The Truth Behind the Myth That Black People Can’t Get Lice
“Going forehead to forehead is a thing we do in our family,” Deborah A., 61, from Cleveland Heights, Ohio explains. Four years ago, when her then-11-year-old stepdaughter Khloe* casually mentioned to her that she thought she had lice, Deborah took it in passing. “I never heard of any Black person having lice.”
Khloe, however, is biracial and it turned out that her Type 2 hair is susceptible to the parasitic insect. Rosemarie Ingleton, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City, explains, “While everyone can get lice, they seem to adhere to straighter hair better.” Although there isn’t substantial evidence to suggest why that might be, she hypothesizes, “Maybe because the lice in the United States are less adapted to grasping Type 4 curly hair and cannot adhere to the hair shaft as easily.”
A few days after Khloe dropped the lice bomb, both Deborah and her daughter Lauren A., now 28, started to feel incessant itching and burning on their scalps. “I was looking in the bathroom mirror and [the lice were] kind of tangled up and caught in my hair,” Lauren says of finding lice in her locs, which were styled in two-strand twists. “I was honestly surprised because I have pretty kinky hair. Thick, coily, 4C hair, styled in locs — so to get lice just didn’t make sense to me.”
Pediculus humanus capitis, otherwise known as head lice, are small, blood-sucking insects that can be found wherever there is hair on the human body including the head, eyebrows, eyelashes, and pubic area. “The size and shape of the organisms are different and the three variants prefer different parts of the body,” explains board-certified dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, who is also an associate professor of dermatology and director of cosmetic & clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Lice live close to the human scalp, laying eggs near the hair follicles.
“Infestation with head lice is quite common in school-aged children in the United States of all socioeconomic classes,” New York City-based board-certified dermatologist Hadley King, M.D., FAAD, reveals, debunking the myth that “only poor people” get and spread lice. Lice infestations have been around forever — they date back as far as 25 million years ago in primates. However, for years, there’s been a commonly-held belief in the Black community that Black people can’t get or spread lice. It’s not entirely true, but it also isn’t entirely false: “The pediculus humanus capitis louse seems to prefer straight hair. Lice infestations are not as common in Black Americans,” explains Dr. King.
The Limited Science on Lice & Black Hair
There are plenty of theories as to why it seems like Black people don’t get head lice as often. The science, however, is less prolific. “[Any theories are] based on data from observational studies,” Dr. King explains. “And there have been conflicting data in different studies.”