Is It Safe To Use Alcohol To Treat Head Lice?

by Annie Jangam

Do you know what spreads faster than lice? Myths about it on the internet. Anecdotal evidence suggests that rubbing alcohol can kill lice. It is a popular home remedy for treating lice infestation as it is considered non-toxic and safer than pesticides like permethrin, especially for toddlers and children. You must be wondering, how safe can alcohol be? Keep reading to find out how effective different types of alcohol are in killing lice and the risks associated with it.

What Is Rubbing Alcohol?

Rubbing alcohol or surgical spirit usually contains isopropyl alcohol and, in a few cases, ethanol. According to the CDC guidelines, FDA has not cleared any disinfectants with alcohol as the main ingredient (1). However, rubbing alcohol is popularly used as a surface disinfectant due to its antimicrobial properties.

So, here’s the most important question – does it help in killing lice? Find out in the next section.

Does Rubbing Alcohol Kill Lice?

Yes, to some extent. It also depends on the type of alcohol you use. Anecdotal evidence suggests that rubbing alcohol (with either isopropanol or ethanol) helps in controlling lice infestation, while there is scientific data supporting the use of benzyl alcohol to kill lice.

  • Benzyl Alcohol

The most effective and safe alcohol to treat a lice infestation is benzyl alcohol. 5% benzyl alcohol lotion has been approved by the FDA for the treatment of head lice (2). This non-neurotoxic topical head lice treatment is safe for children as young as 6 months old (3). The alcohol kills lice through asphyxiation by closing the respiratory spiracles of the louse (4). Thus, it is effective in killing lice but not the nits or lice eggs. A second treatment with benzyl alcohol after a week can kill any newly hatched lice. In rare cases, benzyl alcohol can be mildly irritating. Consult a doctor if such irritation occurs.

  • Isopropyl Alcohol

Isopropyl alcohol or isopropanol is a transparent, volatile, colorless liquid used as a solvent and disinfectant. It is applied topically as an antiseptic and is effective at 70-90% strength. It is widely believed that this alcohol dissolves the outer cell membranes of the louse. Further research is needed to understand the mechanism and efficacy of using isopropyl for killing lice.

  • Ethanol Alcohol

Ethanol is used as a disinfectant, solvent, and preservative due to its antimicrobial properties. It is speculated that ethanol alcohol kills germs by denaturing the cellular proteins and dissolving the lipid membranes of the microorganisms. However, it is recommended that you never apply alcohol directly to the scalp.

So, we have learned that different alcohols can be used to treat lice. Keep reading if you want to know the risks associated with using them.

What Are The Dangers Associated With Using Rubbing Alcohol To Kill Lice?

  • Allergic: If you are allergic to alcohol, it can cause itching, stinging, and even hives in extreme cases. A simple patch test on the forearm can be done to check for such reactions.
  • Dehydration Of The Scalp: The drying nature of the alcohol can strip away the moisture and natural oils from your hair and scalp. It may also damage the hair follicles.
  • Chemical Burns: Topical application of alcohol can put you at risk of getting chemical burns, especially if you have sensitive skin or any open wounds or cuts. The strong fumes may cause your eyes to tear up and cause a burning sensation. In case the alcohol gets into your eyes, wash them out immediately with cold water and seek medical attention.
  • Alcohol Is Flammable: The highly flammable nature of alcohol can be a health hazard, especially for kids. Using it on the scalp can put the child at risk of burns. Make sure you are at a safe distance from any open fires when using alcohol to kill lice.

Conclusion

Rubbing alcohol with ethanol or isopropyl alcohol can kill lice to some extent. Shampoos or solutions with 5% benzyl alcohol are approved by the FDA for treating lice. They are a safer alternative to harsh pesticides. However, these alcohols also come with certain risks. They can cause allergic reactions, scalp dehydration, and even chemical burns. Thus, it is recommended to use them with caution.

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Annie Jangam

Annie Jangam is a Molecular Biologist with 7 years of research experience in Rice Functional Genomics and Nutrient Signalling with International Publications in Abiotic stress, Nitrogen, and G-protein signaling. She specializes in writing on Health and Wellness. She has been an avid reader since childhood and is passionate about stories that help decipher life and its meaning. She believes in Human Rights for all and that one should "love others like we love ourselves."
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