As Back to School Approaches, Clinics Are Bracing for Cases of “Super Lice”

Head-to-head selfies are making more than memories

Wearing a hair net and blue latex gloves, Cece Uribe peels back her client’s thick red hair and begins combing out dead lice. After three years in the nitpicking business, she’s seen it all—an infestation so bad the hair was sticky with nits, a patient who had a year-long case that no pharmacy shampoo could cure, even a ten-month-old baby who had caught a stubborn case from daycare.

Lice Clinics of America specializes in killing “super lice,” a strain that has developed a resistance to common treatment products. Back to school is one of the clinic’s busiest seasons. The clinic’s secret weapon against the bugs is a small, vacuum shaped device called the Airallé that sits in front of each green salon chair. Rather than poison the bugs, the FDA cleared device dehydrates them, which was found to be effective after a frustrated scientist realized he could not keep his lice specimens alive in his dry, Utah lab.

Aside from the louse stuffed animal and the pictures drawn by infested kids (“Wonst there wus a nit on my sister,” “Do not put heads together with other people,” and, most profoundly, “Are lice mini vampires?” ), the clinic resembles a spa. There are hardwood floors, white minimalist furniture, and a refrigerator full of chilled water bottles. Even the Airallé feels like a head message—it’s not uncommon for an exhausted parent to fall asleep during the treatment.

It’s easy to forget what clients are actually here to do—until a louse flies off the boy’s head and lands on his silver smock. Uribe picks it up with a lint roller, its legs still writhing on the sticky paper.

“Do you want to see it?” she asks. 
“No,” the boy says firmly and looks back at his phone.

Rumors of the superbugs first started popping up in the late ’90s when people insisted permethrin, the chemical that had been used to kill the bugs for 20 years, wasn’t working anymore.

When John Clark, a professor of environmental toxicology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, sampled 15,000 louses from across the United States he found that about 98 percent of them were resistant. News outlets published warning articles, companies scrambled to put new treatments on the market, and LCA’s parent company patented the hot-air-based device.

Business is good in the super lice industry. Lisa Liss, the manager of three Los Angeles clinics, gets phone calls constantly from desperate parents who can’t seem to get rid of their infestation. In the past two and a half years, three new clinics have opened in Los Angeles and the clinic owners are looking to open two more in the near future.

There are other lice removal shops in Los Angeles who comb through each strand of hair, manually removing every egg and louse. But the clinicians at LCA are not “nitpickers,” Liss is quick to point out. Handling super lice requires a different skill set.

Her clinicians have the life cycle of a louse memorized and can instantly distinguish between an adolescent and adult louse. They learn how to operate the Airallé so every patch of scalp is hit twice and how to clean their tools with surgical sterility.

Of the thousands of patients the Los Angeles clinics have treated in the past six months, only three of them have had to come in for a retreatment, Liss says, desperately looking for wood to knock. Clinicians are also trained how to handle frantic customers who come into the clinic. Uribe has mastered the art of striking up conversation with kids of all ages.

For younger kids, still too young to be grossed out or embarrassed, she likes telling them about how lice have trouble gripping onto dirty hair. Once they lose interest in lice facts, Uribe has an arsenal of snacks and Kindles with preloaded games to give them during the treatment process.

For preteens, like the redheaded boy in the chair, she sticks to conversation about video games and questions about summer camp. More recently, as close-headed selfies have gained popularity, she has learned how to calm distraught teenagers.

After combing out the dead bugs, lathering the boy’s hair with a thick oil, and wrapping his head in a plastic hair net, Uribe processes the payment for the $199 treatment. Above the counter is a green-and-white poster that reads “lice are not gross.” Liss repeats this sentiment whenever she can work it into conversation.

“All it means is that you’ve been close to people—it’s kind of about love,” she says.