Comb It Out salon in Concord, California, won’t give you a haircut, a new hairdo, or even a blowout. Comb It Out doesn’t give. It removes. Specifically, lice—from your hair.
Along with their combing staff, salon co-owners Pamela Fakui and Sofia Deleuse (it’s not French for “delouse”—I checked) spend all day every day using lice-repelling rosemary conditioner and fine-toothed metal combs to rid clients of those infernal scalp-dwelling pests.
Radio producer and Mother Jones alum Casey Miner let me tag along with her as she visited Comb It Out for The Specialist, her awesome podcast about “work you don’t think about and the people who do it.” This episode is titled “Lice Ladies.”
During our visit, Casey and I learned many disgusting and amazing facts about lice—and about what it’s like to be a professional nit-picker. Here are a few of my favorites:
- That drugstore lice shampoo from when you were a kid might not work so well anymore. In 25 states, lice now show resistance to pyrethroids, the pesticides commonly used in over-the-counter lice shampoos. “From what our clients tell us, they don’t seem to think it works,” says Deleuse. “A lot of people put the stuff on their kids’ heads, and they still end up here.” Some people skip the shampoo for other reasons. “A lot of parents are like, “No, I don’t want to put any pesticides or toxic chemicals on my kid’s head.”
- In the lice business, discretion is key. A passerby might assume Comb It Out is closed—the shades are always drawn. That’s because, for obvious reasons, people don’t necessarily want friends and neighbors to know they have lice. Some clients are super sensitive: “We have an occasional person that tells us when they make the appointment, ‘Please don’t mention the word “lice” to my child,'” says Deleuse. They think their kid is “going to overreact and freak out. But usually the parents are overreacting and freaking out.”
- Some people firmly believe that mayonnaise is key to getting rid of lice. “They’ll put like a whole jar of mayonnaise on their head and get a plastic bag tied up and go to sleep all night like that,” says Fakui. “They’ll keep their kids out of school for like two weeks trying all these home remedies.” Other popular DIY lice treatments include Raid (yes, the stuff you use to kill ants), gasoline, kerosene, Lysol, Listerine, coconut oil, olive oil, vinegar, and lime juice. When those fail—the lice ladies say they invariably do, although my editor swears Cetaphil lotion and careful combing with a lice pick does the trick—clients call Comb It Out. The service doesn’t come cheap: A treatment costs $85 an hour, and most clients have to come back two or three times before all the lice and nits are completely gone. But “they don’t really mind about the cost,” says comber Alexandra Guzman. “They’re just like, ‘Please, just take care of it.'”
- Lice prefer clean hair. If your hair is greasy, the lice ladies explain, it’s harder for the bugs to make it to your scalp. “It’s easier for them to crawl onto a clean head and start laying eggs,” Fakui says. But “once they lay those eggs, you’ve got it and they’re not going to…crawl off because your hair is dirty.”
- You can have lice for months without knowing it. For each session, the lice ladies use a single white towel to wipe their combs on. As a general rule, the dirtier the towel at the end of the session, the longer the lice have enjoyed the client’s head. During our visit, the ladies showed us a towel that looked roughly like someone had spilled a whole bunch of pepper on it.
That “pepper” is lice, and this towel particular, the ladies told us, represents about three months’ worth. The worst case they’ve ever seen, Deleuse recalls, resulted in “a black, moving towel.” (Ew.)
- Sometimes, what you think is lice is actually something else. Some people who come into the salon thinking they have lice actually have fruit flies in their hair—like Pig Pen from Peanuts. Others, say the lice ladies, have tiny green bugs that usually live in grass, or dandruff, or little flakes of chocolate.
- Lice ladies rarely get lice themselves. In fact, Deleuse has only found one louse in her hair ever. That’s largely thanks to the lice ladies’ secret weapon: the lint roller. When they get home, they give their clothes a once-over with the roller. It prevents lice from getting a free ride when the ladies pull off their outer layers.
- There’s no such thing as “lice season.” It’s true that September is National Lice Prevention Month. That’s because kids “go back to school, and the teachers check,” Deleuse says. “And that’s when they find it.” But lice are no more active in the fall than they are at any other time of year.
- Your kid’s school probably won’t send anyone home for lice. Schools used to have policies that banned kids with lice from classrooms, but that’s becoming less common. The American Academy of Pediatrics discourages schools and parents from keeping kids with lice home. While lice can itch, the group points out, they “cause no medical harm.” Guzman thinks that’s the right approach. “I really don’t think it’s necessary to take them out of school,” she says. “That’s them missing a day of education and learning.”
- Lice-removal salons will not treat your crabs. When someone calls about treating the kind of lice that, um, don’t live on the head “we’re like, ‘No, I actually don’t deal with that,” says Deleuse. “You need to go to the doctor.'”
- Some people go a little nuts when trying to rid their homes of lice. Comb It Out recommends that clients vacuum their furniture and wash their clothes and bedding—lice can live for a little while off the scalp. But unlike bedbugs, they don’t set up permanent homes in mattresses or furniture. “I get people who want to throw their mattresses and their pillows out,” says Deleuse. “They’re like, ‘We’re just going to get new couches; we’re going to get new mattresses.’ I’m like, ‘There’s no reason for that.'” And sometimes they listen. Guzman says one of her favorite parts of the job is reassuring stressed out clients. “It’s very nice to calm somebody down,” she says. “Just let them know about the facts of lice.”