| Down to a Science |

Are Lice in My Hair Alive or Not?        

I may not have lice but I have… Demodex folliculorum! Yippee!

Hello, kiddos,

This is Professor Mordy Maven, Thinker, Wonderer, and Figure-Outer of all things science-ish. What that basically means is I try really hard to figure stuff out. I do the hard work so you don’t have to!

The other day, my neighbor Shmelky came home from school early. Then he spent the whole afternoon sitting on his porch swing, scratching his head. When I asked him why, he told me that he had lice. I thought he’d gotten a new pet or something, but he explained that lice are actually tiny bugs that live on people’s scalps and feed off their blood. Cool!

So I went home and asked my mother if I could get lice too. She started muttering under her breath in that way she has that tells me she wonders how we could possibly be related. I explained to her that they would be really easy to get — I just had to rub my head against Shmelky’s — and they would be totally free. In fact, I could even share them with the whole family! I also told her that we wouldn’t need to feed the lice or walk them or anything, since they could eat off my scalp and just go wherever I go. At that point, her muttering got a lot louder, and her face turned a funny shade of purple. I took that as a hint to leave the kitchen. Fast!

I was feeling pretty glum about my lack of lice, so I decided to go to my room and do some research. That usually cheers me up. And guess what I found out? There’s plenty for me to be happy about. I may not have lice but I have… Demodex folliculorum! Yippee!

And the best news is, you’ve got Demodex too! So do your parents and your teachers. Your sisters and brothers… everyone! I know. It’s really exciting.

Oh, wait. You’re wondering what exactly I’m talking about? Well, why didn’t you say so?

Demodex are face mites, also called Demodex spiders, and they’re basically tiny little mites that live on the skin of everyone’s face. Hurray!

I know, if you’re going to have a pet you probably want to know more about it, right? Okay, so here goes. Demodex folliculorum are tick-like organisms. They’re really tiny, and they live in the hair follicles of skin. Most of the skin on your body, (aside from the palms of your hands and the souls of your feet) is covered with a thin layer of peach-fuzz hair called vellus hair. And each one of these hairs grows out of its own follicle. Demodex mites live in the follicles.

So, I guess you could technically have Demodex anywhere, but these little critters especially like to hang around on your face. Mostly near the eyelids and eyelashes. They feed on the dead skin cells and greasy oil, known as sebum, that gathers in those places.

All day long, these cute little guys hang out facedown inside of the hair follicles, invisible to everyone. When people go to sleep, the mites crawl out and do their work. What considerate little pets these are!

Demodex are really harmless little guys. They don’t cause you to itch or scratch (like Shmelky’s lice) and they really don’t bother you in any way. In fact, they even help you out by removing the waste and dead cells from your face. Who needs that stuff anyway?

So basically, my research showed me that Demodex mites are helpful little critters who sleep all day, work all night, follow you everywhere, and clean up your messes. That’s the kind of pet even a mother could love! You can keep your lice, Shmelky.

Here’s some fascinating facts about face mites:

Demodex mites are too small to be seen without a microscope. It would take five face mites, laid end to end, to stretch across the head of a pin!

Demodex mites got their name from the Greek words for “fat” and “boring worm,” which is kind of mean. Face mites have feelings too, you know!

People in different parts of the world have different face mites. By studying face mites, scientists can learn about which part of the world your ancestors came from!


I hope that helped solve the mystery for you, kids. And with that, I’m on to my next quest…


(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 904)

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