According to the Mayo Clinic, head lice are the second most common problem afflicting schoolchildren after the common cold. While the Centers for Disease Control does not track the number of lice infestations, schools and lice product manufacturers estimate that there are anywhere between 12 and 25 million infestations in the U.S. per year, and the majority of these are school-age children. Use of over-the-counter medicated shampoos can be daunting for parents or adults who fear exposing such a vulnerable area to a product that's essentially a pesticide. And certainly the misuse or reapplication of traditional lice-killing treatments can cause serious side-effects, such as severe burning of the skin. Many nontraditional head lice treatments contain dimethicone as a key ingredient and purport to be a safer option, especially for the younger population. But do products containing dimethicone really kill lice?
What Is Dimethicone?
Quite simply, dimethicone is an ingredient found in nontraditional head lice treatments such as LiceMD. But it's most commonly used as an emollient in numerous cosmetic products used to moisturize dry skin and assuage symptoms of minor skin irritations, including lotions, creams and other topical moisturizers that can be found at any drugstore. Dimethicone is a key ingredient in products such as Aveeno Moisturizing Lotion and Johnson's Baby Cream. It is the primary ingredient in LiceMD.
Dimethicone Treatments vs. Traditional Treatments
Head lice are typically treated using medicated shampoos that work akin to pesticides by killing lice and their eggs. Common over-the-counter brands include Rid and Nix, but if an infestation is particularly stubborn, physicians may prescribe topical medications containing malathion, lindane or benzyl alcohol lotion. While Nix should not be used in infants under 2 months of age, Rid can be used in children of all ages. When used appropriately according to directions, these should pose no health hazards. Products containing dimethicone are not considered pesticides.
How Do Dimethicone Products Work?
Unlike over-the-counter topical medications such as Rid and Nix which eliminate head lice by killing the lice and nits, products containing dimethicone purport to "smother" lice to death. According to the manufacturer of LiceMD, dimethicone treatments are pesticide-free and provide an "effortless" removal of lice and nits using a fine-toothed comb. The benefits of products such as LiceMD are primarily in its "pain free" properties, particularly for people with long, curly hair or hair that tangles easily.
Dimethicone Side Effects
Any medication can cause side effects, but most people don't have a reaction to dimethicone. Those who do may experience mild itching, burning or stinging on their skin. Sometimes an allergic reaction may occur and produce severe side effects, such as rash, hives, severe burning or persistent itching and skin irritation, difficulty breathing, tightening in the chest and swelling in the face, lips and tongue.
Does Dimethicone Treatment Really Work?
Parents of children with head lice may resort to desperate measures to protect their child from harsh treatments, turning to homeopathic remedies instead. This is also an appealing option for adults who fear a negative reaction to pesticide treatments. But dimethicone products don't kill lice or their eggs; they simply make it easier to manually remove lice and nits by lubricating the hair shaft. According to W. Steven Pray, Ph.D., D.Ph., of the College of Pharmacy Southwestern Oklahoma State University, products that contain dimethicone should be avoided, as they have not been proven safe or effective for treating head lice. Pray also advises against using other homeopathic remedies that use salt, herbs or essential oils.