A Lousy Time Was Had By All

Lice. AKA cooties. My daughters brought home the wee vermin this week in their hair, necessating a thorough saturation of their hair with a mixture of olive oil and a generous portion of tea tree oil. The olive oil smothers cooties and makes it easier to fine-comb them out, and the tea tree oil kills eggs, nits, and adult lice. It works much better than most over the counter anti-lice measures, since lice evolved immunity to the chemicals.


My 12 year old daughter is embarrassed by the infestation. She knows that many people regard lice as “unclean”, and the people who have them as “dirty”. She doesn’t want her friends to think she’s “gross”. The idea that lice are a sign of nastiness has been a persistent cultural belief for millennia, but in reality nothing could be farther from the truth. Although lice can (and do) set up housekeeping in dirty tresses, they prefer to live in clean locks. By “clean”, I mean hair where the oil and sebum has been shampooed away regularly. The natural oils and sebum that the scalp secretes makes it harder for lice to cling to the hair, and harder to get their eggs to stick to the hair. Note that it isn’t impossible, just harder, for lice to live in greasy hair. 

Lice also dig Caucasoid/Asian hair as well. It is rare for black people to have a lice infestation.

According to a study conducted in 1985, only 0.3 percent of African American kids in schools get head lice, compared to 10.4 percent of white kids. This study has been conducted again and the results were very similar. The fact is that black people do get lice much less than white people … White people’s hair differs from African Americans’ hair by its construction. It has a round shape, while African American people’s hair has an oval shape. Head lice cannot jump or fly, they can only crawl. And they use their six legs with claws on each of them for this very purpose.  And guess what? These claws are fitted to cling to round shape hair and head lice have certain difficulties clinging to and crawling in oval shaped hair.

Lice In Hair

In short, head lice probably evolved to feast on people above the the Saharan desert in Africa, Europe, and Asia. Lice don’t even go to pets, like the more opportunistic pests, such as fleas – lice want humans and humans to colonize.

Hmmm … if lice have been with us for eons, what’s up with the profoundly embedded cultural myth that lice indicate poor hygiene?

Well, it’s to do with HOW we used to keep “clean”. Since ancient times, the only real way to combat lice was manually. That meant running a fine-toothed comb through your hair at every possible opportunity.

lice comb

The Romans, for all their bathing, had to rely on nit-combs just as much as non-bathing barbarians did.  Romans, rich or poor, merchant or soldier or slave, had to use fine tooth combs to delouse themselves even if they took 5 baths a day. That’s because bathing with water and soap doesn’t discourage lice; the oil-free hair just makes cooties happier! Romans would have been aware that cleanliness was next to cootieness, but being called “lousy” was still an insult because it meant you were too lazy/poor to bother to comb your hair multiple times a day.

bath roman

After the fall of the Roman Empire, bathing became harder to come by. Although people in the Dark Ages and Medieval period bathed more often than we give them credit for, the main form of hygiene took place using linen cloths and fine-tooth combs.

Medieval Bath

Since it was nearly impossible to bathe every day without running water, people would scour their bodies and hair with linen “rubbing cloths”, which would remove grime and soak up any perspiration and body oil. The rubbing cloths could then be easily be boiled clean on laundry day, while the hard-to-clean clothes made from wool or leather didn’t need washing because they never touched one’s skin. Hair was vigorously cleaned with the rubbing cloths as well, to remove oil and dirt. Furthermore, after rubbing the hair with linen, it would be fine-combed daily  to remove any nits or lice. (Medieval and Early Modern Europeans would also use applications of plant based products as treatments for lice, but the nit comb was still the tool that needed to be used in conjunction with these remedies.) 

lice comb of yore

The fine-toothed combs would also remove dead skin cells and other impurities from the hair along with the cooties, thus preventing one’s hair from developing a foul odor in between rare soap-and-water washes. This is actually a very good way to keep nicely clean, in spite of the modern insistence on showers.

lice combing-ladys-hair-17th-century

With this method of “linen-bathing” and combing, people who had head lice were those who were not bothering (or were unable) to be vigilant in their hygiene. If they were crawling with cooties, they clearly weren’t rubbing their hair and fine-combing it daily to remove parasites and filth. Thus, lice became a “tell” of those people who were slovenly or unclean.

Nowadays, we clean ourselves with soap and water, which doesn’t do diddly-squat to keep lice away. It is therefore possible to be as clean as a whistle from thrice-daily showers yet be a Park Avenue high-rise for cooties.


Nonetheless, the Medieval idea that lice are a sign that you haven’t been doing due diligence with your cleaning tools persists. It’s been hundreds of years since we used linen to clean ourselves daily, but people still think lice are a manifestation of dirtiness.

Ah, how the irrational sticks with us!

Meanwhile, I have had a very hard week of delousing my home and you should comfort me by buying my latest book, OR – if you’ve already bought it and read it – reviewing it on Amazon and Good Reads and Barnes & Nobel. It would be very nice of you, considering what a lousy day I had on Wednesday.

One thought on “A Lousy Time Was Had By All

  1. Thank you, Kyra, for a dose of calm reality. I’m sorry you had a lousy week.

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