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What is a Fine Tooth Comb?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 21, 2024
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A fine tooth comb, sometimes called a fine-toothed comb, is merely a hair comb that has small, narrow teeth that are set closely together. For centuries, people used such combs for the unglamorous purpose of removing the eggs of lice (nits) from their hair, though people with shorter hair also found they were helpful in simply combing the hair. An example of the fine tooth comb today for hair styling is the traditional black comb, about 3-4 inches (7.62-10.16 cm), that many men with short hair use as their main styling tool. It tends to be less effective on longer hair that is very thick, and may pull and hurt if you’re trying to use it to get out snarls.

The fine tooth comb, as used for the removal of lice eggs, is often sold separately as a lice comb. You can also find fine-toothed combs called flea combs for cats and dogs. Even after using a lice shampoo, nits or lice eggs tend to adhere to the hair shaft, and it’s important to try to removed as many as possible. By combing through the hair with a fine tooth comb, you can remove most nits. This is also a good way to check for lice, though you can get confused if the comb removes dandruff too. To really check whether you have lice or dandruff, watch carefully as you pull the comb through small sections of the hair, and see if any of the flakes give slight resistance to being removed, which indicates they may be nits.

The expression of “going over things with a fine toothed comb” was first used in the late 19th century. It was often linked to detection or police work. Just as a person would use a fine tooth comb to examine minute sections of hair, investigatory proceedings began to go over the minutia of each crime scene. Today the expression can apply not just to criminal investigation, but also to a very detailed approach to anything. An editor might go over a book or article with a fine tooth comb to check for any tiny mistakes, as might a teacher use a similar approach when he/she is examining a student’s work. Computer programmers also focus on tiny mistakes that might occur in data entry and programming, and referencing the comb as used for lice, check for any “bugs” in their programs.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a BeautyAnswered contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By Sara007 — On Jun 28, 2011

If you have kids you may find yourself having to buy a fine tooth comb for its original purpose. A lot of younger children have been spreading lice around and while community health care has been doing their best to prevent outbreaks they do still happen, especially with younger kids who aren't opposed to sharing hats and brushes with other students.

If your child does get lice, a fine tooth comb can be a real savior as it can get rid of knits from even the longest hair, it jut takes a lot of time and patience. You may have to prepare your kid for a little pain though, because sometimes the fine tooth comb can snag no matter how careful you are, which hurts.

By manykitties2 — On Jun 28, 2011

A fine tooth comb is perfect for people with short hair that don't want to spend a lot of time on their tresses. I have fairly short hair and have a variety of fine tooth combs. They actually come in varying lengths, which can be useful if you are using something like hair wax and want to have an entire section of hair brushed in one direction with a single stroke.

For those who don't usually use fine tooth combs, they can be really useful if you are having issues styling your hair. The ones that come with a pick end are great for fine detailing on your hair or separating sections.

By Azuza — On Jun 28, 2011

@starrynight - That's funny! I always knew they were called fine tooth combs but I usually refer to them as Goody combs, even the ones not made by Goody. I guess old habits die hard!

I know fine tooth combs aren't always the best thing to use on long hair but I do it all the time. I have very long hair and there's something enjoyable about being meticulous and "going over it with a fine tooth comb" so to speak. It works fine as long as I do small sections and start at the ends and work my way up.

By starrynight — On Jun 27, 2011

I am embarrassed to admit that until today I had no idea what a fine tooth comb was! I've always seen the black combs referenced in the article but I didn't know there was a specific name for them.

I have a friend that says "go over with a fine tooth comb" all the time. I think it must be her favorite phrase! Finally I decided to do a little searching and find out exactly what a fine tooth comb is. The history behind the name is pretty interesting. However I must admit that I'm glad to live in an era where a fine tooth comb is usually only needed for hair upkeep, not for lice!

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a BeautyAnswered contributor, Tricia...
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