A fabulous new development in louse control! I’ve written before about the problem of head lice becoming resistant to commonly used pesticides, making treatment much more difficult.  A new device received approval from the FDA to be this year–and it’s a lot of hot air.
No, really:

Goates, B., Atkin, J., Wilding, K., Birch, K., Cottam, M., Bush, S., & Clayton, D. (2006). An Effective Nonchemical Treatment for Head Lice: A Lot of Hot Air. PEDIATRICS, 118 (5), 1962-1970 DOI: 10.1542/peds.2005-1847


This device is a great story of how basic ecological research can lead to improvements in human health.  It all starts with birds.

Those of us who keep chickens or work with wild birds know that they have an amazing assortment of ectoparasites–parasites that live on the outside of the body (“ecto” = external). Most of these are called “feather lice.”

Feather lice are a fascinating group of animals; the researchers in this lab have studied, among other things, how lice have evolved to match the color of their host birds.  I think it’s safe to say that Dr. Dale Clayton, the lead researcher in this story, is Mr. Bird Lice.   Over the last 2 decades, he’s published a steady stream of fascinating papers (and books!) about lice and their co-evolutionary relationships with their hosts.

It was because of Clayton’s research that the University of Utah lured him away from his job at Oxford in the late 1990s.  Unfortunately, Clayton discovered exchanging  jolly old (damp) England for Utah’s arid climate made keeping his lousy subjects alive extremely difficult.  In fact, his lice colonies dried out and died.
Having dead research subjects will put a serious dent in one’s research productivity.

His travails in lice-rearing, however, were what set a lightbulb off when his children came home with head lice. If his research lice dessicated and died, could he make head lice dry out and die too?  Alas, it proved to be a much harder puzzle than he thought:

“Over the next several years a variety of methods were tested in Clayton’s lab, ranging from the use of chemical desiccants, to heat caps fitted with electrodes, to rice bag caps heated in a microwave, to various hair dryers and blowers up to the size of a leaf blower

His lab website says that “student volunteers” were used as his guinea pigs. Once again, a novel use for graduate students is discovered!graph of results

After almost 20 years of tinkering, the Lousebuster is now FDA approved and on the market. It also happens does a really, really good job of killing the insects using only hot air!

I know what you are thinking–unfortunately, it is not enough to have a blow-dryer, as you can see here in the results comparing the percent of lice being killed with different methods.  (I also am rather relieved that wall-mounted hand driers were not effective.  I can only imagine the lines at the airport bathroom if families traveling decided to do a little de–lousing between connections.)

The other nice item is that the company selling the Lousebuster requires that anyone purchasing them be certified in their use.  That means that no one should have a scalded scalp, and it should actually perform at the 95-99% louse mortality levels reported in various publications.

A newer version released December 2010 is quieter and “works on curly hair”.

So hoist one to toast Dr. Clayton and his lab in their demonstration of how basic research  pays off for all of us!!

Posted by Gwen Pearson

Writer. Nerd. Insect Evangelist. Have you heard the good news? BUGS!


  1. AWEsome. When reading about poultry and their various disease issues, I kept reading over and over that if you keep the coop warm and dry, they’ll have FAR fewer disease issues. Well, in the summer here, it’s barking hot and crazy dry (as in get shocked by my car EVERY DAY) so now I appreciate it a little, even if it makes me a zombie.

  2. I hope I won’t have a need to see if his results are repeatable.

  3. The same basic principle works with house dust mites and stored product mites, even though they have numerous physiological and behavioural adaptations for surviving in dry habitats. If you have problems with dust mites, then living in a place with a summer like biobabbler’s or a cold, dry winter like mine will mean low populations of mites and less exposure to antigens. If you can’t move, then lower the humidity in mite microhabitats below their threshold and dessication will ensure. Air conditioning, eliminating deep pile rugs, and even things as simple as an electric blanket on a bed are likely to be more useful than chemical treatments.

    One does wonder why it took the FDA so long to approve the louse buster?

  4. If there hadn’t been such DDT hysteria, the louse problem would have been eliminated long ago.

    Ha Ha ; just pulling your leg.

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