At the intersection of chemical resistance, American entrepreneurialism, affluence, and parenting anxiety lies a particularly modern phenomenon: the professional delousing business.
The head lice that infest some 6 to 12 million children’s heads annually in the US and countless millions more worldwide have evolved into pesticide-resistant little monsters far more persistent than those that inhabited children’s scalps in the 1970s and 80s. This hardy strain of bugs has led to the creation of a new industry: professional delousing consultants who come to your home and comb, pick, and pluck away every last offending nit.
Professional lice removal exists in a sort of entrepreneurial underground, a giant (by one estimate, $1 billion) industry that most people have never heard of. Google “lice removal near me” and a plethora of companies ranging from big chains to mom-and-pop operations surface in virtually every major US market. It is an industry that appreciates both discretion and a good pun. Businesses include Lice Happens (greater Washington, DC), Lice Knowing You (Seattle), No Lice Left Behind (Los Angeles), Once in a Licetime (Orange County, Calif.), Head Hunters (greater Atlanta) and the Nit-Picker (New England).
The popularity of these companies speaks to two truths. Lice are easy to get—all it takes is for children to share a cap, a pillow, or a hug for the bugs to leap from one scalp to another—and incredibly hard to lose. Professional nitpickers are just the most recent volley in a four-decade cat-and-mouse game between American parents and the remarkably adaptive Pediculus humanus capitis, or head louse.
Head lice weren’t always the scourge they are today. Before the mid-1990s, a wash or two with a shampoo containing the pesticide pyrethrin (the brands Rid and Nix were the industry stalwarts) was usually enough to clear a scalp. But widespread use of pyrethrin led the bugs to develop resistance, says John Marshall Clark, professor of environmental toxicology and chemistry at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. By 2004, when Clark’s lab tested head lice in 48 US states, 98% of sampled bugs had some level of pyrethrin resistance.
The collapse of pyrethrin’s effectiveness has led to the marketing of a number of prescription and over-the-counter remedies. But here’s the rub: some (but not all!) of bugs are resistant to at least one of the active ingredients in these various compounds, and there’s no way to know which ones happen to have infested your head. Delousing can be a grueling, months-long process of trial and error, during which time many children are barred from school until their scalp is nit-free.
It’s a frustration many parents of means are happy to outsource. The companies that offer these services use a variety of products in combination with a time-tested, highly effective method of louse extermination: laborious grooming with a fine-toothed comb.
“There’s a lot of immediate gratification,” says Amy Goldreyer, owner of southern California-based Hair Whisperers. “You comb, and it’s gone. That’s nice.”
It can take several combing treatments to remove lice completely. Rates vary, but at an industry standard of about $100 per hour—and one to two hours per appointment—a thorough debugging can cost a few hundred dollars per child. That’s before the additional fees some companies charge, like travel costs or service charges, and optional extras like own-label hair products. Costs can add up quickly—especially for a process that parents could, in theory, do at home themselves for no more than the $5 to $10 cost of a lice comb.
“There are companies that do over $1 million a year annually” in sales, says Adrian Picheny, director of sales for the Lice Treatment Center in Connecticut. Founded in 2005, the Lice Treatment Center was an early entrant to the field, and has consultants and franchisees in at least nine states. Clients tend to be affluent, he said: “people who have the money to do it, and even people who don’t have the money to do it.”
Even if their clientele are limited by the high prices, the professional delousers are unlikely to won’t run short on work anytime soon.
“Insects, especially lice, have been around a long time,” Clark says. “They seem to be more than capable of getting around the types of materials we use to control them.”