I’ll admit it — I was sweating, sitting there in the salon chair, a black cape embroidered with terrified-looking bugs secured firmly around my neck.
It was a Thursday afternoon, and I was at Miracles On Lice — a lice removal and treatment center tucked in a quiet residential neighborhood.
I had no real reason to believe I had tiny arachnids proliferating on my scalp, but certified lice removal specialist Helaina Slader informed me 50 percent of those with head lice never experience itching, so they could very well be there, multiplying undetected.
As she spritzed my curls with mint-scented, lice-repellent detangler, I steeled myself for the bad news. I was lucky.
Miracles On Lice is a family affair: Slader, her husband, Bill, and their daughter, Mandee, 21, are its sole employees. Bill and Mandee Slader work there full time. Helaina Slader chips in evenings, holidays and weekends. At her day job, she works with special-needs children at a local school.
Helaina Slader came up with the business idea while working as a cosmetologist. She saw children come into the salon with lice and noticed parents were typically unsure what to do, and often unsuccessful at treating it.
The Sladers opened Miracles On Lice about two years ago, after being trained in the Shepherd Method — a strand-by-strand lice removal technique. Lice are typically treated with over-the-counter or prescription medication, but the Sladers prefer to do it manually.
“I would not use harsh chemicals,” said Helaina Slader. “To me, you’re putting stuff in the hair that, the strongest prescription that I know of, is only 76 percent effective. To me, that’s not what I want to be putting on someone’s hair if it’s only 76 percent effective.”
The center, with cheery yellow walls and four salon-style chairs, is in the family’s home. There’s free WiFi, a big TV and an assortment of movies clients can watch during treatment. There are no mirrors or clocks.
“It’s like Vegas,” Slader joked. “However long it takes is how long it takes. We would never rush somebody, because we have to get it out.”
You’d never know the place was there from the street. There’s no sign, which keeps it discreet.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 6 million to 12 million lice infestations occur each year in the United States among children ages 3-11. Data is not available for the adult population.
Although they’re a nuisance, lice have not been shown to spread disease.
The CDC says students diagnosed with live head lice don’t need to be sent home early from school; they can go home at the end of the day, be treated and return to class after appropriate treatment has begun. Many schools, however, have policies that require children with lice to stay out of school.
Customers of all ages have visited Miracles On Lice from as far away as Vermont and Massachusetts. Pediatricians, flight attendants and entire sports teams have been treated.
The closest similar business is in New York City, Bill Slader said.
“We stopped advertising a few months ago because we’ve been so busy,” he noted.
The Sladers offer same-day service whenever possible and are available seven days a week. They’ve found people typically want to take action as soon as they receive a diagnosis.
“People literally panic with this, so when they call us, we really talk them down off the ledge, and we give them the address, because it’s not on the website and you can’t find it anywhere because we would have people at the door [at all hours],” Bill Slader said.
The most common way to contract lice is through hair-to-hair contact. It can also be contracted by wearing clothing worn by an infested person; using infested combs, brushes or towels; or by lying on a bed, couch, pillow, carpet or stuffed animal that has recently been in contact with an infested person.
It only takes eight seconds for an adult louse to migrate to a new head, Helaina Slader pointed out, offering me a chart that showed that in just three weeks, one adult can turn into 61 adults, 3,660 eggs and 60 nymphs.
Lice are like chameleons, Mandee noted. On a blonde head, they are yellowish. In brown hair, they are brown.
A full-grown louse is 2 to 3 mm long, about the size of a sesame seed. Their eggs are no larger than a poppy seed. They can live for 48 hours away from a human head, I was told.
None of this made me feel any better.
Helaina Slader gently combed through my hair with a “miracle comb” that had long, thin teeth positioned closely together.
“She’s a lice whisperer, so anything [there], she’ll find right away,” her daughter assured.
A typical head check can take up to 20 minutes.
“It could be as quick as 30 seconds if I see something,” Helaina Slader pointed out.
The worst case the family has treated took 10 hours, with two people working on the client.
A head check costs $25. Treatment is $90 per hour, capped at $225. The fee can be covered with a Flexible Spending Account, Slader noted.
Once removed, lice are deposited into a bucket of water, where they drown after two hours, she said.
When the process is complete, clients are offered the option of having their hair put up in a braid. Meanwhile, family members are educated about how to clean homes and cars to reduce the risk of re-infection.
“After they come back for their second head check, we release them back to the wild,” Bill Slader joked.
Working in the lice-removal business is rewarding, the Sladers all agreed.
“It’s really rewarding just helping people, because when they leave here, they’re so much more comfortable than when they came,” Helaina Slader said. “It just makes such a difference.”
I certainly felt more comfortable once my head was deemed lice-free. I left the center with my hair in a festive braid and with a cheery assurance from the Sladers that I was welcome to come back any time.