Diane Mastrull: 2 parents go into business, picking nits for pay

Posted: February 06, 2012

Don't be surprised if you are itchy by the time you finish reading this column. Or you can't shake the unnerving sensation that something is crawling around your scalp.

Just mentioning lice has that effect on people.

Experiencing an actual infestation of the wingless, parasitic insects is even more of a nightmare.

Not so anymore, however, for Ilene Steinberg and Michele Barrack, two mothers who know the horror of discovering unwelcome guests upon their children's heads and are now profiting - literally - from it.

They have turned the experience into a rapidly expanding franchise business where lice-laden noggins are enthusiastically received, not cause for shrieks and stampedes to the exits.

"Lice is all about movies and snacks," Steinberg said of the philosophy at Lice Lifters, a rare treatment center and retail store in Lafayette Hill. It is headquarters for a chain of nine outposts in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Connecticut, with more on the way.

In each, movies and snacks are used to distract/entertain young boys and girls and their anxious parents while the tedious (some say gross) process of looking for and eliminating nits (lice eggs) and hatched lice proceeds. The work is done in rooms resembling hair salons, right down to the swivel chairs and mirrors.

Lice Lifters' method of attack is to suffocate louse with the company's own non-pesticide solution and a heated-air device - LouseBuster by Larada Sciences Inc. of Salt Lake City.

Steinberg and Barrack, Lice Lifters' chief executive officer and president, respectively, had been independently functioning as lice busters for hire - Steinberg, as The Nit Nanny serving the Main Line, and Barrack, as Lice Lifters around her Lafayette Hill home.

Their transition into bug battlers started in 2007 for Steinberg and in 2008 for Barrack when each experienced a lice outbreak. For Steinberg, it was at a camp where she was a supervisor; for Barrack, at home, where she has two girls ages 9 and 6. Both women began making house calls to help other afflicted families, and were amazed at the growing demand for their services. There seemed to be a new outbreak each week at area schools, they said.

"Finally I said, 'This is war. This is now my mission,' " said Steinberg, a mother of four children ages 6 to 14.

She started out using products she found on the market. After doing considerable research, Steinberg developed her own Nit Nanny Lice Solution - a mixture of olive oil, rosemary, beeswax, and a silicon-based polymer used as a lubricant and conditioning agent. She made it in her dining room starting in fall 2009. It is now manufactured at Ambix Laboratories in Totowa, N.J.

Barrack had been using the Nit Nanny solution on families she was treating and wound up meeting Steinberg.

It didn't take them long to decide that joining forces made sense. Based on informal surveys of her clients, Steinberg said she had established that treatment centers would be well-received. She and Barrack opened the Lafayette Hill site in September 2010.

By incorporating the LouseBuster - a unit cleared by the Food and Drug Administration that resembles a canister vacuum but blows out air rather than sucks - a typical treatment lasts 75 minutes rather than what could be a six-hour combing.

The Lafayette Hill center - as much a classroom as a clinic - has been profitable since the first month, performing a total of 2,500 head checks ($25 each) and 1,500 LouseBuster treatments ($175 each, including a head check) since opening day, with no treatment failures, the owners said.

Their lice-treatment solution, nit-removal mousse, and preventive mint detangler spray are each about $20, as is the stainless-steel comb they also sell.

The idea of franchising came from impressed clients.

Among them was Judy Young, who retired in June 2011 from her job as a nurse in the Wallingford-Swarthmore School District and opened a Lice Lifters franchise in Chadds Ford two months later. The franchising fee is $35,000, which includes training and help with marketing and business-plan development.

Young said that part of her satisfaction comes from helping the region get better control over something that is extremely disruptive to schools.

The finding of lice on a student - and all the head checks that triggers - "was becoming half the workload" for Young as a school nurse, she said. Not to mention a heavy contributor to absenteeism.

A number of parents of children in the school where Young had worked had successful experiences at Lice Lifters, which got her hooked on the idea of owning a franchise.

Five new centers are planned in the next six months in Florida. Steinberg and Barrack see no obstacle to continued growth, other than getting customers to spread the word about them. After all, having lice isn't something most people want to post on Facebook.

Meredith Holstein of Bala Cynwyd has no qualms talking about her experience. It was 11:30 p.m. Jan. 13 when she was brushing daughter Samantha's hair, spotted lice, and "freaked out."

Thirty children were invited the next day at a birthday party for 7-year-old Samantha.

Holstein e-mailed Lice Lifters and heard back from Steinberg shortly after midnight, instructing her to have the whole family - which includes a husband and a son - at the Lafayette Hill treatment center 8:30 a.m.

By 10:15, Samantha had been treated and the rest of the family cleared to party.

"She made a 7-year-old's birthday party possible," Holstein said of Steinberg. "I thank her from the bottom of my toes."


Diane Mastrull:

Watch Lice Lifters' founders talk about their firsthand experience with head lice at www.philly.com/business


Contact staff writer Diane Mastrull at 215-854-2466, dmastrull@phillynews.com, or @mastrud on Twitter.

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