It's a lousy job, but somebody has to do it. Meet Paula Salas, a professional nitpicker.
Salas is the owner of Kooty Katchers, a lice removal company. After months of in-home appointments, she opened a bricks-and-mortar location in November. Her office is tucked into a discreet office park on Southcross Drive West, at the end of a long stairway. Once inside, Kooty Katchers looks much like a hair salon, with bright paintings on the walls, an abundance of People Magazine and what seems to be a typical stylist's chair.
Then Salas gets down to business. She straps on a headlamp and turns on two high powered lights. Her weapon?: The Terminator, a heavy duty stainless steel comb specially designed to smoke out her foe—the creepy, crawly, ever-present louse.
She is trained in the Shepherd Method, which is a trademarked practice taught by Lice Solutions Resource Network in West Palm Beach, FL.
"It's a means of going through the hair in a systematic way, in paper-thin sections," Salas explained. "So you're looking at the scalp and the hair in such thin sections that you can see your hand through it. Just by combing you can't get everything out."
"Combing is a huge part of it, but you still need to go through each strand and determine if you've gotten everything," She added.
First she applies a safe, non-toxic enzyme-based solution to help loosen the glue fixture on the nit. If there are bugs, it breaks down the exoskeleton of the bugs, which slows the critter down, she said, but it does not kill them. Then Salas sections the head into fours, tightly wrapping up each section. Then she examines each strand of hair. And so it goes, with Salas painstakingly pulling each and every egg out of the hair, and, occasionally, scoring a big, fat queen bug.
Cringe and scratch if you must. Salas said her mother still hasn't quite gotten over it.
"When I started this she gave me so much grief. She said I was crazy," Salas said, with a laugh. Salas has an indefatigable sense of good cheer. "But I'm the best person to do this job, because it's so tedious."
Salas is a born perfectionist and a veteran of the hair industry. She's been a stylist in Burnsville for 20 years. Only recently has she turned her interest to this humble parasite, which has dogged our species for well over 1 million years. She said her unorthodox career choice was inspired by the trials of many of her clients, who wanted to fight the pests but maintain their commitment to going green. Many balk at using a pesticide on their child's head.
"The chemicals they put on hurt and they're drying on the hair. The hair is just nasty afterwards," Salas said. "They don't want the chemicals and the plastics."
There is also an unpleasant rumor circulating about head lice becoming increasingly immune to pesticide-based shampoos. Salas and other adherents of The Method believe this to be the case.
"The most commonly used are the Rid and the Nix but over the years they have built up resistance, which they knew would happen, just like antibiotics," Salas said. "There is no magic cure: You have to do tedious nitpicking. That's all it is."
There is no consensus in the scientific community, as yet. According to David Neitzel, an epidemiologist at Minnesota Department of Health specializing in insect-borne diseases, there are some documented instances of resistance to permethrin, one of the active ingredients in over the counter products. However, officials at MDH say it’s not common, though not much research has been done on the issue.
"We don’t know how widespread this is," wrote MDH spokesman Doug Schultz.
Schultz and Neitzel were echoed by Jeff Hahn, an extension entomologist at the University of Minnesota.
"That is subject to ongoing research. There's undoubtedly a degree of resistance, but not all (lice) are," Hahn said. "There could be a number of reasons that (the shampoo) isn't working—not applying according to directions, re-infestation, or the adults have been killed but not the nits. It's also possible that you've been misdiagnosed."
Neither MDH nor the federal Center of Disease Control track the incidence of head lice. There seems to be little political will to study it, because it's commonly considered a nuisance, not a serious threat to public health.
"It's not something that you'll go ill and die from," Hahn said simply.
Could they potentially become a health risk, a disease carrier? It's possible, he said, but certainly not an imminent threat.
"They have been associated with people since cave man days and nothing has occurred so far, though I would never say never when it comes to insects," Hahn said. "You shouldn't lose sleep over it."
Nevertheless, once you've got head lice on the brain it's hard to think of anything else, Salas said. Many of her clients come in for multiple check ups, even if know (on a purely rational level) that they're lice-free, just for the peace of mind.
For her part, Salas is no longer squeamish about the bugs. In fact, the monotony of the labor is somewhat soothing, she said.
"I love this work. I don't think it's for everybody," Salas said. "I love finding the needle in the haystack. You get into this zone and you just go."
Salas will soon be hiring. Experience is not required. All you need to succeed at Kooty Katchers is keen eyesight, determination and nerves of steel.