Lice salons: lousy idea or necessity? Perched in a hairdresser's chair, 9-year-old Grace Lasky raised her eyebrows as a woman slicked one of the salon's specialty products through her long, straight hair.
No, Grace wasn't getting her hair styled in the swank Chicago boutique. The woman pulling a fine-toothed comb through the girl's hair was looking for nits, the eggs laid by lice and a recurring annoyance for the third-grader.
"It sort of feels itchy," Grace said.
Experts don't agree on the usefulness of delousing salons, but that hasn't stopped them from multiplying. The traffic at the recently opened Chicago salon called Hair Fairies - The Head Lice Helpers is just one indicator of the anxiety and desperation parents feel when they hear a pupil in their child's class has head lice.
Though there's no evidence of a head-lice epidemic, the bugs have been getting harder to banish as they become increasingly resistant to prescription drugs and over-the-counter remedies, such as Nix and RID.
Throw in school policies that remove children from the classroom and fear fueled by misinformation, and manual lice removal becomes a growing business.
Nit-pickers have probably been around forever. But businesses capitalizing on the parasites have become popular in the past few years, the same time the overuse of traditional home treatments left the products noticeably less effective, experts agreed.
"Over time, the lice develop a resistance. That's what bugs do, like mosquitoes get resistant to DDT," said Dr. Barbara Frankowski, former chairwoman of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on School Health.
Still, Richard Pollack, a Harvard University public health entomologist, questions the value of the dozens of delousing operations that have sprung up across the nation.
"It's not surprising to find someone doing this in any community on a word-of-mouth basis," Pollack said. "They seem to be growing like the McDonald's franchise."
Amy Graff recognized the potential for a lucrative, if somewhat unusual, business about three years ago and opened LouseCalls, which makes house calls in south Florida.
"I felt that there was a need for it here," she said. "There are a lot of head lice, and people don't really know what to do."
Penny Warner, owner of The Texas Lice Squad, said her company, which employs four in Missouri City, plans to soon open a second office. "Once the word got out, the business just boomed," she said.
The Chicago salon, at 2336 N. Clark St., opened last month and is the fourth Hair Fairies in the nation. Founder and CEO Maria Botham said she came up with the idea in 1997 after reading an article about head lice.
"I ran it by my friends and family, and they all said I was absolutely nuts," said Botham, 37. She went ahead anyway, opening her first shop in Los Angeles in 1999.
That one is expecting a gross revenue of $1.8 million for 2007 and $2.5 million this year.
Botham went with the design of a luxury boutique in one of Chicago's ritziest neighborhoods, Lincoln Park, to help break the stigma of lice, she said.
Lice, which do not discriminate by socioeconomic class, are not necessarily more prevalent in Lincoln Park. But it's one city neighborhood where people have the money to pay the salon's $95-an-hour charge.
Mary Lasky, Grace's mother, had been treating the girl with over-the-counter remedies since October, when she found a live louse in the girl's hair. She said administrators at her daughter's private school spotted nits in the girl's hair in mid-December and sent her and six classmates home.
"I'm so frustrated, so I drove here," said Lasky of Chicago. "I would have paid $1,000" to have gotten rid of the bugs the first time around.
The mother of one of Grace's friends, Kim Van Nortwick, thought the prospect of a delousing business was "silly" when she first heard about it, she said. That was before she kept her daughter home from school for a week for fear she would get lice. Then she spotted a suspected nit on her own head.
"Now I'm like, 'Thank God,' because nothing we're doing is working," said Van Nortwick of Chicago. "It's a godsend."
Since Hair Fairies opened in Chicago, it has had at least 300 clients, said Damaris Rodriguez, manager of the L.A. store, who came to town to help with the opening.
When customers arrive, a technician determines if there are any nits or lice. They comb through the hair dry, wet it down, apply conditioner and go through the whole head again.
"We're combing thoroughly throughout the entire head before we say you're lice-free," Rodriguez said. If a nit or louse is found, the salon schedules three to four treatments.
Clients are encouraged to purchase the company's nontoxic and organic products: shampoo, conditioner, prevention oil, lice repellent spray and laundry additive to combat the parasites at home. The costs of these products range from $10.79 to $20.39.
Some experts, however, are skeptical.
Many of the "natural products" these companies develop to fight lice don't have to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration, said Frankowski, a pediatrician in Vermont.
"The 'natural' product, you don't have to prove it's safe or effective," she said. "Some of those natural products can cause side effects. You have to be careful."
Pollack, of Harvard, said many businesses are perpetuating myths about lice for marketing purposes.
Just because there is a nit in a person's hair does not mean there are or are going to be lice present, he said. Only adult female lice can lay eggs, and they do so even if the eggs have not been fertilized. An unfertilized egg won't hatch, and the adult female will die within a month.
Parents should not be concerned unless they spot a live louse, he said. Even then, they should try over-the-counter treatments, which are fairly inexpensive and might work if they haven't been used excessively in the area. Prescription drugs, too, offer many more benefits than risks if used as instructed.
It's a concern that delousing salon technicians aren't required to have craft licenses or certifications, similar to that of a cosmetologist or hairdresser, Pollack said.
Nancee Siegel, who turned to Chicago's Hair Fairies when her 10-year-old son got lice, said it made her feel better just to have another set of eyes examining him.
"It's really a hard thing to do alone," she said. "It's a time, I think, as a mom, that you feel very vulnerable."
Kristen Kridel writes for the Chicago Tribune.