Legions of lice are on the march, launching school and home invasions, burrowing into young heads of hair. Meanwhile, busy parents struggle to defend their families.

It takes time, expertise and patience to conquer the increasingly pesticide-resistant critters. And there’s the fear factor. Various school boards, like Toronto's, have policies stating a child can't return to class until parents prove every louse egg is gone, even though some experts say the rule is overblown.

'We haven't had the manpower to keep up with the demand that we were getting.' — Lice Squad founder Dawn Mucci

So, flustered folks are choosing to outsource the treatment, driving a booming lice removal business.

When 11-year-old Anthony got lice, he didn’t know what to think: “I'm trying to do my work and I'm itching at the same time so I can't really focus on what I'm doing,” he says.

His mother, Chiara Ferragine, knew what to do. She whisked him off to Lice Squad, a lice removal clinic. Inside a kid-friendly hair salon, complete with cartoon characters and bubble gum machines, CEO Dawn Mucci carefully combs through Anthony’s hair, weeding out any signs of lice. When she discovers an egg she wipes it on a napkin.

Ferragine knows she could conquer the creepy critters herself at home with a cheaper store-bought treatment, but she’d rather have Lice Squad take charge. “It’s just the peace of mind,” she says. “It was done by a professional or someone in the know and, after that, you just don't have to worry as much.”

Big business in small critters

Mucci started Lice Squad in 2002 in Toronto with just one location. She sensed a need after her son got lice at daycare and passed it on to her. “I was freaking out, and I said there's got to be somebody to help me with this.” But she couldn’t find a service.

Now she’s running a major franchise corporation removing lice in 22 communities across Canada. Mucci says business has grown 25 per cent a year over the past four years.

Lice Squad offers clinic and mobile services as well as a recent addition — lice parties — yes, you read that right. Mucci explains parents and afflicted kids get together to be treated by a Lice Squad team. The event makes the task more pleasant: “We’ll make a fun time out of it,” says Mucci, “have some fun colouring books for the kids and moms can have some wine.”

Head lice spread easily where people are in close contact. Hotbeds include anywhere children congregate: schools, camps and daycares. Health-care experts call the problem nothing more than a “common nuisance,” but for concerned parents it can be a crisis.

Social stigma

The bugs carry an incredible social stigma. “The whole sense is that lice is due to poor hygiene and poor living habits,” says Toronto pediatrician Saul Greenberg. But those beliefs are myths, he says.

He also disagrees with schools that make children stay home until there are no lingering eggs, or nits: “Once a child is treated with the shampoos, they can certainly come back to school right away,” he says. The Canadian Paediatric Society doesn’t believe a child with lice should be sent home in the first place. The Toronto District School Board tells CBC News it is re-examining its lice policy. 

No matter what the policy, everyone agrees there needs to be thorough treatment. As Mucci explains, there is no 10-minute cure. Instead, lice eradication requires repeated treatments and vigilance. “Bugs in your hair, it freaks a lot of people out. Both parents tend to be working now, and most people don’t know how to deal with lice,” she says.

Lice that won’t die

Mucci also gets many calls from exasperated parents who say they tried traditional drug store pesticides that didn’t work: “Mostly what we’ve heard from people calling us is, I’ve used this five, six, sometimes 10 times and we’re still dealing with lice.”

The pesky parasite has grown increasingly immune to chemical treatments. A Canadian study published in 2010 found that 97.1 per cent of tested lice were resistant to traditional insecticides.

In Anthony’s case, it's his second bout of lice. When he first got hit two years ago, Ferragine says she tried a drug store insecticide. “It smelled awful and it just didn’t work. He was still itchy, itchy, itchy.” That’s when she first turned to Lice Squad.


A Lice Squad employee views an electron microscope image of a head louse. The pests are a perennial problem for many families. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

Mucci uses a non-chemical, enzymatic solution containing food-grade bacteria she says acts as a cleaning agent to help obliterate the critters. Clinic staff also comb through hair to remove eggs and lice that survive the shampoo. She also offers a heat treatment that she says kills lice by dehydrating them.

Mucci charges $75 an hour for a clinic session plus $15 for the heat treatment. An average lice removal session can run one to 1½ hours. She also sells an $80 home kit that can treat an entire family. But many people prefer to pay bigger bucks for her services.

And business is growing. On this day, Mucci is training Lisa Jackson and Pam Corrin, who will soon set up a Lice Squad franchise in Prince George, B.C.

Jackson works at an elementary school in Prince George where she saw the financial opportunity for a lice removal service. “There’s a huge need for it,” she says. “There are so many kids that are infested and it’s just so much frustration on the part of the parents.”

Going global

That frustration is felt worldwide. Mucci says she’s had calls from people wanting to start Lice Squad franchises in countries such as Spain and Australia. She says international expansion is next on her list.

Her only hurdle? She can’t find enough people willing to tackle lice for a living. “We've lost business because we haven't had the manpower to keep up with the demand that we were getting. I guess because of the nature of what we do, there's that ick factor.”