SALT LAKE CITY — When it comes to head lice, there’s an inescapable ick factor.
So when parents are notified of an outbreak at their child’s school or they see them on their child’s head, most rush to the store to buy a fine-toothed comb, specially formulated shampoos or other products formulated to eliminate them.
Because head lice reproduce quickly and have evolved to resist treatments, eradicating them can be difficult and time-consuming.
Ashley Hafer, a surgical nurse, says her personal experiences of ridding her twin daughters of head lice were instructive.
“Both of my girls had bugs in their hair. It was the bane of my existence. However, it became a business opportunity,” she said.
Hafer and scientist Rita Skolnick are owners and operators of Hair Maidens professional lice removal service that recently opened a clinic in downtown Salt Lake City. Hair Maidens uses technology that literally blows lice away.
More correctly, the AirAllé medical device blows air warmed to precisely 130 degrees at a specific velocity that dehydrates lice and their eggs.
Hair Maidens first operated as a mobile business. Recently, Hafer and Skolnick opened an office at 231 E. 400 South, Suite 355, which is across the street from the Salt Lake City Main Library. Appointments are available seven days a week.
The AirAllé medical device was developed by University of Utah researchers, led by evolutionary biologist Dale Clayton.
Clayton studies host and parasite interactions, primarily among birds and bird lice. When he moved his lab to the U. from Oxford University 17 years ago, Clayton had difficulty keeping lice alive on birds.
"We discovered it has to do with the arid conditions, and if we would humidify rooms, we could keep cultures of lice alive on birds," he said.
The research team also discovered the inverse was true: Using dry air could kill lice. About the same time, Clayton's children got head lice, which opened his eyes to an application for the knowledge beyond keeping birds lice-free for lab experiments.
"This turns out to be a serendipitous, useful thing. If you want to kill lice, you can make it even drier than it is in Utah by blowing warm air across a kid's head," Clayton said.
But creating a medical device that can safely and effectively kill head lice and their eggs presented significant challenges. Fortunately, the university has an established track record of supporting research from labs to practical applications in the marketplace.
Clayton's lab was a Center of Excellence, meaning "the state of Utah spent about a half-million dollars on the research. That helped us figure out the delivery to achieve high kill rates," Clayton said.
While some lice and eggs can be killed using a handheld hair dryer, "you can't get anywhere near the effectiveness. Getting that last 20 percent is the hard part, as you can imagine," he said.
Beyond that, most people who get head lice are children, which means their heads could easily be burned by handheld hair dryers.
"It's the combination of temperature, air flow, delivery angles and duration, and yet not having it be uncomfortable. (It's) kind of the hard part to get the combination right," Clayton said.
More than a decade of biological and engineering research went into developing what was initially named LouseBuster. The device has Food and Drug Administration approval and is marketed through the spinoff company Larada Sciences Inc. under the product name AirAllé.
"Quite often, one treatment does the trick and it doesn't take very long, and it's chemical-free so people like it," Clayton said.
Hair Maidens, the only Utah clinic certified to use the AirAllé device, also performs a comb-out of a patient's hair to remove dead nits and lice. Treatments start at $99. The device can be used on children ages 4 and up, but Hair Maidens offers other services to assist younger children who have lice.
"It's been really rewarding to do this. It's been fun to do this together and really fun to help families. It's been very satisfying for us," Hafer said.
Although there is a stigma attached to lice infestations, they are not dangerous, Hafer said.
“It’s more annoying and relatively contagious,” she said.
Lice do not fly or jump. They thrive on the blood of human hosts and the vast majority of infestations result from head-to-head contact.
While many of Hair Maidens’ clients are children, mothers often contract them from their children.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, head lice infestations are most common among preschoolers and elementary school-age children and members of their households.
"Now on average, one in four kids get head lice, so they’re very common," Clayton said.
Getting head lice is not related to cleanliness of the person or his or her environment, the CDC's website states.
Hafer said she was utterly fascinated to see mummified lice in the "Mummies of the World" exhibit hosted by The Leonardo last winter.
In order to survive millions of years, lice have evolved to resist the array of chemical treatments developed over the years intended to eradicate them.
“They’re a highly successful species,” Hafer said.
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