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

Not every home remedy we get is good or safe. Advice to use bleach on athlete's foot shouldn't be followed. But lots of people disagree. Why?

People are aware that bleach (sodium hypochlorite) has powerful cleaning power. They use this familiar household product to remove stains from sheets, towels and white clothes. Some 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. We have been roundly spanked by a lot of readers and some health professionals for urging caution. Here are a few stories.

Bleach Remedy Damaged Foot:

Q. My husband used bleach in warm water to treat toenail fungus. Now his feet and heels are fire engine red and painful. It looks like he burned them. Should he see a foot doctor or dermatologist about this?

A. Yikes! No one should ever use bleach directly on skin. If some gets on accidentally, it should be washed off immediately with soap and lots of water.

Your husband should contact a dermatologist to get proper treatment for this chemical burn. That is why we tell people NOT to use bleach for nail fungus or athlete’s foot!

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 Clorox® can be hazardous. Some readers have responded critically to our caution.

Our warnings are “unwarranted:”

Q. Your bias against using dilute bleach to treat nail fungus or athlete’s foot is unwarranted. You state that “some people are highly sensitive to this chemical.” So? People could be sensitive to a lot of things, but that shouldn’t limit a highly effective proven safe remedy from being discussed.

A. You are not the first person to chastise us for cautioning about the topical use of dilute bleach (sodium hypochlorite).

For example, another reader offered this comment:

“A dermatologist told me to soak my nails in diluted Clorox® (diluted enough that it doesn’t burn). I did, 30 minutes every night. After several months, I finally got rid of the fungus. Although I tried many other topical medicines and laser treatments, none worked.”

This reader is depressed about our caution:

Q. I checked your website for reliable toenail fungus treatments. Unfortunately, I found only the depressing news that the OTC medications are virtually worthless. You had a sobering warning against soaking feet in a Clorox solution, too.

I tried my own treatment successfully, though, and thought you would like to hear about it. I’d had a whitish growth on my big toenails for several years. Since I couldn’t wash it off or scrape it off, I mostly ignored it. I don’t know if it was fungal or bacterial.

When the left toenail started crumbling, I decided I’d better do something about it. I started scrubbing my toenails in the shower with a small stiff brush (a toothbrush would do) and Hibiclens, an over-the-counter antibacterial soap. I also mixed a solution of one part bleach to two parts water and applied it to the toenails using a cotton swab, twice a day, letting it dry in place.

Within about a week the whitish deposit was gone. I kept up with the Hibiclens for about another week, noting that the damage on the left big toenail seemed to have stopped.

Encouraged, I kept up the bleach treatment until the left big toenail was almost grown out. All my toenails look great now. The damaged nail is healthy. The remedy was easy, safe and cheap, and, best of all, took care of the problem.

A. Thanks for sharing your experience. The quick response suggests that your nails might have had a bacterial infection. Fungus usually takes a long time to eradicate.

We especially appreciate your careful application of a diluted bleach solution. Bleach, aka sodium hypochlorite, is one of the most controversial nail fungus remedies we have encountered.

Readers have pointed out that dermatologists sometimes recommend Dakin’s Solution, which contains dilute bleach and a buffer. We have heard from other readers who have burned their skin with bleach that had not been diluted enough. Using cotton swabs to apply the solution just to the affected nail was a smart move.

Because you appreciate home remedies, you may be interested in our eGuide to Favorite Home Remedies. This online resource is available under the Health eGuides tab.

What Is Dakin’s Solution?

Chemist Henry Dakin developed an antiseptic with both antibacterial and antifungal activity for field use in World War I. It contained dilute bleach and a buffer in sterile water. Pharmacies still sell it today.

Nurses create their own solution by boiling four cups of water for at least 15 minutes. To that sterile water they add ½ teaspoon baking soda and 3 oz of household bleach. It must be kept in a sterile tightly closed container out of the light. It only lasts two days.

Even a highly dilute solution may cause irritation for highly sensitive individuals. That’s why we discourage such use unless prescribed by a health care provider. We hope the clinician will also monitor the patient’s progress closely.

Cynthia points out that this treatment 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! Clorox® SHOULD NEVER BE USED FULL STRENGTH EVEN FOR CLEANING! YOU NEED TO READ INSTRUCTIONS!

“This is sometimes the best solution to use for bacteria such as C. Diff infections which require isolation in hospitals. 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 sodium hypochlorite 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 be harmful.

Pharmacists can make Dakin’s Solution, but DIY chemists should refrain from trying this in the bathroom.

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 sodium hypochlorite 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. A number of readers have told us they learned about this approach during military service.

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! It also has suggestions for many other common ailments from allergies, arthritis and bursitis to insomnia, stinky feet and warts. Check out the reviews at this link.

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.”.
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