Business from scratch: Sandy Springs salon focuses on head lice

Instead, this cheery-looking salon that smells like peppermint simply combs hair — with a stainless steel circular comb called “The Terminator.”

The Terminator has just one purpose: To eliminate head lice. And to do it without insecticides or chemicals, relying only on nimble hands.

Elimilice, which opened in July, is one of a handful of lice treatment salons across the country using what is known as The Shepherd Method — an old-fashioned strand-by-strand nit removal method. The process includes wetting children’s hair with a gentle solution consisting of apple cider vinegar and rosemary extracts.

Headhunters, a second salon using the Shepherd Method (based on training at The Shepherd Institute for Lice Solutions, a nonprofit company based in Florida), has just opened up in Roswell.

Headhunters also uses a new hair dryer-like device called LouseBuster, which uses a heavy flow of air to kill lice, and according to the American Academy of Pediatrics can be effective.

The businesses tap into the oft-frustrating battle against these parasitic wingless insects, which can cement themselves to hair and breed when a parent misses one egg the size of a knot in a length of thread. They are also buoyed by a growing concern about the chemicals in over-the-counter solutions used to kill the parasites.

At ‘nit’s end’

Every day, as many as 10 children arrive at Elimilice clawing at heads infested with blood-sucking bugs.

Lice are very much a part of the childhood experience, and with kids back in school, lice — which can’t fly or hop but can quickly crawl — can spread from one child to the next. Head lice are most commonly spread through head to head (hair to hair) contact.

Parents arrive at salons like Elimilice at their wit’s —or perhaps nit’s —end.

Some show up crying, defeated. They’ve tried shampoos, they’ve tried olive oil, they’ve stayed up all night with louse-busting combs and magnifying glasses searching for bugs the size of dandruff flakes.

“I got the call from day care, and we went to a grocery store, and I bought a jar of mayonnaise because I heard from a friend it can suffocate the lice. But I didn’t open it,” said Jun Liang of Sandy Springs. “Then I went to a drug store and got an over-the-counter shampoo treatment. But after reading the packaging, I just wasn’t comfortable using those chemicals.”

She ended up at Elimilice.

For about 90 minutes, Liang’s daughter, 4-year-old Jun, sat patiently in a bright green chair, perfectly content watching an animated movie on a personal DVD player. Meanwhile, under bright lighting like the kind you see in dermatologists’ offices, a technician sprayed her hair with an apple cider solution and then swiftly nit-picked her way through the child’s shoulder-length hair strand by strand. Most of the technicians strap on head lamps to help them spot the bugs.

“What took her less than two hours would have taken me 10 hours easy,” Liang said. “And who knows if I would have gotten all of them.”

At the end of the treatment, the technician pulled Jun’s hair up into a ponytail and gave her a lollipop.

A huge problem

While lice cases are not closely tracked, an estimated 6 million to 12 million children, mainly between the ages of 3 and 12, are infested with lice annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A new report by the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests parents continue to use an over-the-counter product such as Nix. When used properly, the report said, Nix, while “neurotoxic” to lice, is considered safe and effective for children.

Still, the Academy of Pediatrics also noted there have been reports of resistance to over-the-counter products but didn’t suggest a change in treatment. The report mentions all-natural alternative products have not been thoroughly tested and might be just as effective.

Dr. Jennifer Shu, an Atlanta pediatrician said what seems to work best is the painstaking removal of all lice, treating a child with a medicated shampoo, and then repeating the treatment in a week to 10 days to kill any critters that hatched since the first treatment. She said mayonnaise and other greasy products such as olive oil can also work but can require a time commitment.

As far as going to a salon like Elimilice, she said that’s up to the parents.

“If they can afford it and want to outsource the job, go for it, but parents can do it themselves — it just takes time and careful work,” Shu said. She added that parents also need to take preventive measures to avoid a never-ending cycle. “Kids can still get lice again no matter what treatment they choose if they get near another child with lice.”

One week after Jun’s treatment, she returned for a head check.

Liang’s daughter got the all-clean. She was all smiles as she left the salon toting another lollipop, her hair up and smelling of mint, which is considered a lice repellent.

The 90-minute treatment, which included getting a Terminator comb and two follow-up visits, cost Liang about $150.

Liang also followed a list of instructions for other measures to take, including laundering the sheets. Liang said she also learned a lot, such as realizing she didn’t have to go as far as getting new carpet.

A happy ending

Last month, Julie Goggans brought in her 8-year-old daughter Kate for a head check after noticing her daughter scratching. Goggans didn’t see anything and thought it was just pool chlorine irritating her daughter’s scalp, but she decided to bring her to Elimilice for a $25 head check just to be sure.

It turned out her daughter had a bad case, bugs camouflaging themselves and taking over her daughter’s scalp.

“There was a moment when we both cried,” said Goggans who lives in Brookhaven. “I felt so horrible for having not caught it and for not being proactive. ... But she got it done and moved on.”

For Goggans’ daughter, the worst part of the experience was finding out her beloved fringed pillow she named “Roshie” was placed in the freezer for a few hours to kill any live bugs.

“You put Roshie in the freezer? Mom? How could you?” said Katie upon learning the news.

But then her mom explained to her it was for the best. And now when Kate puts her head on her pillow, she doesn’t feel a tingle and she doesn’t scratch herself to sleep.

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