How to Wash Laundry Infested With Lice

Hot Water and High Dryer Heat Is the Prescription

Infographic for how to get rid of lice on laundry

The Spruce / Alison Czinkota

Project Overview
  • Working Time: 10 mins
  • Total Time: 1 hr, 30 mins
  • Skill Level: Beginner

Head lice are very common in schools, daycares, and playgroups where children are in close quarters with one another. Infestation can also happen from shared bedding, stuffed toys, and clothing, as well as from head-to-head contact. The CDC (Center for Disease Control) estimates that there are 6 to 12 million individual infestations each year, mostly among children three to 11 years of age. Head lice do not transmit disease, but passing around tiny pests that cause itchy bites is no laughing matter, and causes children a good deal of embarrassment and discomfort.

To prevent transmission of lice to others or re-infestation, you must wash your child's personal items thoroughly and vacuum the floor and furniture in the areas of your home where your child usually sits, plays, and sleeps. While heat does kill lice on clothes, you don't need to boil the items to get rid of lice on clothes. Simply washing the items in hot water and drying them at a high temperature should get rid of the critters. The head louse (Pediculus humanus capitis) is easily killed by temperatures above 122 degrees Fahrenheit, and the typical residential hot water temperature is about 130 degrees. Your dryer can kill lice and eggs on pillows and blankets, running at around 125 degrees on a low heat setting and 135 to 150 degrees at high heat.

To ensure your laundry is free of head lice, make sure that water temperature or dryer temperature is at least 125 degrees and preferably a bit higher. Run the loads for a full cycle through the washer and dryer.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Washing machine
  • Dryer

Materials

  • Laundry detergent

Instructions

A washing machine and a container for detergent

The Spruce / Michelle Becker

How to Wash Clothes Infested With Lice
Detergent Regular
Water Temperature Hot (130 degrees or more)
Cycle Type Regular
Drying Cycle Type High heat
Special Treatments None
Iron Settings Varies by garment
How Often to Wash Daily, for items in contact with an infested individual

How to Wash Laundry Infested With Lice

  1. Gather Affected Items

    You need to wash all items that were worn or came into contact with a person who has lice during the two days before the first treatment begins. Don't forget to wash coats, towels, fabric hair accessories, pillowcases, and fabric bags.

    A pile of laundry

    The Spruce / Michelle Becker

  2. Sort the Items

    Sort the items like you would when doing laundry normally. Make sure to put delicate clothing in a separate pile.

    Someone sorting laundry into piles

    The Spruce / Michelle Becker

  3. Load the Washing Machine

    Put a single load of clothing—but not the delicates—in the washing machine. Add standard liquid laundry detergent and set the machine to use hot water. Start the washing machine.

    A basket of laundry near a washer

    The Spruce / Michelle Becker

  4. Soak the Delicates

    Delicate items shouldn't be exposed to hot water or high heat to kill the lice; doing so would risk damaging the garment. Soak these items in warm water with plenty of laundry detergent for several hours to kill the lice, and then wash them on the delicate cycle in the machine.

    Clothing soaking in a container full of water

    The Spruce / Michelle Becker

  5. Dry the Clothing and Linens

    Move the load of regular laundry to the dryer. Set it on a high-heat drying cycle, start the machine, and let it run for a minimum of 40 minutes to ensure the lice do not survive the dryer heat. Let the delicates air-dry.

    Someone adding laundry to a dryer

    The Spruce / Michelle Becker

  6. Repeat With Remaining Laundry

    Wash and dry each load of laundry on the same hot-water and high-heat cycles.

    Piles of folded laundry on a bed

    The Spruce / Michelle Becker

What Are Head Lice?

Head lice (Pediculus humanus capitis) are tiny wingless insects that feed on blood and spend their entire lifecycle—egg (nit) to immature nymph to adult louse—living, feeding, and reproducing only on the human scalp. Only humans play host to P. human capitis, and it is a different subspecies from the body louse (Pediculus humanus humanus) and an entirely different species from the pubic louse (Pthirus pubis).

The head louse is largely harmless, unlike the body lice, which have been known to spread diseases such as typhus and trench fever. About 1/10 inch in length, the head louse is, however, a serious pest, as its bites create long-lasting itchiness that can turn into open wounds if they are scratched. Further, a head lice infestation is hard to eradicate and is very easily transmitted, especially among children.

When an adult louse lives on a human host, it can live for up to 30 days. During this time, each adult female can lay up to six eggs a day, causing the lice to multiply. After incubating for seven to 10 days, the nits hatch, and, after another 10 days, they mature into adult head lice, and the cycle begins again. When an adult louse doesn't have a human host, it doesn't have a food source (blood from the scalp) and can live between two to four days at 74 degrees Fahrenheit or one to two days at 86 degrees.

Nits have a hard time living without a human host, because they'll have lost the warmth and nourishment of the hair and scalp. If removed from the hair shaft, they could remain alive for up to 10 days. But, the good news is that they won't hatch at or below an average room temperature of 68 degrees.

Treating Stains on Lice-Infested Laundry

The lice themselves do not stain bedding and other laundry items, but it unfortunate victims who scratch the bites might draw a small amount of blood that can stain pillowcases, sheets, and other items. These tiny blood stains are usually fairly easy to remove from bedding, using hydrogen peroxide, white vinegar, or a commercial stain remover.

Storing Laundry Infested With Lice

If a fabric item cannot be washed or taken to a dry cleaner, seal it in a plastic bag, and store it for two weeks. Once you return to the items, the lice will have died. Take the bag outside, and shake out the enclosed item. Then, vacuum the area, if possible, to remove any dead lice.

Even with washed items, you may want to store them for a couple of weeks before using them again. This makes you 100 percent certain that the items cannot still harbor lice.

How Often to Wash Laundry Infested With Lice

Be patient, as you will likely have to rewash the same clothes and bedding more than once. In particular, you should change and wash the bedding every single day until your house is free from lice. If even just a few nits remain alive, a re-infestation can occur.

Head lice can be stubborn. Even though they don't fly, it's easy for them to transfer from one person to another. So you might need to take precautions for several weeks to be sure that you've gotten rid of every single one.

Tips for Washing Laundry Infested With Lice

  • Take dry-clean-only items to a professional, but mention that the item has been exposed to lice.
  • If you have a newer energy-efficient dryer, turn off all energy-saving or eco-sensor settings, or else the dryer will turn off prematurely before the lice are dead.
  • Another way to kill lice is to bag an item and put it in a zero degree freezer for at least four hours. If the item is dense, it'll take longer for the internal temperature to reach zero degrees. When you take it out of the freezer, vacuum the item to remove the dead lice, and then dispose of the vacuum bag immediately.
  • Remember to wash or treat throw pillows that may have been exposed to lice.
  • Human head lice can't spread to pets and pets don't spread lice, so you don't need to worry about washing and fumigating pet bedding.
FAQ
  • Is is possible to soak linens or clothing in pesticide to kill head lice?

    Although preparations including special formulations of malathion are approved for shampoos and other skin care products to kill head lice, use of these insecticides is not necessary for laundry items. Simple heat from hot water and a clothes dryer is more than sufficient to kill the adult insects and nits that may infest pillowcases, sheets, hats, and other items.

  • What do head lice look like?

    The adults are very tiny, flattened insects about 1/10 inch long, white to gray in color. The eggs (nits) are small oval-shaped structures, white or yellow in color, usually found attached to hair follicles near the scalp.

  • How do you get rid of lice in one day?

    You can kill lice on clothing, pillows, blankets, and other washable items in one day by running them through a hot cycle in both the washer and dryer. The infestation must still be removed from each infected person and other areas of your home with soaps and sprays specifically intended for the treatment of lice.

  • How long can lice live?

    Lice can live for about a month on a person's head, but adult lice and eggs cannot live for more than one week once they are removed from the host.

Article Sources
The Spruce uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Head Lice: Frequently Asked Questions. CDC (Center for Disease Control)

  2. Head Lice. CDC.