How to Kill Head Lice on Clothes and Laundry

Head lice

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Head lice are very common in schools, daycares, and playgroups. Children share hats, hair brushes, and hair accessories spreading the lice through head-to-head contact. Infestation can also happen from shared bedding, stuffed toys, and clothing.

What Are Head Lice?

The first hints that head lice may have invaded your home is either a note sent home from school that another student is infected or a child complaining about head itching or a tickling feeling of something moving in his hair.

Upon closer examination of the scalp, you may find many tiny white dots clinging to the hair shafts (nits or lice eggs), moving gray nymphs, or adult lice that are also grayish and about the size of a sesame seed. Your doctor or pharmacist can help you recognize them and recommend treatment options. Every professional is going to tell you to start by combing your child's hair with a special comb to remove both adult lice and the eggs or nits they lay which attach to individual shafts of hair. 

To prevent transmission to others or reinfestation, you must wash your child's personal items thoroughly in addition to vacuuming the floor and furniture in those areas of your home where your child usually sits or plays. This article focuses on getting rid of the head lice on sheets, towels, clothes, and toys to prevent reinfestation and infecting other family members.

How Long Will the Lice Live?

The lifespan of an adult louse on a host ranges up to 30 days. During this time, each female can deposit about 90 eggs. After incubating for seven to 10 days, the nits hatch and, after another 10 days, mature into adult head lice and the cycle begins again.

Off the host, adult head lice can live about two to four days at 74 degrees Fahrenheit (F) and one to two days at 86 degrees. Nits will remain alive off the host for up to 10 days; they will not hatch at or below an average room temperature of 68 degrees F.

Basic Recommendations for Head Lice Laundry

Step One: Gather Lice Exposed Items

Any item that your child used or wore during the two-day period leading up to the initial head lice treatment should be cleaned. Adult head lice can live about two days on fabrics without being on a host to feed. In addition to bed linens, don't forget:

  • clothing and coats
  • towels
  • fabric hair accessories like headbands and, of course, hats and earmuffs
  • upholstery and throw pillows
  • stuffed toys and any faux fur items
  • bookbags and totes
get rid of lice on laundry
Illustration: Alison Czinkota. © The Spruce, 2018 

Step Two: Sort Infested Items

Sort items by washable, dry clean only, and those that can be neither washed or dry cleaned.

Step Three: Cleaning Lice Exposed Laundry and Fabrics

For washable items like bed linens and towels, use the hottest water temperature setting on your washer and launder as usual. Tumble in the dryer on a high temperature for at least 20 minutes to ensure the insects are dead. For really delicate items that can't withstand hot water or high dryer temperatures, allow them to soak in warm water with plenty of laundry detergent for several hours to kill the lice and then wash as usual.

Items that are dry clean only should be sealed in a heavy, plastic garbage bag until they can be taken to a professional cleaner. Be sure to tell the cleaner about the infestation. The cleaner will know how to properly clean the items and kill the lice.

For items that cannot be washed or those that you do not want to take to a professional cleaner, there are two ways you can take care of the problem lice at home.

  • One is the one week quarantine. Place the items in a black plastic bag and seal the bag tightly for one week. Do not open. After a week, take each item outside for a good shake and vacuum each item to remove dead lice.
  • If the item can't be under quarantine for a week, perhaps a favorite sleeping toy, use freezer time. Adult lice cannot live if subjected to extremely cold temperatures. Infested items can be bagged and frozen for four hours to kill the lice. After the freezer time, vacuum each item to remove the dead lice. Always dispose of the vacuum bag immediately or empty the vacuum cup into a sealable plastic bag and place it in an outside garbage bin.

Whatever method you use, be diligent. Head lice can be stubborn and you may need to take precautions for several weeks to be sure that you have gotten rid of every single one.