Tea tree oil, a natural therapy touted to treat and prevent lice, is an essential oil obtained from the leaves of the Melaleuca alternifolia, or Australian tea tree plant. Essential oils are rumored to have many health benefits, since they are highly concentrated plant chemicals which contain components of the plant’s natural defense system -- including antimicrobial and insecticide properties.
Preliminary research published in the November 2012 “Parasitology Research” found tea tree oil effective at killing lice in the nymph and adult stages. However, a study in the April 2007 “International Journal of Dermatology” compared the effects of several essential oils, including undiluted tea tree oil, and DEET, an insecticide, in the prevention of lice. Researchers concluded that none of the products worked well enough to be endorsed, but noted that tea tree oil was more effective than other treatments. If you plan to use tea tree oil to prevent lice, be sure to employ other lice prevention strategies and discuss your plan -- including the safety of using tea tree oil -- with your doctor or with your child’s pediatrician.
Start with 100 percent pure tea tree oil, also known as melaleuca oil. Squeeze a quarter-size amount of your usual shampoo into your hand, and add 2 to 3 drops of oil. Since concentrations of 1 to 10 percent have been used in research studies, ensure you are using 1 part oil to at least 10, if not 100 parts shampoo or other solution. Alternatively, use a commercial shampoo or hair product that contains tea tree oil.
An alternative to adding tea tree oil to your shampoo is to make a mixture to spray on hair. Place a cup of water in an empty misting bottle, and then add 6 drops of pure tea tree oil. Shake well. Spray hair before styling. You can also spray a comb or brush directly, and then run the comb or brush through the hair.
Although there is no research to support laundering clothes with tea tree oil helps, this is another strategy touted to help prevent lice from remaining on clothing. Add 6 to 8 drops of tea tree oil to a standard size laundry load. Put it right in with your detergent and wash clothing as usual.
Lice prevention requires diligence. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also recommends these strategies to prevent and control the spread of lice: - Avoid hair-to-hair contact, including the sharing of hats, hair ribbons, scarves and barrettes. - Do not use combs or brushes that have been used by someone infected with lice, unless these have been disinfected in water temperatures of at least 130 degrees Fahrenheit for 5 to 10 minutes. - Avoid contact with any bedding, pillows, stuffed animals or clothing recently used by an infected person. Vacuum the floor and furniture used by the person infected with lice. - Machine wash contaminated clothing using temperatures of at least 130 degrees Fahrenheit, and use the heat drying cycle. Items that cannot be washed or dry cleaned can be wrapped in plastic and stored for 2 weeks, to ensure no lice survive. - Do not use fumigant sprays or fogs, as these are not effective and can be toxic.
If you need to treat or prevent a lice outbreak, you understandably want to use something both effective and safe. Spending time and money to rid your house and furnishings of this pest -- only to have it come back -- can be extremely frustrating. Tea tree oil has not been proven to be 100 percent effective at preventing lice, so if you are interested in using this oil, understand your options may also include more proven, effective remedies. Seek the advice of your doctor or your child’s pediatrician to understand your options.
While tea tree oil is natural, it is not without side effects. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), this oil can be toxic if ingested. Topical use of diluted oil is considered safe, although rash and irritation can occur. Inadequate information is available on safety with long-term use, however. For example, a review published in the July-September 2010 issue of “Hormones” outline that tea tree and lavender oils contain hormone disrupting chemicals, with case reports of 3 young boys who experienced breast growth after using these topically. Insufficient data is available on the safety of topical use in pregnancy, lactation, infants and children, so talk to a doctor prior to use.
Reviewed by: Kay Peck, MPH RD
- International Journal of Dermatology: A Comparison of Botanical and Synthetic Substances Commonly Used to Prevent Head Lice (Pediculus Humanus Var. Capitis) Infestation.
- Psyche: Terpenes: Natural Products for Controlling Insects of Importance to Human Health—A Structure-Activity Relationship Study
- Parisolity Research: Activity of Tea Tree Oil and Nerolidol Alone or In Combination Against Pediculus Capitis (Head Lice) and Its Eggs
- Dermatology Times: Tea Tree Oil: What Can It Do for Your Patients?
- National Institutes of Health: National Center for Complimentary and Integrative Medicine: Information for Consumers About Aromatherapy (Essential Oils)
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Head Lice: Prevention and Control
- Hormones: Physiological Effects and Mechanisms of Action of Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals That Alter Estrogen Signaling