Tea Tree Oil vs Lice-Who Wins?

(Last Updated On: August 3, 2018)

Head lice are most common in children. Children play together in pre-school or in school, go to birthday parties and have sleepovers, then come into contact with an infected person. And hey presto, the lice spread like wildfire. Pretty soon, the whole family is infected. If you ever had them as a child you will remember the maddening itch they created on your scalp, the agonising hair combing to locate the lice and get rid of them and definitely the shame of thinking that getting lice meant you were ‘dirty.’

But lice can affect anyone, regardless of hygiene level, age or social class. Children just pick them up more easily because they are more likely to be together in large groups.

What are head lice?

Head lice are tiny greyish-brown insects that live on the scalp. You have no doubt seen what a louse looks like under a microscope and thought ‘Eew, that was in my head?’. They range in size from being about the size of a pinhead to the size of a sesame seed. Head lice bite through the skin on the scalp and feast on the blood of the person who has the lice. As the scalp has a plentiful blood supply, you can be sure they will be well fed! Female lice lay eggs which attach to the hair shaft, and the empty egg cases remain attached even when the lice have hatched. Lice can live in the hair for a very long time if not treated and can be irritating and frustrating to deal with. Head lice can be difficult to spot, even when the head is closely inspected.


What are the symptoms of head lice?

When lice bite your scalp, it can cause irritation, and itchiness of the scalp is usually one of the first symptoms. Other signs can include a rash on the back of the neck and visible small white egg casings in the hair behind the ears or at the back of the neck. But the only way to be sure that someone is infected with lice is by combing their hair with a proper fine-toothed comb and looking for a live louse. You can buy combs from the drug store specially designed for this purpose.


How are they spread?

Head lice are spread by direct head to head contact. They climb from one person’s hair to another’s. Lice can’t jump, fly or swim contrary to popular belief.

They can sometimes be spread by sharing personal items including combs, brushes, scarves, and hats with an infected person.

It is a myth that lice only infect dirty hair, they can live in dirty, clean, short or long hair. They only affect people and you can’t catch them from animals.


Traditional treatment methods

Tea Tree Oil vs Lice-Who Wins

The main treatments are:

Lotions, shampoos or sprays that kill head lice – these can be very effective, but some aren’t suitable for everyone. Pregnant or breastfeeding women, people with asthma or allergies and children under two will often be excluded from using some medicated treatments for head lice. Head lice eggs can be harder to treat, as the lotion won’t penetrate the eggshell to kill the louse. Treatment often has to be repeated after 7 days to kill any lice that have since hatched. The life cycle of the lice is pretty short and an infestation can take hold pretty quickly, so fast effective treatment is essential.

Removing the head lice with a specially designed comb – this is suitable for everyone and not too expensive. It does need to be repeated often though and it can take a very long time to do thoroughly enough to clear the scalp.  Using a wet combing technique to clear the hair of lice and eggs can be very effective, and a lotion is not required. You need to wash the hair with  your usual shampoo, apply your normal conditioner, and comb through with an ordinary comb first. Take your special fine-toothed comb and comb from roots to ends. After each time you comb the hair, check it for lice or eggs and rinse it before combing again. Rinse out the conditioner and repeat the combing. Repeat the combing after 3 days, 6 days, 9 days, 12 and 15 days to disrupt the lice development cycles.


When you or your family are infected with lice, you obviously want to get rid of them as quickly as possible. But if you have concerns about using strong medicated products, or you are unable to use them, there’s a treatment that is being touted as a healthy, natural alternative…the humble, yet multi-purpose Tea Tree oil.


What is tea tree oil?

Tea tree oil is the oil extracted from the leaves of the Melaleuca Alternifolia (or tea tree), which is native to the New South Wales region of Australia. The tea tree gets its name because sailors who landed on the Gold Coast in the 18th Century made tea from its leaves, however, it’s not to be confused with the tea plant we use to make our green and black tea!

The oil is extracted from the leaves using a steam distillation technique and in its purest form, it is either clear in colour or sometimes a pale gold. It has a fresh scent, a little like camphor.


What is it used for?

Aboriginal people have used the oil for medicinal purposes for centuries and tea tree products continue to be used all over the world today. Tea tree oil is probably most well-known for being the main ingredient in skin products which are designed to treat spots, pimples and blemishes. The oil has a reputation for being a potent antiseptic, antifungal and antiviral remedy, and research has generally backed up claims made by product manufacturers and testimonials given by users. The research into Tea tree oil has been conducted internationally and it has looked into its efficacy for a wide variety of uses and purposes.

Tea tree oil can applied to the skin topically for infections such as acne, fungal infections of the nail, scabies, athlete’s foot (tinea pedis), and ringworm. It is also used topically as a local antiseptic for cuts and abrasions, for burns, insect bites and stings, boils, vaginal infections, recurrent herpes, toothache, infections of the mouth and nose, sore throat, and for ear infections such as otitis media and otitis externa.

Some people add it to bath water to treat coughs and bronchial congestion and swear by it to lessen muscle aches, while it’s often added to water in spas or pools to combat bacteria.


What does the research say?

The oil is very effective at treating skin complaints, such as acne. In one randomised trial, 124 patients with acne tested tea tree oil versus a traditional medicated 5% benzoyl peroxide treatment lotion and the tea tree oil was found to work just as well.

Some research studies suggest that tea tree oil may be effective in treating toenail fungus and athlete’s foot, but more research is needed. Studies of tea tree oil for the treatment of other conditions, like gum disease, vaginal infections and dandruff have been inconclusive.

Laboratory studies have demonstrated that tea tree oil was effective against MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) – a type of staph infection that is resistant to many antibiotics. This is potentially a huge area to be explored in the future for use in hospitals where these infections tend to occur, though while these studies are promising, more research needs to be done.

Tea tree advocates often use the oil as a home remedy however, and claim it is useful for many things. They might add the oil to a vaporizer to loosen chest congestion, they add it to a bath to get rid of body odour, or add a teaspoon to shampoo to get rid of head lice. But does it work? Could a natural oil rid us of the blight of head lice infestation?


Early research into the use of tea tree oil to combat head lice

Early research suggests that tea tree oil might repel lice. Also, combining the tea tree oil with lavender oil kills lice eggs and reduces the number of live lice. It is unclear if the effects are caused by the tea tree oil alone or by the combination of the lavender and tea tree oil.

For example, one study published in  the journal ‘Parasitology Research,’ suggests that tea tree oil can kill lice and another prominent dermatology study also found promising results in this area. The researchers used different products to treat children with head lice, including one that contained tea tree oil and lavender oil. After their last day of treatment, nearly all of the children who were treated with the tea tree and lavender product were free of lice. In contrast, only a quarter of the children who were treated with pyrethrins and piperonyl butoxide (common ingredients in anti-lice shampoos, sprays and lotions) were lice free.

Another study that appeared in the International Journal of Dermatology compared botanical and man made substances for preventing lice in primary school-age children. The researchers compared tea tree oil, lavender oil, peppermint oil and DEET ( DEET is the active ingredient in insect repellent).

As a stand alone treatment, tea tree oil was the most effective remedy tested. Tea tree oil and peppermint oil appeared to be most useful for repelling lice. Tea tree oil and lavender oil were found to prevent some of the feeding that lice did on treated skin.

In addition to killing lice on the skin, the efficacy of the use of tea tree oil to remove lice from laundry has been suggested by some users. The scientific evidence for this is lacking at this time however.

While the results of research carried out are promising, the researchers concluded that none of the treatments were effective enough to endorse. As it currently stands, many uses for tea tree oil are unproven. More large-scale, well designed studies need to be conducted before tea tree can be recommended as a safe and effective treatment for lice.


If you want to give it a try, how much should you use?

If you’re an advocate of using natural remedies, regardless of the somewhat sceptical and limited research, how should you use the product and how much should you use?

Tea tree oil is sold in many different formulations; as solutions, creams, gels, ointments, toothpaste and mouthwash. But because tea tree oil is currently an unproven treatment, there is no established clinically safe or effective dose. The concentrations of tea tree oil used in studies have varied depending on the medical condition they were designed to treat. For instance, a 5% tea tree oil gel might have been used for acne, a 10% or higher tea tree oil cream might have been used for athlete’s foot, a tea tree shampoo might have contained 10% tea tree oil and a 100% tea tree oil solution had been used to treat toenail fungus. As part of the studies, researchers usually applied the products to the participants’ skin once per day for up to four weeks. If you use tea tree oil, always follow the instructions on the label and if in doubt, get advice from your GP, a pharmacist or a herbal specialist. Tea tree oil should always be used topically on the skin, never taken internally.


Is it safe?

Is it safe

As with all products we apply to our skin, whether natural or man made, there are safety considerations. Just because a product is labelled as being ‘natural’, it doesn’t mean it will suit us or that it’s completely safe for us to use. Everyone is different.

The biggest no no with tea tree oil is consuming it. It can be unbelievably toxic when taken by mouth. There are no naturally- occurring tea tree products that are safe for consumption. There have been recorded cases of tea tree oil consumption causing severe rash, nausea, confusion, disorientation, loss of muscle control in the arms and legs and even one incidence of coma. This applies to even small amounts of product. Apply the same rules to any essential oil. Do NOT consume.

According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), it’s considered safe for most adults to apply diluted tea tree oil to their skin. But there is some risk of side effects:


Irritation and/or allergic reaction

Some people with acne have reported that applying tea tree oil to their skin caused dryness, itching, stinging and redness. The oil also contains a compound that can irritate your skin. In some people, it may cause an allergic reaction known as contact dermatitis.

Topical tea tree oil use has also been reported to cause more severe allergic reactions in some people. Tea tree oil may cause redness, itching and blistering. It may aggravate burns and skin conditions like eczema. The use of large quantities of tea tree oil on the skin appears to have caused the most undesirable and severe side effects.


Disruption to normal hormonal development

Applying products to the skin that contain tea tree oil along with lavender oil might not be safe for young boys who have not yet reached puberty. These products might have disruptive effects on the normal hormones in a pre-pubescent boy’s body. In some cases, this has resulted in boys developing abnormal breast growth called gynecomastia. In one study, it was noted that a boy using a hair product containing lavender oil and tea tree oil developed breast tissue. The safety of these products when used by young girls is not known.

Due to the lack of conclusive evidence about its safety, tea tree oil is not recommended for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, or for children.


Final thoughts

If you or someone in your family is infected with head lice, there are many different treatments available, which you should discuss with your Doctor. This applies to standard medicated treatments as well as alternative remedies, both of which may interact with other medications you may be taking or worsen any existing health condition you may have. This is the best way forward, in order to be able to fully assess the potential risks and benefits of any treatments for yourself.

It’s understandable that you want safe, effective treatment, and that you may want treatments to be as gentle and natural as possible, especially for use on your family, but always seek, and take, sensible and reputable advice.

At this point in time, no study endorses the use of tea tree oil as a stand alone remedy for head lice, but the existing research is promising and is set to continue.

Alternative remedies are used to treat many health conditions and many are just as effective as licensed drugs. One day, maybe not so long in the future, the oil from the humble tea tree leaf might just prove to be the answer to a lot of our health problems.

Written by Irina Radosevic MD
Irina graduated from the University of Belgrade, School of Medicine as a Doctor of Medicine (MD) and spent over 3 years working in the Clinical Hospital Center Zvezdara, in the Department of Emergency Medicine. She also undertook a postgraduate in Cardiology from the same University and had previously worked for over a year as a Physician and Nutritionist Dietitian for the Fitness club Green Zone. She eventually left her chaotic but fulfilling job in the ER to pursue her passion of writing, travelling and mountain climbing which has included writing a first aid course for the alpine club of Belgrade. Irina currently works as a VA for PintMedia focusing on medical and travel writing. Feel free to connect with Irina on LinkedIn and FaceBook. Her CV can be seen here.