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Warning–Don’t Use Bleach to Treat Athlete’s Foot

Not every home remedy we get is good or safe. The advice to use bleach on athlete's foot should not be followed. There are much safer home remedy options.
Warning–Don’t Use Bleach to Treat Athlete’s Foot

People are aware that bleach (sodium hypochlorite) has powerful cleaning power. People use this familiar household product to remove stains from sheets, towels and white clothes. They also use diluted bleach to remove mold and mildew in bathrooms and to sanitize toilets. Because chlorine bleach has antiviral, antibacterial and antifungal activity, some visitors to this website have suggested using a dilute solution to treat nail fungus or athlete’s foot. People who are desperate to get rid of their ugly nail fungus may be tempted to try this approach. We find such advice worrisome.

Beware Bleach on Skin:

Q. You have sometimes written about ways to treat athlete’s foot, but you haven’t mentioned the best one: BLEACH! On the rare occasion that I get a toe fissure or itchy sole, I just pour several glugs of bleach into the shower and slosh about in it for a minute before I turn on the water.

One treatment is all it takes. Don’t worry; it’s only bleach.

A. Bleach (sodium hypochlorite) should NEVER be applied to the skin. It can cause irritation, burns and blisters. That’s why you’ve never seen such a recommendation here.

Just because “it’s only bleach,” does not mean it’s safe on the skin.

Some Readers Disagree:

Not everyone agrees with us that topical use of chlorine bleach can be hazardous. Some readers have responded critically to our caution.

Cynthia points out that bleach has been used for about 100 years in medicine:

“Guess what, bleach is safe when diluted! DAKINS SOLUTION, which is made for open surgical wounds, is a mix of chlorine bleach, sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) and water! Here are directions on how to make it from the Department of Inpatient Nursing at Ohio State University: http://www.itstactical.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/Dakins_Solution.pdf

“What do you think is used in swimming pools and jacuzzi/hot tubs? Chlorine! Bleach SHOULD NEVER BE USED FULL STRENGTH EVEN FOR CLEANING! IDIOTS NEED TO READ INSTRUCTIONS!

“Bleach is sometimes the best solution to use for bacteria such as C. Diff infections which require isolation in hospitals, and no, bacteria have not developed any resistance to bleach!”

Steve in Florida had good success with dilute bleach:

“I had horrible, debilitating athlete’s foot that I caught from the shower in the fitness center. For years, I tried all the over-the-counter cremes and a variety of organic oils from health stores. Nothing worked.

“Out of sheer desperation, yesterday, I soaked my feet with one tablespoon of bleach in a gallon of warm water for half an hour. What relief! My feet are feeling and looking great and the itch is gone.”

Historical Uses for Topical Chlorine Bleach:

Cynthia is right that the British chemist Henry Dakin developed a topical solution containing chlorine bleach to treat infected wounds during World War I. Dakin’s Solution was dilute chlorine bleach (sodium hypochlorite). While it is possible to make this at home (it requires 1.5 teaspoons of baking soda, 3 tablespoons plus 1/2 tsp. of 5.25% bleach and 4 cups of water), we strongly discourage home use. Creating the dilution correctly can be tricky. Accidentally getting bleach on skin can lead to the problems listed above.

Pharmacists can make Dakin’s Solution, but we strongly discourage DIY chemists from trying this in the bathroom.

Most hospitals rarely use this old-timey remedy these days, though Dakin’s Solution (DS) still has its advocates. An article in the Journal of Surgical Research (Dec. 2014) suggests that DS may negatively affect white blood cell (macrophage) survival and function. The authors note that killing off macrophages with DS “may result in impaired pathogen clearance and delayed healing.”

Despite reassurance by readers that dilute bleach is safe to treat nail fungus or athlete’s foot, some visitors to this website report problems:

Linda shared this unpleasant experience with dilute bleach:

“Maybe you would like to see a photo of my feet, with blisters from using 2 capfuls of bleach in a bowl of water. It does happen and I was shocked to have it happen to me.”

Avoid Bleach and Ammonia!

Some people get carried away in a cleaning frenzy. They assume that if a little is good then a “lottle” is better. They may mistakenly think that mixing two cleaners (ammonia and bleach) will work better than either alone. BIG MISTAKE!

Cynthia says that everyone should read instructions, but sadly many people don’t bother. When bleach and ammonia mix, highly toxic chloramine gases are created. They are highly irritating to the nose, throat and eyes. Damage to lungs can be very serious.

Other Ways to Overcome Athlete’s Foot:

There are many over-the-counter antifungal treatments that work well. One reader shared his experience:

“I have suffered from athlete’s foot and jock itch for years. My doctor recommended Zeasorb antifungal powder, which contains miconazole. This works wonders for me.”

Other remedies that readers praise include soaking the feet in dilute vinegar, amber Listerine, baking soda or Epsom salts solutions. One enterprising reader did an experiment on an old-fashioned remedy, soaking the affected foot in urine:

“Two months ago I instituted a quasi-experiment for a home remedy to treat my toenail fungus, which is on both feet. Each morning I treat only the right foot, using urine (heard on your syndicated public radio program).

“In the morning shower, I apply a small amount of surfactant (dish-detergent) with a paintbrush to the toenails of the right foot, dump some saved urine into a dedicated wastebasket, and then soak the toes for several seconds.

“After two months, there appears to be a remarkable improvement of the right foot over the left (which has remained untreated).”

Urine and certain other athlete’s foot remedies became popular as a way of controlling foot odor. You can learn more from our FREE Guide to Smelly Feet.

Should you wish to learn more about home remedies (not including bleach) for either athlete’s foot or nail fungus, our book, The People’s Pharmacy Quick & Handy Home Remedies, has lots!

Revised: by Joe Graedon on 8/10/17

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
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