Seven years ago, a Mercer Island mom tried natural treatments to get rid of lice in her first-grade daughter's hair, including smothering them with mayonnaise. Now, Nancy Gordon runs five salons that charge $95 an hour for a job many parents would rather somebody else do: Pick lice out of their children's hair.
The American entrepreneurial spirit finds opportunity in the unlikeliest places. Today’s example is a local business called … Lice Knowing You.
Guess its specialty.
Seven years ago, Nancy Gordon, now 46, was a Mercer Island stay-at-home mom whose first-grade daughter came home with lice in her hair.
Mom tried Internet advice on natural treatments that said mayonnaise would smother the bugs.
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Emily, now 13, ended up walking around with a shower cap, and her hair smothered for four hours with the contents of a jar of mayo. It didn’t work.
Now, Gordon is long past the sandwich spread.
Now, she runs five salons that charge $95 an hour — you pay in 15-minute increments — for one particular service: Using a fine-toothed stainless-steel comb to pick those bugs out of hair.
When Gordon began Lice Knowing You at the end of 2007, there were no such businesses in the Seattle area.
She has a law degree from the University of Denver, and worked for a decade in various management positions with the Anti-Defamation League in San Francisco. Her husband, Matt Gordon, works in patents and acquisitions for Amazon.
All that is a long way from picking lice, but Gordon says she believed there was a future in going after the bugs.
It turns out the American consumer has shown a keen interest in paying others to do unpleasant tasks, and nitpicking certainly qualifies.
Lice are big business, what with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimating 6 million to 12 million infestations occur each year in the United States among children ages 3 to 11. In a government study done in 1998, it was estimated Americans spent $367 million a year trying to kill lice.
In most school districts, including Seattle Public Schools, students with lice in their hair can return to school only after being treated for the bugs, and when “no live lice are found upon inspection.”
Foregoing chemicals to deal with head lice is something that more and more parents have tried in recent years.
The Gordons had especially decided to avoid chemicals because their second child, Josh, 11, has autism. The less potentially toxic stuff around, the better, the parents decided.
Mom says Emily was a good sport about going natural in killing lice. Gordon says her daughter actually “loved the mayonnaise because it’s soothing, kind of like a spa treatment.”
Emily was a good sport, too, when mom next soaked her hair with olive oil, and then added some essential oils like eucalyptus and rosemary. Those also are Internet home remedies.
There were still some lice.
What really did the trick, says Gordon, was using a stainless steel fine-toothed comb to catch the rather small bugs, which are roughly one-tenth of an inch in length, and their eggs, also called nits.
As a 1983 paper called “The Appreciation of Lice,” by one of the world’s leading bug men, John Maunder, now retired director of the University of Cambridge’s Medical Entomology Centre in Britain, explained:
“One of the most effective weapons ever devised against lice is the ordinary pocket comb. … Well groomed animals rarely have many lice and neither do well groomed children.”
Maunder further explained that when we scratch our heads because the lice make them itch, that is a natural defense mechanism.
The scratching — or frequent combing, or grooming in other animal species — can cause fatal internal injury in the bugs. Or it breaks their legs and they die of infection.
Nature can be harsh.
Gordon admits that initially, she had become a bit “obsessive” about going after the lice, spending some $300 to $400 not only on expensive oils, but buying every kind of fine-toothed comb she could find at drugstores, and even paying $50 for having shipped overnight a nitpicking comb called the “Terminator.”
Soon, she says, word got around friends and neighbors that Gordon was “a lice guru.”
After a couple of years of doing freebie treatments, a friend handed Gordon a news story about somebody starting a lice-picking business in California.
These days, Gordon has at least one competitor locally, The Lice Clinic.
It uses a nationally distributed device called the LouseBuster, which has an applicator tip that blows out heated air at around 128 degrees. The firm says that dehydrates the lice and their eggs and kills most of them.
But to get any remaining lice, you still need to comb them out. The cost for a LouseBuster treatment ranges from $100 to $250.
On a recent weekday at her Mercer Island salon — the first she opened; she has three others in the Seattle metropolitan area and one in Beaverton, Ore. — she and her staff are combing and picking lice from one teen girl and her mom (lice are most commonly spread by direct head-to-head contact, such as a child snuggling up to a parent), another teen girl, and an elementary school-age girl and her dad.
Only Aleecea Medlin, 14, and her mother, Ramona Hadfield, of Kent, were willing to have their names in print.
There is enough stigma associated with lice that Gordon says that the landlord for her Mercer Island salon would not allow her to have the entire name of the business displayed for the public. There is just, “LKY Treatment Salon” at the entrance.
“Oh, it’s the most irritating thing ever,” says Aleecea about her lice. She and her mom had tried over-the-counter chemicals.
“My hair is so thick, they don’t leave,” the girl says.
Her mother says, “You can feel them running around your scalp. And they’re so fast!”
Claudia Moore, the first employee Gordon hired (she was a teachers aide who worked with autistic children, including Josh), says kids at school can be cruel to a child with lice.
She tells of one little girl whose father hadn’t realized his daughter had lice.
“They were just dropping off her head,” Moore remembers. “It was sad. The little girl didn’t have any friends who wanted to play with her. They just kept calling her, ‘Buggy.’ “
Gordon says the lice treatment takes from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the length and thickness of the hair. It always starts with an application of an essential-oils recipe and an enzyme mousse.
Then the combing begins, strand after strand, the lice ending up on a paper towel. Lice don’t live for very long once they’re picked off their host’s hair.
It looks to be an ever-thriving business.
Says Gordon, “Lice will never go away.”
News researcher David Turim contributed to this report.