- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 8, 2009

When word got out that Amy Goldreyer was in the know, frustrated moms began to seek her out - on the phone, by her car at her children’s school, through friends of friends.

“I hear you are the ‘Hair Whisperer,’ ” one woman said to her. From there, a business with a catchy name was born.

The Hair Whisperer is a nice name for an unappetizing - but booming - business. Ms. Goldreyer, who lives in Brentwood, Calif., is a lice-removal expert. Parents hire her (and now her staff of a dozen) to make house calls, meticulously check through children’s hair and, if lice are found, treat them with nontoxic products.

“Business is doing great,” Ms. Goldreyer says. “We’ve got a very specific way of doing things. We’ve got combs and oils. Most people say, ‘I never would have known how to do this.’

“I am so not squeamish,” Ms. Goldreyer says. “This is my calling.”

Infestations of head lice - scientific name, pediculosis - affect at least 6 million schoolchildren annually, says the National Pediculosis Association, a Massachusetts-based advocacy group. Americans spend more than $86 million on chemical-based treatments to try and eliminate lice. There often is confusion as to how lice are spread, what they look like and how to treat them so they don’t return.

That’s why there are businesses like the Hair Whisperer cropping up nationwide. Hair Fairies, a chain of lice-removal salons, has stores in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Chicago. Thus far, the Baltimore-Washington area has one solo practitioner.

Penny Warner, a registered nurse who lives near Houston, founded the Texas Lice Squad six years ago after her young children repeatedly got lice. After trying lots of over-the-counter remedies, Ms. Warner used a pesticide-free product that finally worked, and “I wanted to give people the right information,” she says.

Ms. Warner now has a staff of five and a salonlike office where customers can watch favorite videos or play video games while getting treatment. Ms. Warner charges $100 for the first hour, then $75 for additional hours. The average treatment (which features a two-week guarantee and a free follow-up check) costs about $250, she says.

Some clients come to the Texas Lice Squad after being referred by a doctor. Often, insurance will then pick up some of the cost. Meanwhile, because lice-removal operations are such a new business, they are unlicensed and unregulated.

In the end, it seems to be money well spent. Trying a variety of products can be costly as well as ineffective. Arguing with a squirming child to sit still while you literally go over her head with a fine-toothed comb can be nerve-racking.

“Some lice have grown resistant to over-the-counter remedies,” Ms. Warner says, citing a Harvard School of Public Health study. “We see it here. So many parents come to me after fighting it for months and months. It ends up being cheaper in the long run than buying products that don’t work.”

With so many parents grappling with the frustration of lice treatment, some of the stigma of the affliction is going away, Ms. Warner says.

“I get people from every walk of life,” she says. “Some mothers come in thinking they are the worst parents in the world. I tell them parenting has nothing to do with it. It is almost like a childhood rite of passage.”

Ms. Goldreyer says among her customer base there is still some sense of shame - even among parents who know that every kid on the block has gotten lice.

“It is still hard to let go of the thought that [lice] is about being dirty,” she says. “But really, dirty hair doesn’t get lice. Clean hair does.”

Dealing with dirty stuff, such as picking up dog poop from the lawn or scrubbing toilets, is one area many parents are glad to outsource.

“I felt like I didn’t know what I was looking for,” said one Los Angeles-area mother of two boys and a customer of Ms. Goldreyer’s. She asked her name not be used.

“It was a little overwhelming - there is so much information on how to treat lice that is out there on the Internet,” she said. “It is hard to know what is true. Calling in an expert took away the ‘What do we do now?’ ”

In fact, the woman recently threw a sleepover for her sons and three of their friends. Among the activities: Ms. Goldreyer stopped by for a lice check and treatment. This way the parents can stop recontamination when their children play with friends who might also have lice and often not know it.

“They are all getting checked,” the woman said. “It’s worth it.”

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