One day of last October, if I hadn’t unfortunately decided to change hair salon for my quarterly hair trim, I would never have learned of a natural remedy for a rather widespread problem among humanity.
What seemed like a no-brainer for a beauty ritual soon became a nightmare. An odd itching sensation started worryingly popping up on my scalp, especially on the nape of the neck and above the ears. These symptoms did not disappear by washing my head with my usual shampoo.
Having never had any type of scalp problem in my nearly 40s, I airily pointed my finger at a period of stress that could have triggered the unexpected physiological reaction. Optimistic in finding an initial solution before thinking of a medical examination, I searched the internet for a specific product that could help me calm the unusual dermatitis.
Because of the positive recommendations on treating and solving all kinds of dermal issues, I ran into an oil that immediately aroused my attention, with a name as exotic as simple: neem.
Some of the purchasers of the neem oil had found it the panacea to knock down ticks and fleas that tormented their pets. Others as the quickest and most effective remedy in curing cold sores. Again, others to relieve symptoms of eczema or psoriasis that not even allopathic medicines had been successful for years.
Overall, everyone who tested this miraculous oil for all sorts of skin problems was as enthusiastic about its benefits as yet agreeing on one major shortcoming. The smell of the neem oil was stinky above the most fervid human imagination, so that it was even unbearable for a few to discontinue its use.
Determined to discover the effects of such a praised oil but especially curious to challenge my nose selectively accustomed to the ecstatic scents of cacao and chocolate, I ordered—with a leap of faith—an 8.5 oz bottle of 100% pure, cold-pressed, organic-certified neem oil.
When the neem oil finally arrived at home, I got eerily impatient to know if I could tolerate that notorious smell.
After screwing off the plastic cap from the bottle, I slowly removed the hygienic seal at the top of the bottleneck, which prevented any odor from being perceived even in the slightest. The excitement went up when I saw the removed seal saturated with neem oil.
Exposing your sense of smell to neem oil for the first time is an almost shocking experience. If the most talented chemist on earth used his fantasy combined with his knowledge, he wouldn’t yet be able to recreate the powerfully acrid and repellent smell of the neem. A pungent mixture of smashed garlic and rotten citrus under the appearance of a greenish-yellow wax-looking fat.
The neem oil odor was so revolting that my leap of faith flash-froze at the idea of slathering that freak slime on my head. I then thought to gradually familiarize my confidence with the neem by adding a dollop to my shampoo. Dulled by the shampoo, the neem oil had become olfactory acceptable to finally find the courage to try it for an imminent hair washing.
After saturating and massaging my head with the new neem-powered shampoo, any itching was anesthetized in a heartbeat. The sense of relief was not only surprising, but at the time of rinsing, I saw my hair flowing untangled and light as silk under the water jet. Although tested in timid doses, the neem oil had seriously begun to show me what it was capable of.
The day after the neem shampoo treatment, my itches were markedly weaker than at the beginning of the dermatological event. When I didn’t accidentally use the neem shampoo after the successive fourth or fifth week, the itching chronically returned in an unwanted way. That was the opportunity to investigate the cause of the annoying symptoms on my scalp carefully. Taking blind selfies upside down, I shot to open hair strands to verify what was going on on my head.
One of the pics revealed a scary diagnosis. Two little whitish eggs—the one bigger of an ovoidal shape, the other smaller and rounder—dangled glued to one of my strands about an inch far away from my scalp. No doubt: a parasitic infestation was underway on my head. I realized to have pediculosis capitis, vulgarly known as ‘head lice’. I immediately associated the culprit of the lice outbreak with the irresponsible hairstylist. Despite telling her off of the adverse event, she couldn’t care less and left me with no alternative than start spreading my word on her real reputation, long known by my family physician.
As the lice nits were too distant from my scalp to hatch, the doctor said the neem-enhanced shampoo had actually helped to alleviate the symptoms of a pediculosis capitis that could have expanded more severely. My lost leap of faith for not daring more with neem broke through at the exact moment I rushed to sprinkle my entire head with neem oil, learning to love its smell, given its incredible benefits.
(To find out about the complete lice treatment I performed with the neem oil, click through this highlight).
As I was more aggressively treating the unexpected pediculosis, I researched everything about neem, an exceptional but little known resource by humanity.
Neem: why it is considered ‘The Wonder Tree’
Native to India and Myanmar, neem (Azadirachta indica) is a botanical cousin of mahogany, belonging to the family of Meliaceae. Its complex foliage resembles that of walnut, and its swollen fruits look much like olives. It is evergreen and seldom leafless. Its shade imparted throughout the year is a significant reason why it is prized in the Asian continent.
The neem can adapt to a wide range of climates: it thrives well in hot weather, where the maximum shade temperature is as high as 49 °C and tolerates cold up to 0 °C on altitudes up to 1,500 m.
Neem trees can grow up to 30 m tall and 2.5 m in circumference. Their spreading branches form rounded crowns as much as 20 m across. They remain in leaf except during an extreme drought, when the leaves may fall off.
A neem tree typically begins bearing fruit after 3‒5 years, becomes fully productive in 10 years, and from then on, can produce up to 50 kg of fruits annually. It may live for more than two centuries.
The fruit is an olive-like drupe, up to almost 2 cm long. When ripe, it is yellow or greenish-yellow and comprises a sweet pulp enclosing a seed. The seed is composed of a shell and a kernel (sometimes two or three kernels), each about half of the seed’s weight. It is the kernel that is used most in pest control. The leaves also contain pesticidal ingredients, but they are much less effective than those of the seed.
Of all the neem products, oil is perhaps the most commercially important. To obtain neem oil, the seeds are first broken open, and the kernels separated. The nuts are then pressed in industrial expellers or in hand- or bullock-operated wooden presses. The oil yield is sometimes as high as 50% of the weight of the kernel.
Unlike most vegetable oils, the cold-pressed neem oil contains sulfur compounds, whose pungent odor is reminiscent of garlic.
Neem cake, the residue left after the oil has been removed, has unique promise as a fertilizer containing more nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, and magnesium than farmyard manure or sewage sludge.
Neem in the Ayuverdic tradition and its one-of-a-kind chemical composition
For over 5,000 years of empirical evidence, Ayurvedic practitioners have long revered neem, since the healing tree has relieved so many different pains, fevers, infections, and other complaints that it has been called “the village pharmacy.”
Neem preparations are reportedly effective against a variety of skin diseases, septic sores, and infected burns. The oil is especially beneficial to hair scalp for eliminating head lice and treating microbial infections caused by dermal bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Extracts from neem bark are highly effective at both preventing and healing gingival inflammations and periodontal disease.
Neem medicinal properties are documented in the Vedas, ancient Sanskrit texts, which refer to Neem as ‘Sarva Roga Nivarini’—’the curer of all ailments’—for being present in 75% of all Ayurvedic formulations.
The Persian-origin name of the neem ‘Azad-Darakth’ stands for ‘free tree’, as to symbolize the freedom of humanity to exchange knowledge and relief.
Not by chance, the neem has been named by the United Nations ‘Wonder Tree‘—interchangeably, ‘Cornucopia Tree’ or ‘Miracle Tree’—of the 21st Century, for its virtually endless multipurpose applications in agriculture and medicine.
In the 20th century, the neem cultivation was spread outside of India in tropical and subtropical Africa, the Americas, Australia, and the South-Pacific islands, where the tree not only thrives successfully but even helps reforest areas by providing dense shade and oxygen streams all year round.
Today, the neem is well established in at least 30 countries worldwide. Some small-scale plantations are also reportedly prosperous in the United States of America (Arizona, Florida, and California).
Among its countless benefits, the neem tree is also highly effective at controlling farm and household pests, so that entomologists that discovered the neem properties to control insects predict that this tree may usher in a new era of nontoxic and organic pesticides.
Indian scientists took up neem research as far back as the 1920s. Still, their work was little appreciated elsewhere until 1959, when the German entomologist Heinrich Schmutterer witnessed a locust plague in Sudan. During this onslaught of billions of winged marauders, Schmutterer noticed that neem trees were the only green plants left standing. On closer investigation, he saw that although the locusts settled on the trees in swarms, they always left without feeding. To find out why, he and his students have studied the components of neem ever since.
Schmutterer’s work spawned a growing amount of lively research from the 1960s onward, encouraging several hundred researchers in at least a dozen countries studying various aspects of the neem compounds.
Both the oil and extract obtained from the neem seeds and leaves respectively constitute, in fact, a massive arsenal of insecticidal and antimicrobial compounds, being effective against over 200 insect species as well as most nematodes, mites, fungi, bacteria, and viruses.
The naturally-occurring neem chemicals can disrupt an incredibly long list of pestiferous species through subtle and sophisticated mechanisms, while leaving humans, warm-blooded animals, and non-leaf-eating insects unharmed. Furthermore, the extracts obtained for various parts of the plant are all biodegradable and, unlike synthetic pesticides, they are unlikely to induce genetic resistance and, therefore, lose efficacy against the pests targeted.
The neem active ingredients bear no resemblance to today’s synthetic insecticides, as they are composed only of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, but no atoms of chlorine, phosphorus, sulfur, or nitrogen. This characteristic makes the neem active molecules unique in that they are not outright killers in one stand, but rather alter the target insect behavior or life process in a more indirect way.
The pest, in fact, will no longer feed, breed, or metamorphose, since even a microscopic trace of the neem substances is so unbearably repellant and dazzling to alter its normal life cycle.
Neem’s main chemical broadside is a mixture of natural compounds called “tetranortriterpenoids” or “limonoids.”
At least nine neem limonoids—among which azadirachtin, salannin, meliantriol, nimbin, and nimbidin are the most significant—have a demonstrated ability to treat infestations and diseases in plants and mammals.
Azadirachtin, the most outstanding neem component, is considered as the most potent growth regulator and feeding deterrent existing in nature. By inhibiting molting, it keeps the larvae from developing into pupae, which die without producing a new generation. Azadirachtin acts by mimicking the host’s growth hormone structure, competing for the actual hormones necessary to the correct development of the parasitic organism.
Azadirachtin is also so repugnant to insects that they will no longer be able to swallow and starve to death rather than feed on materials contaminated even with the tiniest hint of the neem component.
Azadirachta excelsa—a species of neem variously known as ‘marrango’, ‘sentang’, or ‘Filipino neem’—is equipped with an additional limonoid called marrangin, which shows the same mode of action as azadirachtin but is two to three times more active.
20 sulfurous compounds give the neem its notorious smell, making the neem oil cake the highest in sulfur content (1‒1.5%) of all the natural oil cakes.
The strong garlicky odor of neem materials has been proven effective to repel insects and discourage oviposition in grain storage environments. In a study in Ghana, dried cacao beans mixed with 8% dried neem leaves remained free from attack by Ephestia cautella up to 9 months in storage.
Neem potentialities and barriers as an organic pesticide
As consistent research has been conducted to test the safety and efficacy of neem for use as an insecticide, neem insecticides are being manufactured and exported to various countries. Neem is the most important among all bioinsecticides for controlling pests.
In a 2006 research in Nigeria, neem insecticidal preparations prove their efficacy against the cocoa mirid Sahlbergella singularis. A high mortality rate of 88%, 97%, and 99% were recorded against the mirids with a neem seed aqueous crude extracts at 10%, 20%, and 30% respectively at 96 h after treatment.
All this potential is of vital importance for the world’s most economically disadvantaged countries, which encounter severe problems with various agricultural pests and a widespread lack of even primary medicine. The neem tree could, in fact, bring good health and better crop yields within reach of farmers too poor to buy pharmaceuticals or farm chemicals. Extracting the seeds requires no special skills or sophisticated machinery, and the resulting products can be applied using low-technology methods.
On top of all that, neem by-products (the seedcake and leaves, in particular) can also be used to naturally fertilize the local soils and help foster sustainable crop production. The neem leaves, which are slightly alkaline (pH = 8.2), are suitable for neutralizing acidity in the land.
Additionally, the neem trees work as physical windbreakers in agroforestry systems by cutting wind velocity near the ground by 45‒80%, resulting in less erosion and more soil moisture.
In spite of all its promises, the development of neem products has not yet received massive support in 2020.
Shelf-life, photosensitivity, and volatilization are critical limitations hindering the large-scale application of neem as a reliable biopesticide.
One of the main problems facing the commercial development of neem is a lack of industrial interest, mainly due to the difficulty of patenting natural products. As a result, there’s still low awareness of the potential of neem products, which do not get widely publicized in the farming community and elsewhere.
The main disadvantages of neem include its low stability under field conditions, due mainly to a high rate of photodegradation, as well as short residence time and slow killing rates, compared to conventional pesticides. In layman’s terms, neem prepatations need to be reapplied on the treated crop as their beneficial effect is not as immediate as that of the most resistant but polluting pesticides.
Furthermore, genetic factors, environmental factors, and type of extraction method influence the chemical composition of neem extracts, which implies no standardization of their efficacy and, consequently, application in the control of agricultural pests.
However, with the emergence of Integrated Pest Management (IPM), there is a resurgence of research on neem with emphasis on biological control techniques that can protect beneficial insects and work in tandem with them to keep harmful pests at bay from farm crops.
For sustainable agriculture, nanotechnology can help in the development of environmentally friendly agricultural inputs like neem, improving the safety and stability of active agents like azadirachtin, and enhancing their activity in pest control. Through this approach, the number of applications of neem oil can be reduced, bringing substantial economic benefits both for pesticide producers and pesticide users (farmers).
Did you know about neem and its properties and potentialities in agriculture and health?
The information contained in this topic is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for medical advice, but based on direct anecdotal evidence and provided for educational purposes only. You assume full responsibility for how you choose to use this information. Before starting any new treatment under your specific health or medical condition, it is your discretion to seek the advice of a physician or other qualified healthcare professional.
Neem products shall never be taken orally for systemic use, but can only be applied topically.
What is Head Lice?
Head lice are minuscule (2‒3 mm long) wingless insects that only attach to human hair and bite the scalp to drink the host’s blood to guarantee a fleeting 30-day life cycle. Head lice are subtle but persistent, as the adult insects are tough to spot for crawling quickly on the scalp and hiding where the hair is denser, and the scalp is protected by light. For this reason, a sure diagnosis for head lice is to find transparent off-white nits (eggs), as small as a grain of sand (0.3-0.8 mm), firmly attached to the hair root. Even a mild lice infestation needs to be patiently and adequately treated, as a single still viable egg left in the hair can generate a new nymph (larva) ready to suck blood and complete development within 10‒15 days.
Head lice are highly contagious. While direct infestation occurs with head-to-head contact, indirect routes, such as contaminated brushes, combs, hats, and towels, are the most overlooked carrier of head lice. Anyone can become infected with head lice, with kids between 4 and 14 years of age being the most prevalent group, and thick and long hair two to four times more easily colonized than thin and short hair.
Except for rare secondary infections that result from scratching at their allergic bites, head lice are non-disease carriers. Head lice infestations may even be considered a blessing once experienced as they can help foster a natural immune response against the more dangerous body lice.
Natural Head Lice Treatment with Neem Oil
For representing a pest hard to die and extinguish since the dawn of time, head lice have developed a moderate to a high level of immunity against the most diffused insecticidal ingredients, especially those produced in the modern industrial era, such as pyrethrin, permethrin, and malathion. Therefore, the usual over-the-counter head lice lotions containing this kind of toxic insecticides may be not only ineffective but also harmful in contact with the skin.
Not by chance, the new generation of head lice of the 21st century is more resistant than ever, so that it’s also frightfully called, ‘super-lice’. It’s for that that head lice need to be successfully treated by combining a chemical method with a mechanical one. In a few words, a head-lice-specific lotion or shampoo followed by a fine-toothed stainless steel nit comb can suppress and remove head lice in a matter of days (6‒12).
The use of natural essential oils like neem is a non-toxic and effective solution to eliminate head lice infestations. Clinical trials prove it. A 2007 Egyptian research investigated a neem-based shampoo and comb-out treatment performed on 60 heavily lice-infested male and female children. The shampoo was washed out after different resting times of 3, 5, 15, and 30 minutes, and then the hair of the kids combed out. The neem seed extract shampoo proved to be highly effective against all stages of head lice. No differences regarding the efficacy of the shampoo were observed between the different exposure times. No side effects, such as skin irritation, burning sensations, or red spots, on the scalp emerged.
The use of a 5% neem oil formulated shampoo alone can help prevent both head lice infestations and reinfestations. However, scalp massages with safely diluted neem oil before the shampoo are an excellent additional practice to halt not only any head lice activity established, but also to soothe and moisturize the scalp from the itching caused by the lice bites. Since lice love clean hair and dry scalp, making their environment oily and messy will clearly be sending them the message, they are not welcome on our head at all!
Some practical wisdom for an all-natural and possibly safe head lice treatment with neem oil:
– Neem oil is increasingly believed as the best natural oil to tear down pediculicidal activity, by wreaking havoc on the living lice and making their nits unviable to hatch, in a safe way for the skin at the same time. However, for being highly concentrated in chemically active compounds, it is good practice to use it diluted with a carrier oil. (Undiluted neem oil can be more effective against active head lice infestations during the first 1‒2 treatments, though. Always do a patch test to prove an oil safety on your skin 24 hours before its application.)
– Popular carrier oils to mix with neem are sweet almond oil, olive oil, coconut oil, and jojoba oil-like wax, with jojoba representing the most chemically stable and lightest as consistency for the scalp. Jojoba oil (which actually is a wax ester) is indeed the most similar oil to the scalp sebum and can thus help release the essential oil slowly on the skin, without clogging the hair follicles.
– An indicative recipe for a 20-minute natural pre-shampoo head lice treatment includes: 50 ml of carrier oil (i.e., jojoba) + 5‒10 ml of essential oil (neem). The scalp massage has to be directed with gentle rotational movements on each area of the scalp, only using our fingertips.
– At the end of the treatment with oils, wash out with a neem-based shampoo formulated explicitly against head lice (google to find a non-toxic and all-natural brand).
– Rest the natural head lice shampoo at least 5 minutes on your head to allow the chemical active substances to kill the lice and deactivate the nits. Repeat the shampoo if necessary. Rinse thoroughly to leave no traces of shampoo on your head.
– Detangle your hair with a little conditioner and start sectioning and thoroughly combing out each strand of hair from its roots. For this task, use an entirely made stainless steel nit comb (nit combs with a plastic handle can stress your hair for having less elasticity at the base of the teeth, which may tear out the hair).
– Wipe the nit comb on a damp paper towel after each section has been combed out in all four directions (up, down, left, right). (This helpful video shows both the right comb-out movements and what to look for when the comb is manually cleaned after treating each head section:)
– Comb, comb, comb. Nits are nasty to eliminate as they apparently regress after 2-3 treatments. With no sure guarantee of their death, keep gently combing out your hair from the scalp in the following weeks after the first treatment. Treatment needs to be repeated until no nits are visible after visual inspection of the comb.
– Besides oils, a popular home remedy to eliminate head lice is the use of acid substances like vinegar that is believed to help dissolve the external glue-like chitin keeping the nits attached firmly to the hair shafts. While acids can ease this task, they have to be adequately diluted; otherwise, they will remove the lipophilic film protecting the skin and trigger its hypersensitivity, thus leading to further dermal irritation.
– A rule of thumb is to never add any undiluted acid component, like lemon juice or vinegar, to any skin treatment with oils. Acids will make the oil treatment ineffective by breaking down the active igredients of the essential oil.
– Like acid substances, alkaline ones can even be more aggressive and irritating. Soda, in particular, is highly abrasive and can cause irreversible hair shaft damage. Soda has a rather high pH (9), which makes it a bad idea for scalp use, as the ideal pH for healthy skin ranges from 4.5 to 5.5.
– Professional alternatives to domestic acid or alkaline rinses are scalp scrubs. These products are purposely developed on the specifics of the scalp and hair, packed with granules of the right granulometry that won’t cause hair follicle damage, and enhanced with skin-specific acids, working as a gentle enzymatic peeling on the scalp. Both the light acids and the soft micro granules of a scalp scrub can help loosen lice and nits from the scalp and hair. Scalp scrubs, however, are better not be repeated before 30 days—that’s the time cells need to regenerate the external layer of the skin.