Among the leafy blocks of what is known as brownstone Brooklyn, two bright, cheery salons recently opened on quiet side streets. A curious passer-by might notice plaintive children in styling chairs, sucking on lollipops, while young women comb their hair. But the salons have no signage, and the parents watch the proceedings with brows furrowed. That’s because their children are not getting haircuts. They are being deloused.
Lice, as any parent knows, are common and a pain to treat. Parents must take time off from work to remove the children from school. Plans for summer camp can be upended, with some children sent home on the first day. For the six million to 12 million children who are infested with lice each year, the American Association of Pediatrics recommends over-the-counter shampoos that contain pediculicides (lice killers), followed by a careful comb-out, but do-it-yourself treatments don’t always work.
For over three decades, Orthodox Jewish women in Brooklyn neighborhoods like Borough Park, Midwood and Kensington have used a decidedly low-tech approach involving a fine-toothed metal comb, drugstore hair conditioner and plenty of paper towels, onto which they smear the nauseating results of their labors.
Nit-picking has become a branded enterprise. In addition to the two newish salons serving Park Slope and environs, there are no less than eight delousing boutiques throughout New York City, in addition to dozens of mobile treatment companies. What was once a homey — if disgusting — therapeutic rite of passage is a multimillion-dollar industry, right alongside parent-baby music classes and tutoring centers.
The godmother of nit pickers is probably Dalya Harel, 56, an Israeli-born mother of eight who became an expert after one of her daughters caught lice in 1985 after entering school. Ms. Harel combed it out with margarine (conditioner came later), and the word spread. “I did it as a favor to friends,” she said in the Park Slope branch of Lice Busters, “and then the principal hired me to do their class, and the rest is history.”
But running a home business was complicated. Anxious families would show up in the middle of the Passover Seder, after dialing her number and getting no answer. “We don’t pick up the phone,” she said, “so they come because they know the location. So we invite them to sit at the table.”
The business was so successful that she left her accounting job at Bank Leumi and in 2003 opened a combing salon beneath her home in Midwood, calling it Lice Busters. Last January she opened the outpost in Park Slope with her son Yoni Harel, 27, who brings to mind a Calvin Klein model by way of Tel Aviv. “Most of the customers who come to me are from Park Slope,” Ms. Harel said. “So it was like, ‘I’m coming to you.’”
Lice Busters employs about 20 technicians in Midwood and Park Slope. The cost for removal is $150 to $250, depending on the severity. It takes about an hour, with a free recheck one week later. Families are instructed to launder sheets and blankets and to bag unwashable stuffed animals. But children can return to school immediately, which means parents can go back to work.
Before they found their Sterling Place storefront, the Harels considered a former restaurant on Seventh Avenue, opposite Public School 321 in Park Slope. But business owners complained to the landlord. A commercial space adjacent to a Gymboree in Gowanus also caused trouble. “Everyone started screaming that we were going to bring lice to the gym,” Ms. Harel said.
The North Slope storefront, previously a Pilates studio, was a shidduch — a match. It is the only business on the block, except for administrative offices of a private school.
With hardwood floors, baby blue walls and flat screens playing Netflix, the mood is like a day spa. Customers can buy brushes, liquid garlic (a preventive), and nit combs at the counter. The Harel family operates 11 salons in New Jersey, Connecticut, Florida and Israel; a 12th opens on the Upper West Side of Manhattan this summer. They have annual revenues of over $1 million from the Brooklyn salons, house calls and school checks. But last September alone, the Park Slope branch brought in six figures.
“Any time after a holiday we are booming,” Ms. Harel said. “Lice come from love, from loving and hugging and only to the nicest, cleanest people.” Camps also make for more traffic. “Sleepaway camps,” her son said, “are the best for the business.”
About 20 blocks from Lice Busters is a competitor named Licenders, whose president and founder is Adie Horowitz. On a weekday evening, two adolescent sisters sat in styling chairs and told their technicians they caught it on vacation.
If Lice Busters is the Old Navy of delousing, Licenders is the J. Crew. In a corner, preschool-size chairs were arranged around a table. On it sat a Licenders-branded coloring book with “Leslie the Louse” as the villain and “Adie the Lice Diva” as the heroine. A shelf up front displays an $84.95 “essentials” lice kit containing shampoo, oil repellent, combing solution and a comb, all branded with the Licenders logo, a green-feathered wing. (For the record, lice have no wings and cannot fly.)
Ms. Horowitz, 59, now lives in New Jersey, but she knew Ms. Harel in the 1990s when both lived in Kensington. Ms. Harel said she treated Ms. Horowitz’s children, instructing as she worked, and then Ms. Horowitz began offering lice treatment herself. Ms. Horowitz said she learned the comb-out method from a book at the Brooklyn Public Library’s Central Branch.
Whatever the origin story, Ms. Horowitz began combing from her home in 1997. In 2004, she acquired a competitor on the Upper East Side called Licenders, adopting its name. “The women I knew ended up doing it in their homes and doing it in their basement,” Ms. Horowitz said. “I wanted to get away from that and start a business.”
Why the Orthodox have a niche business in lice removal is a matter of speculation: large families, an openness to home remedies, deep expertise on the 10 plagues. Abigail Rosenfeld, a Kensington lice remover, said the bugs are a chatzitzah, or barrier, to a woman’s immersion in the mikvah, or ritual bath. “If an Orthodox woman has lice, it’s like an ink mark on the hand,” she said, “something that shouldn’t be there.”
Ms. Horowitz’s Gowanus location opened in November, adding to Licenders salons in Manhattan; Port Washington, N.Y.; and Stamford, Conn. There are two pricing options: the “one-hour treatment” ($249), after which home maintenance is recommended, or the “maintenance-free plan” ($145 for the first half-hour, and $70 for each additional half-hour). Adults and children over 4 are treated with a machine cleared by the Food and Drug Administration which resembles a vacuum cleaner and which Ms. Horowitz says dehydrates lice and nits.
Because of increased referrals from doctors, Licenders and Lice Busters offer invoices with diagnosis and procedure codes (the machine is classified as a medical device), allowing some customers to get insurance reimbursement.
Combing salons are popping up all over the country. Katie Shepherd, a lice expert in West Palm Beach, Fla., runs a nonprofit institute that offers lice-removal certification to people seeking to open salons. She said there were about 1,000 combing businesses in the United States last year, up from about 40 in 2009. “It’s an unregulated business,” she said, “but there is a movement to regulate them. People hang shingles who aren’t trained and don’t know what they’re doing.”
Around midafternoon on a recent weekday, Julia Sturm, a nonprofit arts and media professional in her 40s, strode cheerfully into Lice Busters. Her 9-year-old son had recently been treated for nits, which were discovered during a periodic check at school. She tried combing out at home but wanted to be sure it worked. It didn’t. At a visit to Lice Busters, she learned that she and her son had nits, too. All were treated, and she was in for her recheck.
As she reclined in a styling chair, Ms. Sturm was philosophical. “I did a cost-benefit analysis,” she said. “Have you ever heard the expression, ‘Throw money at a problem’?’ My husband and I are both working full time. It’s all we can do to get through the whole day. So if I was going to add a lice treatment every night or every other night, I wouldn’t have the bandwidth.”
The only people unhappy with the combing salons may be the home-based lice ladies who now see a drop in calls. “There’s definitely a decline in the past year,” Ms. Rosenfeld said. “But I made a wedding, I’m making a bar mitzvah, I had grandchildren. I haven’t been concentrating on the lice.”