In Chicago's tony Lincoln Park neighborhood, a new upscale salon has set up shop alongside the rows of uber-chic restaurants, cafes and boutiques. But at Hair Fairies, they don't cut hair. Instead of removing split ends and flyaways, they remove something much more unsightly.
"Business has been stupendous. It's been nonstop," said Damaris Rodriguez, manager of Hair Fairies' Chicago salon, which opened last month and has served more than 300 clients.
Sara Salzman recently brought her two daughters, ages 7 and 11, to Hair Fairies after six frustrating weeks of failed treatments. Salzman used everything from over-the-counter medications to homespun remedies such as vinegar, olive oil and mayonnaise. Nothing worked, until she brought her daughters to Hair Fairies.
"It was a huge relief, and they were a really big help," said Salzman. "They give you a sense of calm and really set your fears at ease."
Though head lice have been around seemingly forever and pose no serious medical threat, the number of delousing salons and in-home services has multiplied in recent years. Many have colorful names such as the Texas Lice Squad and LouseCalls.
"We're growing steadily," said M. Evan Parker, director of communications for Lousey Nitpickers, a California-based in-home service. "A lot of it is word-of-mouth."
Business is booming partly because the pesky parasite has grown increasingly resistant to at-home chemical treatments that used to allow folks to handle the problem on their own.
"Lice have really remarkable adaptive abilities," said Russell Robertson, director of family medicine at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. "And some of the chemical treatments themselves have the potential to be not only toxic to the lice but toxic to the individual."
At Hair Fairies, they nitpick. Literally. After a visual inspection, technicians use special combs and rinses to manually remove lice and louse eggs from hair. They then apply an herbal shampoo, which is billed as an organic, nontoxic treatment that inhibits lice breeding. To make the experience more pleasant, there are video games, large flat-screen TVs and portable DVD players to help distract the clients, many of whom are kids.
"One of our main goals is to put the clients at ease because they're dealing with a pretty stressful situation. They feel invaded," said Rodriguez.
Hair Fairies — which also has locations in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco — charges $95 for the first hour and $23.75 for each additional 15 minutes. Many clients require multiple visits. The salon also sells a variety of anti-lice hair and laundry products.
But some question whether it's money well-spent. Unlike hairstylists and cosmetologists, delousing businesses are not required to be licensed or certified, and the anti-lice products they sell are subject to little or no government regulation.
"There should be some expectation that [delousing salons] know what they're doing and the products they're using are known to be effective," said Richard Pollack, a public health entomologist at Harvard University. "But how is a consumer going to know what's real and what's not?"
Salzman estimates she spent about $500 for her daughters' multiple treatments at Hair Fairies, but at least part of that expense will be covered by insurance.
"It is an expensive commitment to make," said Salzman. "But if this happens again, I will go there right at the get-go."