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Nitpicking is growth industry

Nancy Gordon, founder of Lice Knowing You, combs lice out of a customer’s hair at Gordon’s Mercer Island, Wash., salon on Tuesday. (Associated Press)
Nancy Gordon, founder of Lice Knowing You, combs lice out of a customer’s hair at Gordon’s Mercer Island, Wash., salon on Tuesday. (Associated Press)

SEATTLE – The American entrepreneurial spirit finds opportunity in the unlikeliest places. Today’s example is a local business called … Lice Knowing You.

Guess its specialty.

Seven years ago, Nancy Gordon, now 46, was a Mercer Island stay-at-home mom whose first-grade daughter came home with lice in her hair.

Gordon tried Internet advice on natural treatments that said mayonnaise would smother the bugs.

Emily, now 13, ended up walking around for four hours with her hair in a shower cap, smothered with the contents of a jar of mayo. It didn’t work.

Now, Gordon is long past the sandwich spread.

She runs five salons that charge $95 an hour – you pay in 15-minute increments – for one particular service: Using a fine-toothed stainless-steel comb to pick those bugs out of hair.

When Gordon began Lice Knowing You at the end of 2007, there were no such businesses in the Seattle area.

She has a law degree from the University of Denver and worked for a decade in various management positions with the Anti-Defamation League in San Francisco. Her husband, Matt Gordon, works in patents and acquisitions for Amazon.

All that is a long way from picking lice, but Nancy Gordon said she believed there was a future in going after the bugs.

It turns out the American consumer has shown a keen interest in paying others to do unpleasant tasks, and nitpicking certainly qualifies.

Lice are big business, what with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimating 6 million to 12 million infestations occur each year in the United States among children ages 3 to 11. In a government study done in 1998, it was estimated Americans spent $367 million a year trying to kill lice.

In most school districts, including Seattle Public Schools, students with lice in their hair can return to school only after being treated for the bugs, and when “no live lice are found upon inspection.”

Forgoing chemicals to deal with head lice is something that more and more parents have tried in recent years.

The Gordons had decided to avoid chemicals because their second child, Josh, 11, has autism. The less potentially toxic stuff around, the better, the parents decided.

Gordon said Emily was a good sport about going natural in killing lice. She said her daughter actually “loved the mayonnaise because it’s soothing, kind of like a spa treatment.”

Emily was a good sport, too, when Gordon next soaked her hair with olive oil, and then added some essential oils like eucalyptus and rosemary.

There were still some lice.

What really did the trick, Gordon said, was using a stainless steel fine-toothed comb to catch the small bugs, which are roughly one-tenth of an inch in length, and their eggs, also called nits.

A 1983 paper called “The Appreciation of Lice,” by one of the world’s leading bug men, John Maunder, now retired director of the University of Cambridge’s Medical Entomology Centre in Britain, states:

“One of the most effective weapons ever devised against lice is the ordinary pocket comb. … Well-groomed animals rarely have many lice and neither do well-groomed children.”

Maunder further explained that when we scratch our heads because the lice make them itch, that is a natural defense mechanism.

The scratching – or frequent combing, or grooming in other animal species – can cause fatal internal injury in the bugs. Or it breaks their legs, and they die of infection.

Nature can be harsh.

Gordon admits that she had become a bit “obsessive” about going after the lice, spending some $300 to $400 not only on expensive oils, but buying every kind of fine-toothed comb she could find at drugstores, and even paying $50 for having shipped overnight a nitpicking comb called the “Terminator.”

Soon, she said, word got around friends and neighbors that Gordon was “a lice guru.”

After a couple of years of doing freebie treatments, a friend handed Gordon a news story about somebody starting a lice-picking business in California.

There is enough stigma associated with lice that Gordon says the landlord for her Mercer Island salon would not allow her to have the entire name of the business displayed for the public. There is just “LKY Treatment Salon” at the entrance.

Gordon says the lice treatment takes from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the length and thickness of the hair. It always starts with an application of an essential-oils recipe and an enzyme mousse.

Then the combing begins, strand after strand, the lice ending up on a paper towel. Lice don’t live for very long once they’re picked off their host’s hair.

It looks to be an ever-thriving business.

“Lice will never go away,” Gordon said.