Dermatologist reveals true identity of head lice treatment

January 3, 2006

Menlo Park, Calif. -- After an unsuccessful attempt to persuade pharmaceutical companies to fund further research on a head lice treatment he says he discovered and developed, a dermatologist here has revealed that the treatment is actually an over-the-counter skin cleanser.

Menlo Park, Calif. -- After an unsuccessful attempt to persuade pharmaceutical companies to fund further research on a head lice treatment he says he discovered and developed, a dermatologist here has revealed that the treatment is actually an over-the-counter skin cleanser.

In a letter to the editor published in the December issue of Pediatrics, Dale Pearlman, M.D., says soaking the hair and scalp of head lice patients with Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser (Galderma), then drying it into place with a hair dryer, will suffocate lice by blocking their breathing apertures.

The September 2004 issue of that same magazine published Dr. Pearlman’s original research, in which he claimed a 96 percent cure rate with a product called Nuvo.

“I did not specify the commercial source of the lotion in the (2004) study because I viewed it simply as a prototype for use in a ‘proof of concept’ trial,” Dr. Pearlman tells Dermatology Times. “I never anticipated that the public would use this prototype in the future as a treatment of head lice. While the prototype worked to cure lice, it had a major drawback -- it took a very, very long time to dry. To be commercially viable it needed to be quick-drying. I hoped that by publishing the 2004 article, and thus making public the ‘proof of concept’ study, a pharmaceutical company would come along to develop a commercially attractive version of Nuvo lotion.”

That didn’t happen, Dr. Pearlman says. Though several pharmaceutical companies thought his idea was a good one, he says that because the market size for head lice products was too small to justify the cost of research and development and marketing, the companies declined to fund further research.

“I realized that the only way the public was going to get a lotion to use in the Nuvo method was going to be via the prototype, so I made public the identity of the prototype lotion (in the December Pediatrics),” Dr. Pearlman says.

Following his revelation in the letter to Pediatrics, Dr. Pearlman has undergone some close-sometimes scathing-scrutiny by other media. A December 5 Associated Press article quoted Dr. Pearlman as saying he didn’t originally disclose the true identity of his Nuvo lotion “because I wanted to get rich,” and also quoted Michigan State University medical ethicist Leonard Fleck’s opinion that “at the very least, there’s deception there for reasons of self-interest.”

In response, Dr. Pearlman tells Dermatology Times that physicians often use medications in a variety of ways, and that off-label use of products is well known in dermatology.

“My work exemplifies the highest ethical standards of the medical profession,” he says. “The real formula for the Nuvo lotion prototype was included in the 2004 article. This exact formula can be found in both branded and generic skin cleansers readily available in pharmacies, so the way has always been open for others to repeat my work. I have encouraged others to independently do clinical trials using the Nuvo method of treatment. I have sought to make the world a better place. I made this information [regarding Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser] available to simplify the care of head lice in the U.S. and around the world. I derive no revenue from these sales of Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser.”