete’s foot, acne, fungal infections of the nail, ringworm, lice and scabies. It also has been used as an antiseptic for scrapes, cuts or burns and for a host of various infections throughout the body. More recently, formulations of tea tree oil have been marketed to prevent lice infestations by using the oil on the scalp.

Is it safe and effective for preventing lice?

You might be thinking, “Okay, great. If other people are using tea tree oil for those things then I should, too.”

It is true that tea tree oil is used for those and many other things, but that’s not enough information to make a decision about whether it’s right for your family.

There are two important considerations to address: is it safe and is it effective?

When addressing the safety and effectiveness of something like this, remember that alternative or “natural” remedies aren’t subject to the same regulations as traditional medications.

While the manufacturers of prescription and over-the-counter medications have to prove the safety and effectiveness of their product before selling them to the public, manufacturers of health supplements do not. They simply are required to report any problems that have occurred after they are sold.


For more details on the oversight of these supplements, visit the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s website.

What’s more, studies have shown that there is huge variability in the products themselves.

That means, you can’t believe everything you see or hear because it is often false or misleading.

These are some of the reasons doctors and pharmacists are often hesitant to recommend these therapies- because we rely on scientific data to show us that a product is safe and beneficial for the medical condition they claim to treat. Most alternative therapies don’t have reliable data to support the health benefits their sellers claim.

However, in the case of tea tree oil, there is a little bit of scientific data to support its use in some instances.

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM), tea tree oil has shown some effectiveness in treating athlete’s foot, acne, and fungal infections of the nail. Small studies have also shown that tea tree oil in combination with lavender oil can kill lice eggs and reduce the number of live lice.

Tea tree oil seems to be relatively safe for use on the skin, although it can cause irritation or swelling for some. Remember, though, that it is poisonous if swallowed. There has also been concern that tea tree oil might be related to abnormal breast growth in boys, but there isn’t enough to data to say definitively one way or the other.

What’s a parent to do?

Tea tree oil appears to be able to kill some live lice (at least when used in conjunction with lavender oil), however we know that over-the-counter lice treatments are far more effective at killing live lice and getting rid of the eggs once an infestation has occurred.

Whether tea tree oil can prevent a lice infestation from occurring in the first place is unknown. There is no scientific evidence that shows it is effective at preventing lice infestations.

We simply do not have any proof one way or the other.

It does appear to be relatively safe, though, so there probably is no harm in trying it out if you’re interested in it and your child doesn’t have any side effects or irritation from using it.

When there is an alternative therapy like this that may or may not work (but is safe to use), it often comes down to cost. If you want to try it and you can afford to spend a little money on something that may (or may not) be helpful, go for it.

If you’d rather save your money for something that is more likely to provide benefit for your family, skip it.