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Lice treatment innovation driven by natural ingredients, consumer confusion

Few things can inspire a trip to the pharmacy faster than a head lice infestation letter. The dreaded letters from school nurses tell parents they need to take action to eliminate lice from their own child’s scalp and hair, or prevent catching a classmate’s lice.

They’re bad news for any parent and child. But good news for lice-treatment manufacturers who said this scenario presents sales opportunities for retailers that stock the right products.

While some consumers might be going to their pediatricians and for prescription solutions, that’s a time-consuming and expensive endeavor. Most consumers still are looking for over-the-counter products.

“It’s a highly emotional and stressful situation, and the mom has a lot of questions,” said Luigi Cappello, marketing director at Whippany N.J.-based Bayer Consumer Health, which offers the Rid range of products. “The first priority for retailers and brands is to make sure the right options that will work are available.”

That’s easier said than done given recent changes to the category. The rise of gene-mutated, pesticide-resistant super lice has inspired the launch of a variety of products, including combs, shampoos, sprays and other topical treatments.

“There is definitely an opportunity to simplify the shopping experience for consumers,” Cappello said. “If manufacturers and retailers are clear with packaging and on the shelves, then that gives the shopper a certain level of trust that they are making the right decision.”

One way to do that is to offer highly recognized brands. This spring, the company launched Rid Max Lice Removal Kit, a pesticide-free lice and super lice treatment. The kit contains Rid Max solution and a RIDvantage comb.

Natural solutions
Pesticide-free is the biggest trend right now, said Amanda Sicvol, country manager, USA, at Cary, N.C.-based Alliance Pharma. The company acquired the Vamousse Lice Treatment brand from TyraTech in 2017.

“Pesticides don’t work as well as they used to,” she said. “As consumers become more ingredient conscious, they want to feel good about what they are putting on their child’s head, and they want to know it works.”

Vamousse offers a line of products including Lice Treatment, a mousse and comb kit that kills lice and eggs in one treatment by dehydration, using the active ingredient natrum muriaticum, or sodium chloride.

Some natural solutions contain oils, which work by suffocating the lice and the nits.

“There is an emerging class of lice treatments that aren’t traditional treatments,” said Curt Behrens, president of P2B, a Barrington, Ill.-based brand development agency that is working with the brand Lice Nil. “Parents are looking for natural solutions.” These products offer an alternative to products that contain pyrethrin or permethrin.

Lice Nil is made with neem extract, tea tree oil and coconut oil. Neem is a natural remedy that works by encapsulating and suffocating lice and eggs. The oil gets into the tiny cracks in the eggs, which makes it more effective than other methods for drowning lice, such as using salt water.

“Water does not have 100% saturation that oil does,” Behrens said. “Drowning with sodium chloride is an old school homeopathic solution. That suffocates the lice, but the nit is the more troublesome character because it lives for 7-to-10 days. That’s why lice typically recur.”

Innovation can help drive sales, with IRI data showing that some of the smaller, newer brands are seeing double-digit gains, while certain longtime brands are flat or down. For the 52 weeks ended May 20, U.S. multi-outlet sales of parasite treatments totaled more than $162.4 million, down 2.8% compared with the same period the previous year. Unit sales, at more than 12.8 million, decreased by nearly 5%. The average price per unit was $12.61, which was 28 cents higher than the previous year.

Educate the consumer
Joseph Juliano, vice president of innovation and marketing services at Tarrytown, N.Y.-based Prestige Brands, marketer of pesticide-free Nix Ultra, said that another trend is parents seeking more information than what is written in the school letter. His company offers the online Nix Lice Tracker to keep consumers informed.

“Social media and the Internet have sped up the spread of local lice infestation news,” he said. “This has led to a rise in interest for preventative products in addition to treatment solutions.”

Though parents are informed about possible infestations, an enduring challenge is that there are still myths related to lice. “Most consumers believe any product they buy in the category kills lice and eggs,” Alliance Pharma’s Sicvol said. “That’s never been true, and it’s why parents don’t understand they have to use a product twice.”

Sicvol explained that pesticide-based products contain chemicals that kill lice with neurotoxins that disrupt the central nervous system of lice. “That doesn’t work for eggs because they don’t have a nervous system,” she said. The user has to apply the solution to kill lice, then wait 7-to-10 days for eggs, or nits, to hatch, then reapply. Parents don’t know they have to do a second treatment, or they don’t want to do the process again. Also, many parents do not realize that it takes 4-to-6 weeks after infestation for the child’s head to start itching.

Consumers who are not experts might also still believe another myth — the bad hygiene narrative. “A lice infestation is not a reflection of one’s cleanliness or tidiness,” said Jessica Granda, CFO at Grandall Distributing. “It should not be treated as a dirty thing.”

The company offers Mata Piojos Lice Shampoo, which it promotes with messaging focused on the Hispanic community about how common lice are, especially among kids during back-to-school season. Granda said retailers should educate Hispanic consumers about lice, treatment and prevention.

While head lice are most prevalent in the fall, a lice outbreak can happen any time of year. “Head lice is often spread from one noggin to another during summer camps,” said Caileen Sannan, marketing executive at Albany, Ore.-based Tec Labs, which makes the Licefreee brand. Also, parents might find out about lice infestations any time kids return to school, such as after winter or spring breaks.

Retailers should merchandise lice treatment solutions for impulse purchases during back-to-school season, said Michelle Freed, senior brand manager at Fairfield, N.J.-based Fairy Tales Hair Care. The company offers Rosemary Repel Lice Prevention Shampoo, Conditioner and Conditioning Spray.

“It is important to create the line as part of their back-to-school shops in their stores just as hand sanitizers and tissues have become,” she said. “They can drive their unit and dollar basket size up, while providing a proactive approach to their customers’ kids’ hair care needs as they go back to school.” Fairy Tales provides freestanding displays to help retailers maintain inventory levels during the busy season, and to set up incremental placement to encourage impulse purchases.

Sannan said that the Licefreee website is a resource for both parents and schools seeking lice-related information. The brand also offers free head lice education kits and head check supplies for schools, as well as an educational app, Head Lice Help, available for download in Google Play and the Apple Store.

Other solutions
Another method of eliminating lice and eggs is through heat. Lice removal salons are opening nationwide, and are growing even though they can cost $100 or more for a session. “We know there are people who are willing to pay for clinic treatment,” said Scott Wilson, president of consumer product division at Larada Sciences based in Murray, Utah. “Our market research says 35% of consumers, who are dealing with lice, will choose the clinic treatment if they are aware of it and are in a clinic’s proximity.”

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