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Itching for a Bite of the Lice Business

Treating lice infestations has become a thriving industry

By John Tozzi
     June 21 (Bloomberg BusinessWeek) -- Last October, Melanie
Greifer’s two daughters came home with head lice. The Manhattan
pediatrician spent two weeks buying over-the-counter treatments
and diligently combing out the girls’ hair, but she could never
completely rid them of the infestation. Greifer finally turned to
a business called Lice Treatment Center that sent someone to pick
the lice and eggs, or nits, from the girls’ scalps and treat them
with special shampoos. Greifer didn’t blink at the $100-an-hour
fee. “At that moment, I’d have given my left arm to have someone
come and take care of this,” she says.
     As lice in some areas have become resistant to conventional
remedies, desperate parents are turning to newfangled shampoos
and pricey delousing house calls. Aside from a handful of
treatments vetted by the Food and Drug Administration, the lice
business is unregulated. There’s little to stop anyone from
setting up shop to sell homegrown anti-lice formulas or comb
critters out of kids’ hair. “The louse servicing businesses seem
to be spreading faster than the lice themselves,” says Richard
Pollack, an entomologist who teaches at the Harvard School of
Public Health.
      Pediculosis capitis , or head lice, are sesame seed-size
parasites that live on human scalps and feed on blood, causing
itching in their hosts. They’re most common in children and
spread by head-to-head contact. Unlike their body lice cousins,
which live on skin and clothing, head lice and pubic lice (better
known as crabs) don’t carry disease.
     That doesn’t stop parents from freaking out—and shelling out
cash for professional help. Lice Treatment Center typically
charges between $200 and $500 for a house call, says Liz Solovay,
who co-founded the business eight years ago with a pediatrician
in Connecticut. They now have 100 employees in 14 states ready to
make house calls, and the company will be checking heads at 50
camps this summer. Between nit-picking and selling oil-based
treatments, revenue is in the millions, Solovay says.
     Risa Barash started Fairy Tales Hair Care in 1999 to sell
“lice prevention” shampoos made from plant oils such as rosemary,
citronella, tea tree, and lavender. The 14-employee company ships
more than $4 million worth of lice products each year from a
12,000-square-foot warehouse in Passaic, N.J. While Barash, a
former publicist and stand-up comic, acknowledges that it’s
difficult to prove prevention works, she cites a study in Israel
suggesting natural oils repel head lice. A 12-ounce bottle of
Rosemary Repel shampoo retails for $12.
     Like many lice industry entrepreneurs, Barash and Solovay
highlight their products as “natural” and contrast them to
pesticides sold in over-the-counter or prescription lice
treatments. But parsing the meaning of such labels is tricky.
Pyrethrin, an FDA-approved drugstore remedy sold by Bayer under
the brand name Rid, is derived from chrysanthemums, but rivals
call it toxic.
     In addition to Rid and a similar over-the-counter treatment
called Nix, the FDA has approved five prescription lotions or
shampoos and eight combs or other devices, including a heat-based
gadget called the LouseBuster. Yet many lice treatments don’t
need the FDA’s blessing, and there’s little evidence to prove or
disprove makers’ claims. “A lot of the sales of these products
come from fear and disgust,” says Dr. Barbara Frankowski, a
professor of pediatrics at the University of Vermont who has
researched head lice. “For natural or herbal remedies that don’t
fall under that blanket of [FDA] supervision, it’s kind of buyer
beware.” Still, it’s true that over-the-counter treatments, on
the market for decades, are ineffective in some communities where
lice have developed resistance, Frankowski says.
     Those bugs are what M.J. Eckert calls “a superlouse.” A
former school nurse, she co-founded Lice Happens in Annapolis,
Md., in 2009 to make delousing house calls. The company now
employs 16 louse removers from North Carolina to Connecticut. It
uses an enzyme treatment that helps break down lice and nits, but
Eckert says the secret is thorough nit-picking, which costs $50
to $200 per visit. “You have to comb everything out of the hair
completely,” she says. Eckert says Lice Happens teaches clients
how to remove nits so they don’t have to make repeat
appointments, but it’s clearly a job many parents prefer to
outsource. “To be perfectly honest,” she says, “our clients are
people who have more money than time.”

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