Can a Common Face Cleanser Cure Head Lice?

For parents desperate to find a quick solution to head lice, a letter to the editor in the December issue of the journal Pediatrics offers hope.

The letter, from California dermatologist Dale Pearlman, discusses a study he did in 2004 with a product called Nuvo Lotion. According to his research, Nuvo Lotion was more than 96 percent effective at killing head lice when applied to the scalp, dried with a hair dryer, and then left on for several hours to "suffocate" the lice.

What Pearlman did not disclose in 2004, but announced in the letter, was that Nuvo Lotion was actually Cetaphil, a common mild skin cleanser manufactured by Galderma Laboratories LP of Fort Worth, Texas.

If Pearlman's research is accurate, this could mean a significant improvement over current head-lice treatment guidelines, because all it would take is soaking a child's scalp in Cetaphil, rather than using any products that contain pesticides.

But, before parents rush to try it, several health experts said that it was important to keep in mind that Pearlman's study had several important limitations, and that other better-known methods of killing head lice should probably be used until more conclusive research was done.

"The idea that something as benign as Cetaphil, which is a very nice cleaning and lubricating soap, would be effective as a [lice] treatment is appealing," said pediatrician Susan Aronson, director of Pennsylvania's Early Childhood Education Linkage System. "The problem I had at the time with his study was that his claim was not substantiated by others doing a study."

Startling results

Pearlman, of Menlo Park, Calif., said the study was preliminary and was meant to inspire other researchers to repeat the tests. But, he also made it clear that he was hoping to benefit financially from his discovery, and had obtained four patents relating to his discovery of a novel new use for the product. Until recently, his Web site listed prices in the hundreds of dollars for the exclusive Nuvo Lotion treatment.

The study, as limited as it might have been, had startling results: The "overall cure rate was 96 percent," according to the study, and after six months of treatment, the rate was just down to 94 percent. Nits, or eggs, did not have to be removed for the method to work, the study noted.

After several years of studying potential products that could smother lice, "I guessed that [Cetaphil's] formulation might serve this purpose," Pearlman said. "It represents a kind of breakthrough in our understanding in how to treat head lice."

Not so fast, said Pediatrics editor and pediatrician Jerold F. Lucey. Pearlman's study lacked a placebo or control group, and was published only to inform other researchers who were working on head-lice treatments.

Only a 'gentle skin cleanser'

"That's why we publish articles like that, so that somebody will do a proper study of it," Lucey said. "Publishing is not an endorsement of it."

Meanwhile, Cetaphil's manufacturer, Galderma, is not embracing the study results.

"It's a gentle skin cleanser that doesn't have any active ingredients," Brent Petersen, communications manager for Galderama, said on Thursday. "Galderma has never studied it, or invested in clinical data to confirm or deny if it works [on head lice]."

Aronson noted that Pearlman's study contained one major flaw: Everyone who entered Pearlman's study was first diagnosed by having their hair wetted and then combed for lice.

This technique in itself, known as "wet combing," is an effective treatment for head lice, so, it's hard to say whether the wet combing or the Cetaphil application actually cured the lice, Aronson said.

Carrollton, Ohio, pharmacist Erin Barnett said that better-known head-lice treatments should be used instead, and that parents should keep in mind that some prescription medications were very powerful and should only be used in the worse of cases.

"The over-the-counter products -- Nix, Ridd and the like -- are the least toxic, most readily available, and easiest to use," Barnett said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more about head lice.

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