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Lice resistance creates demand for salon-type removal

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Ashton Jager, 7, gives a cheer after Gonne Asser declares him lice free after a follow-up head check. Asser is the owner of Minnesota Lice Lady.

Of all the back-to-school stories in the news, one of the most discouraging was surely the report last week that over-the-counter lice removal products do not work.

According to a study presented at the Meeting of American Chemical Society, lice in 25 out of 30 states sampled have developed resistance to over-the-counter treatments commonly recommended by health authorities and schools.

The ineffective products, which include the brand names Rid, Nix and generic company brands sold at drug stores and large retail chains, use the active ingredient permethrin, from a family of insecticides called pyrethroids.

A researcher at Southern Illinois University collected lice samples from 30 states across the US, including Minnesota.

"We were able to collect 13 different populations from Minnesota and all of them had a 100 percent resistance," said Dr. Kyong Sup Yoon, Ph.D., in an interview with the Post Bulletin. "In all of the lice we collected from your state we found 100 percent resistance."

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Fine-toothed comb

Yoon says when over-the-counter products do work, it is likely because the instructions ask users to comb their children's hair with a special fine-toothed comb. But combing out lice is not easy.

That's why Gonne Asser, a lice-removal specialist who helped collect bugs for the study, has been busy since the day she opened up her Edina and Apple Valley based Minnesota Lice Lady business five years ago.

Dutch by birth (her first name is pronounced "Hah-nuh"), Asser is a parent of children who have had lice, has studied the research on lice and is trained in lice removal.

She is also an ebullient advocate for compassion and myth-busting when it comes to the bugs, which are harmless if annoying and only the size of grain of rice with eggs the size of a knot in thread.

Among the myths Asser likes to dispel: Lice do not live in the environment, only on heads. That means there is no need to wash all your children's clothing, sheets and stuffed toys, as is commonly thought.

Another myth about lice: their presence doesn't mean your child is dirty or you are a bad parent. Since lice can only be spread by head-to-head contact, it means that child is social, affectionate and has many friends.

For instance, selfies, where two kids lean their heads together for a iPhone photo, is a great way pass lice.

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"We call getting lice a compliment," says Asser. "It shows how well-liked your child is. We treat all the social butterflies."

Not a new problem

Asser says she has known about the resistance problem for years.

"We see people using the products the night before they arrive and they have bugs crawling all over their heads the very next day."

The challenge of lice is that by the time a person knows their child has it, the lice have already laid eggs and those will take another week to hatch. You have to thoroughly comb out the hair with a professional grade comb — this can take hours — then repeat the process after five days.

"You can do it yourself," she says, "but you need to space it out, stop cleaning your things, and connect with your children's friends because the group of friends is giving them back and forth to each other."

That said, if you can afford it, professional treatment is the surest bet. After rinsing the head in a mild solution to loosen the bugs' glue, Asser's employees spend about 45 minutes per head, depending on the hair. They tie off the hair in different sections and comb out lice, strand by strand. As part of her guarantee, they offer a second check a week later for free.

"It's kind of a cross between a salon and doctor's office," said a local mother who drove up to the tony Edina row house Minnesota Lice Lady location after her children and herself developed lice. (Thanks to the stigma surrounding lice, she asked to remain anonymous.)

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"It's a really cheerful and sweet environment, not at all what you'd imagine. There's TV's in all the rooms so the kids can have something to do while they are having their lice combed out."

"You see all the activity and realize you're not alone, that no one is immune to lice."

'Washing everything … and no luck'

The mother made the move up after spending $150 on over-the-counter products that did not solve the problem. "I was washing everything. I bought special shampoos, gels, and tried the combing. We were using everything and no luck. I really wanted some peace of mind and was ready to pay whatever it cost."

She spent $160 plus tip on lice removal for her two children and a head check for herself.

"My only worry in giving the interview," she says, "is if we ever get them again she will be too busy to see us."

"It was the best money we ever spent. Now I can cuddle with my kids again and not worry. I can feel good about it."

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