Head Lice and Cleaning Helmets
Summary: Head lice can be controlled by using 6 cent surgical caps or by leaving helmets in storage for two weeks while the nits die. Vacuuming and wiping out the helmets is another recommended method. There are sprays as well.
Head lice are a potential problem for bike rental shops who provide helmets to bike renters. They are also a problem for schools who want to use the same set of helmets for students in different classes. Lice are the most difficult problem with helmets to be exchanged among students, since simple washing with mild soap and water can easily take care of plain old dirt and hair oils.
Head lice are gray insects about the size of a sesame seed who are blood-sucking parasites. They thrive only on human heads and hair. Head lice infestations are common throughout the US. They cross all social groups and ethnic communities. Although annoying, head lice do not carry diseases. But the saliva they leave produces intense itching of the scalp, with possible secondary bacterial infections.
The female louse produces about 90 eggs, known as nits, during a one month lifetime. They look like tiny white dots attached to individual hairs, either near the scalp or nestled behind ears and at the nape of the neck. A louse away from a human head will not live for more than 24 hours, but the nits can survive up to 10 days.
Lice can be a problem any time helmets are swapped around. School outbreaks have been traced to the use of a single batting helmet for softball players.
To control lice in helmets, The National Pediculosis Association recommends vacuuming and wiping out the helmets, noting that a louse can survive less than 24 hours away from a human host, but the nits on a hair left in the helmet could survive up to 10 days. Detachable foam fitting pads and the nylon straps can be washed. Some patients have had good results removing nits by rinsing their hair with white vinegar prior to washing with shampoo or soap.
Although microwave ovens are used for delousing some items, microwaves damage helmet materials, so you should never put a helmet in one. A good alternative if the helmet is not being used immediately is sealing it in a plastic bag for 2 weeks until any louse that hatched from a nit inside the bag would be dead.
One emailer suggests using painters caps under the helmet. They get enough caps for each kid in the class donated by a local paint company. The company gets the advertising, and the kids love the caps. The caps are thin and should not interfere with the fit of the helmet.
The best solution we have heard of for schools is the one the Washington Area Bicyclist Association uses for their education program. They buy surgical caps from Moore Medical, (now McKesson) at a cost of 10 cents each. The caps work well, but there are obvious caveats: keep the cap in place and make sure it covers the whole head. The main problem would be heat buildup in hot weather, but the caps are "lightweight but durable spunbounded fabric that permits increased airflow, keeping the wearer cool and comfortable during long surgical procedures." WABA reports that the kids barely whimper about putting on the caps, probably because the instructor already has one on when they are introduced. They use the 21 inch size "to cut down on the number of goofballs who pull all the extra forward where it obscures their view entirely!"
Another emailer has suggested that use of shower caps under a helmet could prevent the spread of lice. They were thinking of the thin clear plastic ones found in hotel rooms. Those would be hotter and sweatier than the surgical caps.
And from France comes the Sanitete (Sani from sanitary, tête meaning head). It is an interior liner of non-woven material that sticks inside the helmet. We don't know where they are available, what the price might be, or even if they are effective against lice, but check out the Sanitete website for more info.
There is also the ESCO head protector, another paper cap.
Spray delousers can be found in a local drugstore. We have not yet heard from anyone using any of these products, and we don't know whether or not they contain any chemicals that could damage a helmet. If you want to use one of those, we recommend contacting the helmet manufacturer to ask if the product is compatible with their materials. One bike rental service recommends LiceLogic spray from Logic Products.
While testing helmets for possible damage from hair products, we tried Lice Shield lice repellant. It was the most repelling smelling stuff among the 25 different products we tested. If you are thinking about using it, take a whiff before you buy. It did not do damage to the helmets we tested it on, even sprayed directly on the inner liner. But we could not imagine wearing one of those helmets!
Novokid has a "natural" plant-based system that includes rosemary oil and vinegar dispersed under a cap by a vapor generator. It says "no chemicals" but what they really mean is only chemicals from natural substances. It is expensive.
To our knowledge no helmet manufacturer makes a helmet specifically designed for rental shops with quick, easy, repeatable, routine delousing and cleaning in mind. We think there would be a market for such a helmet if anyone produced one. An alternative is to provide the renter with a cheap helmet as part of the rental price. We have a page up on inexpensive helmets starting at about $5.
For the most up-to-date general info on lice we recommend a visit to the National Pediculosis Association website at headlice.org. It is really the definitive source.
The Mayo Clinic has a very thorough series of pages on head lice with graphics and photos.
The American Academy of Dermatology has good advice and a video.
Or you can try this Google search on "head lice treatment".
For info on normal cleaning of helmets, see our cleaning page.
This page was revised on: October 25, 2020.