Wearing a hair net and blue latex gloves, Cece Uribe peels back her client’s thick red hair and begins combing out dead lice. After three years in the nitpicking business, she’s seen it all—an infestation so bad the hair was sticky with nits, a patient who had a year-long case that no pharmacy shampoo could cure, even a ten-month-old baby who had caught a stubborn case from daycare.
Lice Clinics of America specializes in killing “super lice,” a strain that has developed a resistance to common treatment products. Back to school is one of the clinic’s busiest seasons. The clinic’s secret weapon against the bugs is a small, vacuum shaped device called the Airallé that sits in front of each green salon chair. Rather than poison the bugs, the FDA cleared device dehydrates them, which was found to be effective after a frustrated scientist realized he could not keep his lice specimens alive in his dry, Utah lab.
Aside from the louse stuffed animal and the pictures drawn by infested kids (“Wonst there wus a nit on my sister,” “Do not put heads together with other people,” and, most profoundly, “Are lice mini vampires?” ), the clinic resembles a spa. There are hardwood floors, white minimalist furniture, and a refrigerator full of chilled water bottles. Even the Airallé feels like a head message—it’s not uncommon for an exhausted parent to fall asleep during the treatment.
It’s easy to forget what clients are actually here to do—until a louse flies off the boy’s head and lands on his silver smock. Uribe picks it up with a lint roller, its legs still writhing on the sticky paper.
“Do you want to see it?” she asks.
“No,” the boy says firmly and looks back at his phone.
Rumors of the superbugs first started popping up in the late ’90s when people insisted permethrin, the chemical that had been used to kill the bugs for 20 years, wasn’t working anymore.
When John Clark, a professor of environmental toxicology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, sampled 15,000 louses from across the United States he found that about 98 percent of them were resistant. News outlets published warning articles, companies scrambled to put new treatments on the market, and LCA’s parent company patented the hot-air-based device.