Story and photo by Dan Friedman
According to the CDC, there are 6 to 12 million cases of head lice in the U.S. every year. They don’t know for sure because cases are likely underreported. People don’t post Facebook updates saying, “Head lice again! Time for some nit picking!? :0”
Head lice are ubiquitous, especially in schools. Kids bring home lice they get exposed to at school and soon the entire family is hosting the parasites until something is done about them.
That’s where Michele Earl (pictured) of Glendale comes in. She has been selling her lice shampoo, Total Lice Control (TLC) since 1997. Unlike products containing insecticides, which have been on the market for decades, TLC is a combination of spearmint, tea tree and lavender oils.
“When you find out you have lice you are panicked, like beyond panicked, so people don’t read directions,” she says. “There’s a whole schedule — what you need to do in your house, how to do the shampoo.” Her shampoo is a gel that has to stay in the hair for a full 30 minutes, every day for the first three days and then again on days five and seven, to make sure lice that hatch get killed before they lay eggs.
Then comes the nitpicking — not picayune needling about trivial details, but actual nit picking: the removal of the lice eggs, from which a new louse will hatch. It can be an arduous process, taking hours, and it’s easy for the untrained eye to miss them.
In addition to selling the shampoo, she and her “Lice Ladies” will do comb-outs to remove nits, often returning to homes multiple times in a weeks. One reason the Lice Ladies are so effective and in demand is their efficiency and skill. But the nit combs they use are not available in stores, or anywhere, as many are 100 years old. New ones, whether plastic or metal, aren’t made as well as old ones. She wouldn’t let me hold or photograph one of her nit combs. She offered to show me one from a distance, but that’s all.
Earl says her TLC shampoo is 100 percent effective when used properly. When people call saying it doesn’t work, she finds they haven’t followed the schedule, or used the correct amount of shampoo or kept it on the hair for the right length of time. Her Lice Ladies never see live bugs when people use the shampoo correctly, she says.
Earl got into the lice shampoo business when her daughter Hayley, then 5, developed lice that spread to everyone in the family. This went on for a while. “It really does drive you over the edge after a few weeks,” says Earl, who has moms calling her frequently, crying, sometimes after spending a few hundred dollars on other remedies and at their wit’s end.
When Hayley had lice, Earl had tried the available products with her family and found they didn’t work. She was looking for something to soothe her daughter’s scalp, which was sore from all the lice bites. (Lice feed on blood.) She found tea tree oil made her feel better and killed the lice. She added spearmint and lavender oils because tea tree oil alone didn’t kill all the lice.
She started selling her shampoo in 1997 while holding down her other full-time job as a pediatric R.N. She currently works for Maricopa Integrated Health Systems at the Arizona Children’s Center.
Though there is a huge market for her product, Earl says she is in a controlled growth mode. She knows that many businesses implode when they grow too fast and customer service declines. Plus, she wants to make sure the manufacturer, located in the Valley, can keep up with demand. Only local families currently have access to the Lice Ladies comb-out service, though her product is sold in every state in the U.S., as well as other countries.
Walgreens started selling TLC in August after being skeptical about potential sales, but the product is selling very well. Besides, Earl says, “No one buys just one bottle.” Some of her customers use it on their kids once a week or any time they hear of a lice infestation at their children’s schools or friends’ homes.
Having lice “will scar you,” emotionally Earl says, plus there’s the social stigma surrounding lice. No one wants to advertise to friends they have lice, though it’s likely at some point many of their friends have experienced it too.
Learn more about Total Lice Control.