Do Lice Like Clean or Dirty Hair?

Head lice is every parent's worst nightmare. Bugs in your child's hair will give any mom the heebie-jeebies. However, the social stigma of lice being only reserved for "dirty people" gives everyone an added level of embarrassment and shame. So, what's the truth--do lice like clean or dirty hair?

The truth is that lice like all types of hair, dirty or clean. What they really care about is having a safe place to lay their eggs and frequently feed on blood (that’s right, just like mosquitos or leeches, they feed on your blood!). Lice are not prejudiced. It doesn't matter if you are fat, ugly, beautiful, rich, poor, clean, or dirty--anyone can get head lice!

Do lice like clean or dirty hair? Why?

If faced with the choice, lice most likely prefer clean hair over dirty hair. This specific question,  “clean vs. dirty” hair, has not been the topic of any scientific research, but here are the most common theories:

#1: Someone with filthy hair could be so smelly or greasy that it can mask their scent from lice.

#2: Excessively oily, greasy hair makes it difficult for lice to grip hair.

Theory #1: Someone with filthy hair could be so smelly or greasy that it can mask their scent from lice.

Lice are attracted to the smell of your blood. Did you know that those little buggers aren't just creating a home on your child's head, but also sucking blood? Yep, it's true. Lice feed on human blood multiple times a day. Also, just like mosquitos, lice prefer some people's blood over others. 

Lice don't just meander onto a person's head accidentally. They actually smell blood and are attracted to it (like sharks). If they smell desirable blood, they don't crawl; they hustle to that head. 

The theory that someone with filthy hair could be so smelly or greasy that they can mask their blood scent from lice is possible, especially if some of the filth and stench in the dirty hair is repellent to lice. 

Realistically, if your hair is so nasty that lice can't smell your blood scent, you probably also smell horrible to humans and most likely they don't want to be near you either.

I do NOT advocate for keeping your hair so dirty that it masks the scent of your blood. Lice are typically repelled by essential oils, scents that are fairly attractive to other people. So, instead, use a prevention shampoo or spray infused with one or more of the essential oils lice hate. 

The best way to hide your blood scent and prevent lice is by adding pleasant smells that repel lice, but not humans. Many use tea tree shampoo for this purpose, but in my experience, it requires a bit more than that. Some of the most effective lines of lice repellent shampoos and sprays are Head Hunters Lemon Heads, LiceLogic Repel, and Fairytales Rosemary Repel.

The best thing you can do to repel lice is to wash and spray your hair with one of these lice repellent products every day before you go out into the world. (If you’re interested in learning more about these shampoos, check out our article, Top 7 Lice Prevention Shampoos Proven to Help Avoid Lice in 2020.)

Theory #2: Excessively oily, greasy hair makes it difficult for lice to grip hair.

Lice are excellent "tightrope walkers" of the hair, but grease up that rope, and it's a lot harder to walk. Each of their little legs has claws specifically designed to cling onto each hair strand and not fall off. 

The theory that excessively oily, greasy hair can make it difficult for lice to grip the hair makes sense. It’s like rubbing oil all over the tightrope. Is it easier for you to walk on a greasy floor or a clean one? 

However, living with excessively greasy hair is not a sacrifice you want to make to prevent head lice. That's nasty! Instead, you can slick back as many hair strands as possible because keeping your hair back decreases the opportunities for lice to grab hold of it. You can use gel or regular hair spray to slick your hair back, but better than that would be to use a lice repellent hair spray like Fairy Tales Rosemary Repel Hair Spray. In addition, if your child’s hair is difficult to manage, a detangler like Ladibugs Detangling Spray is best.

Ideally, keep your child’s hair tied back, either in a braid or a bun. There are even hair bands available that have lice repellent fragrances in them, like these Repelz Hair Bands.

Why do people say that only dirty people get lice?

Body lice (NOT head lice) is associated with poor hygiene. Body lice was fairly common historically before the development of running water and electricity. Body lice are almost extinct now because the treatment for body lice relatively is easy: you simply shower and wash your clothes! You can imagine that way back when, folks who were dirty or poor had a much harder time showering and getting clean clothes, so they had body lice more frequently than those that had access to clean water and clothing.

Because body lice was associated with dirtiness for so long, many people still confuse the two. Body lice and head lice are not the same thing, though! Head lice are an entirely different bug; getting head lice does not reflect a person's cleanliness. As you can see in this article, head lice love clean people.

Can washing your hair get rid of lice?

The simple answer is no. It does not matter how often you wash your hair or how long you shower; it will not get rid of head lice. You can submerge your head in water for six hours and not a single bug will die. A study showed that head lice had to be fully submerged in water for a full sixteen hours before they finally died. In addition, regular shampoo does not affect them in the least. In fact, even most “lice shampoos” these days are ineffective against head lice. (Check out my article Best Lice Shampoos if you want to know the ones that actually work.)

Why do some people get lice over and over again? 

In cases where lice return within a month or less, the most likely reason for the comeback is that they never really went away. It's fairly common for people to use an over-the-counter treatment and think that they're finished with head lice, but they are very wrong. 98% of lice in the US are resistant to traditional over-the-counter and even prescription lice treatments. Often these treatments will kill the weakest lice, tricking people into thinking they've killed them all. What they don't know, however, is that the strongest lice survive these lice treatments and continue to lay more eggs. 

People continue to think they are in the clear for a few weeks because they can’t see the remaining lice bugs, and, with fewer bugs on the head, the itching stops. Within a month, though, those lice eggs hatch and grow into adults, which is when people usually discover that the lice "is back" when the truth is that it never was really gone. People will say, "My child keeps getting lice back from school," but the truth is that their child has gotten lice “back” from themselves because they never got rid of it. 

For a list of effective lice treatment shampoos to get yourself out of a cycle like this check out the article Best Lice Treatments.

Why do some people get lice frequently? (Like every 6 months-1 year)

Lice simply prefer certain blood over others. Have you ever been out camping with friends, and some friends get eaten alive by mosquitos while others don't get touched at all? Lice are similar; they prefer certain blood over others. Some people's blood isn't appealing to lice, while other people's blood smells delicious. 

People that get lice frequently like this should ABSOLUTELY use a lice repellent shampoo and spray in their hair every day.

What blood type do lice prefer?

I'd love to tell you lice just prefer one specific blood type and the rest of you are in the clear, but it's not that simple. Any blood type can get lice, but it is most common for people with O+ and A+ blood. Additionally, if you've had lice once, you are more likely to get it again simply because lice obviously like you. For those prone to lice, I recommend using preventative scents sprayed in the hair every day so you smell nasty to them, but (fortunately) great to everyone around you.

Summary

Anyone can get lice regardless of if they are typically clean or dirty. Whether it’s true that lice like clean hair more because they can smell the blood better or it’s easier to grip the hair really doesn’t matter too much in the end. Some people are just more prone to lice than others. If you want to prevent getting head lice, keeping your hair clean or dirty isn’t likely to make a big difference. What can make a big difference is using a lice prevention shampoo and lice prevention spray that makes you undesirable to lice. 

(Honestly, I hope you never have to deal with lice. It really is horrible. If you do, make sure you use an effective treatment on your child. I’m not talking about one of those “popular” treatments off the shelf of your local drug store--those simply don’t work. I’ve reviewed every lice shampoo out there, and the very best ones can be found in the article Best Lice Treatment Shampoos.)

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Theresa is a Registered Nurse and lice expert. She owns a top lice treatment salon where she helps families battling lice every day. Disappointed by the false information about lice and lice treatment on the web, Theresa created MyLiceAdvice.com to empower families to get rid of lice on their own--and fast. Read more about Theresa and her lice journey at “From Cardiac Nurse to Lice Expert”.