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What are lice assassins?

Regulars | By Olinda Adeane

"Degeeriella rufa rufa" by Frost Museum is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Head lice were notoriously hard to get rid of until now. Olinda Adeane explains how

Nits have been around since time immemorial. They’ll never be eradicated. Intact nits have been found on ancient Egyptian, mummified remains.

Head lice are hell. I shudder at the memory of my own children’s heads, wrapped in towels, dipped in vile-smelling solution – later considered unsafe for use. One divorced friend, worn down by months of ineffective grooming, finally rang her ex-husband. ‘My life is over,’ she wailed, as she offered him full custody of the children.

These days, the situation is even worse as head lice are immune to 80 per cent of products. The blood-sucking lice can cause disease, as well as distress and stigma.

And now there is a new way of getting rid of them, using heated air and no pesticides or chemicals. The process was first popularised in New York in the 1990s. To ‘clear’ someone takes two appointments, seven days apart.

First, the hair is Hoovered with a specialist lice Hoover, removing all live lice. Then the eggs – the nits – are dehydrated, using heated air. Then all the visible nits are removed by nit-combing and nit-picking. The first session takes one and a half hours; the second one hour. This painstaking process ensures a 100-per-cent removal of the wicked lice and their nits.

In 2006, Dee Wright, of Primrose Hill, north London, read about this process in a two-line advertisement in a New York newspaper. And so she set up a technologically advanced nit service in the dining room of her family home. Now her company, the Hairforce, operates in ten places, including outlets in Glasgow, Belfast, London, the Home Counties and the Midlands. It costs £100 for the first appointment, £50 for the second and £32 for a check-up.

I visited the Hairforce outlet in north London and saw eight fully trained lice assassins tend to clients seated astride groovy-looking leather seats. Their neat white uniforms bear a purple label reading, ‘COMB TO KILL’. Some are part-time students; one is currently completing a PhD. They are kind and sympathetic, enjoying the contrast of manual work, and there is a soft murmuring of shared conversation. As they work, I have an ineradicable image in my head of a monkey family, looking particularly harmonious as they attentively groom one another.

And suddenly I remember a long-forgotten illustration in my childhood copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. A maiden looks lovingly up at a knight on horseback. ‘Lie down, my liege,’ the caption read, ‘and I will soothe thee and pick thy lice.’

It always puzzled me. Lice are so disgusting. How could she even suggest it?

But perhaps we all need to rethink our own attitudes as we bid farewell to toxic chemicals and instead embrace a new age of gentle, nit-picking communion.

This story was from February 2020 issue. Subscribe Now