In retrospect, Lauren Salzberg always had the perfect characteristics for her job.
She doesn’t get grossed out easily, she likes to take care of people and she describes herself as “very hands on.”
Salzberg took a circuitous route to her profession — her parents wanted “a nice Jewish girl” like her to pursue a traditional career, and she taught pre-school at Washington Hebrew Congregation for almost 10 years — but eventually Salzberg found her niche: she is the Potomac Lice Lady.
“Did I ever dream that this is what I was going to do? No,” said Salzberg, 47, a mother of three in her. “But I love it.”
Salzberg employs two people at the lice removal business she founded in 2011. She said that because lice have evolved to become more resistant to over-the-counter removal products and because school districts have relaxed policies mandating that kids go home from school with any sign of lice, business is booming. “The problem has really gotten out of hand,” she said.
The numbers back up Salzberg’s assertion. Although no one tracks the exact number of lice infestations, the Centers for Disease Control estimates that there are between 6 million and 12 million cases of lice infestation every year for children ages 3 to 11.
A good deal of the problem is due to the prevalence of so-called superlice. These lice have high resistance to pyrethroids, the active ingredient in many over-the-counter treatments. A 2015 study found that four out of five samples of lice collected across 30 states have evolved in this way.
Because of this, Salzberg’s philosophy is not to try to kill the lice, but instead to manually remove them.
“When you find out that you have lice, your first reaction is often to go to the drug store and find something that will kill them. You say, ‘Gross, I have bugs in my head. I need to get them out,’” she said. “But we believe in manually removing.”
Unfortunately, manually removing the lice can be easier said than done. Salzberg cautioned that inexpensive plastic lice combs sold in drugstores usually aren’t effective for removing lice and their eggs.
And removing the lice can be a painstaking process: one has to comb the hair of the affected person in four different directions to be sure to clear up the infestation.
But with some resolve, Salzberg says, anyone can defeat lice.
“Anyone can win the war on lice; you just have to have the right weapons,” she said. “Most people go to battle unprepared and they lose the battle. They tell us they feel so defeated. But we ask them what they’ve done and they say they’ve used over-the-counter products.
“It’s just as simple as having the proper comb,” she said. “Anyone can do it; there just isn’t enough public education out there.”
Salzberg’s standard service, which costs $90 for one hour of treatment, entails a “full comb out.” She recommends that parents continue treatment at home and that customers follow up within seven to nine days to make sure they are lice free.
Salzberg treats clients in a salon she built in her Potomac home. She said before she built the salon, she would travel around the area in what she jokingly called her “licemobile,” but she spent so much time on the road that it made sense to build a salon.
She said she sometimes works long hours to keep up with the demand for her business.
“There are times when it hits you right in the heart,” she said. “I hear how upset parents are on the phone, and I’m a mom too, so I feel for them.”
Because having lice can be such a drag, Salzberg makes an effort to make her salon as welcoming as possible. She set up her office like a hair salon, painted with a friendly purple color and she often braids girls’ hair. She also peppers her website with the occasional lice pun like, “have a de-liceful day.”
“When you’re dealing with lice, you have to also make it fun,” she said.