Professional nit pickers

Professional nit pickers

Head lice removal services are booming in the Los Angeles area

By Christina Schweighofer 10/22/2012

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When her two sons brought home head lice four years ago, Debbie N. reached for the buzz cutter. She shaved the boys’ heads and, within minutes, the lice and nits were gone, along with the hair. “I was freaking out,” Debbie says. “I was a mess. It’s not so much the lice. It’s the after-stuff you have to deal with, the laundry. You’re constantly doing laundry. It’s nerve-wrecking.”
 
Going bald may work with boys, but for the head lice in her daughter’s shoulder-length hair, Debbie needed a different solution. She decided to call a company to have the pest removed manually and without insecticides.
 
Combing for head lice is hardly original, just ask our grandmothers. What’s different these days is the outsourcing. Hair Wizards, Hair Fairies, Lice Schmice, The Hair Angels — with at least a dozen listings in the Los Angeles area and despite treatments starting at $75 per head — the nit-picking sector is thriving. 
 
Why the boom?
 
“Head lice scare people,” says Kim Stellman, a technician with The Hair Angels salon in Pasadena, as she combs through the fine, straight hair of a 6-year-old redhead in a Bazooka pink chair. “They blame the cat. They blame the dog. They want to bring out the bleach.” Stellman, a no-nonsense woman with purple eyeglasses and auburn hair pulled back from her round face, likes to reassure people: “It’s not from the kitty. You can bring Fido in at night.” Human head lice do not live on pets. They can’t jump or fly. They crawl and are usually transmitted through head-to-head contact, which is why children get them more easily than adults.
 
The harvest from the redhead’s hair turns out to be modest. Waving her lice comb, a stainless steel, fine-toothed instrument, Stellman points to a bowl of water with two little brown bugs and a nit glued to a hair. The girl, neck bent downward, feet in pink flip-flops, is not interested. She is watching “Pocahontas” on a salon-owned DVD player.
 
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 12 million children between 3 and 11 get head lice in the US every year. Whether a person gets them has nothing to do with socio-economic background or cleanliness. But infestations can be a nuisance, especially when children miss school because of no-nit policies. (PUSD is likely to transition from a no-nit to a no-lice policy in October. Students will be allowed in class with nits but not with head lice.)
 
Head lice removers like to guarantee that children will be back in school the next day. But the sector is thriving for other reasons too. “Some people just don’t want to deal with them, others are frustrated,” says Hair Angels co-owner Hilary Scofield, a dynamic, fast-talking blonde.
 
The mother of two girls and a boy, Scofield remembers her own family’s 3-month louse battle years ago. She kept applying insecticides but the head lice always returned. When Scofield learned from an acquaintance, Michelle Aloisio, that her family had had the same problem, the idea for the two women to start a lice business was born.
 
Angel Blancas, owner of Lice Schmice, a mobile service based in Altadena, discovered the many blessings of delousing in 2008, when she lost her job in the movie industry and found a position with a head lice removal salon in Encino. Blancas liked the work — “Everyone is so thankful!” — and decided to start a company. She and her technicians visit up to 20 clients a day. “You want them off your head,” she says. 
 
Over-the-counter lice shampoos have been around for about 50 years, and for a long time they were effective. But bugs can learn from adversity, too, and head lice are becoming resistant to the insecticides. Douglas Yanega, an entomologist with UC Riverside, explains that applications often don’t kill all head lice. “You may knock it down to two or three,” he says. “But if you have one female and one male left and they mate, you have a resistant strain.”
 
Meanwhile, Stellman is finished with the young redhead. She wipes the counter and vacuums the chair and the floor around it. Later that day the redhead’s mother, like Debbie N., will wash linens, towels, tops and scarves to make sure the house is insect-free. Or she might just outsource the laundry as well. n

Christina Schweighofer is a freelance writer in Pasadena. Her Web site is christinaschweighofer.com

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