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'Plasma' comb gets down to the nitty-gritty

03 November 2015

German researchers have developed a comb that can reliably eliminate head lice using plasma alone, without need for biocide agents or chemicals.

The plasma comb (photo: Fraunhofer IST)

Once head lice have attached themselves to hair follicles, they can deftly evade detection and are therefore hard to kill. Infestations are commonly dealt with using chemicals and nit combs. Fraunhofer researchers have developed a comb that can reliably eliminate head lice using plasma with no biocide agents or chemicals, and they plan to show a working prototype at the MEDICA exhibition in Düsseldorf later this month.

A number of chemical treatments such as shampoos, lotions or gels are available to tackle head lice infestations and the hair is then combed using a special nit comb. This procedure kills the lice but not their eggs – known as nits – so the treatment must be repeated a week later. Many parents are  hesitant to use chemical products, as some of their active ingredients are harmful to children and infants. The lice and nits can also grow resistant to these chemicals.

Researchers at the Application Center for Plasma and Photonics of the Fraunhofer Institute for Surface Engineering and Thin Films IST in Göttingen, Germany, have developed an alternative treatment method that could eliminate the use of biocides and chemicals.

Instead of chemicals, they use a special comb that produces cold atmospheric pressure plasma; this reliably kills the parasites without causing harm or discomfort to the host.

A high-voltage generator sends pulses to the teeth of the comb, which serve as electrodes. The air between two electrodes, or teeth, is ionized in the presence of the high-voltage pulses and a plasma is generated. These pules are very short, which enables the plasma to be set to room temperature. These cold plasmas kill both the lice and the nits without harming the hair or scalp, and the process is completely harmless to humans.

The researchers claim that after only one treatment, half of the pests are already dead and the rest are gone within a day. The plasma comb has already been introduced in regional pediatric offices where it is used just like a normal comb.

Patients with pre-existing ailments, such as asthma or allergies, can also benefit from treating head lice with plasma, as there are no aggressive active ingredients to provoke symptomatic outbreaks.

The researchers have patented the technology and initially plan to bring it to market in small production batches as a cosmetic product.

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