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What Can You Do to Get Rid of Toenail Fungus?

Toenail fungus is unsightly, and the available medications for it are costly. That's why people love home remedies for nail fungus

If you have noticed that your toenails are thick and yellow, you are not alone. Nail fungus affects a lot of people, so we are glad that we can offer some popular remedies for nail fungus. People may become especially self-conscious about their toenails in warm weather, when they go barefoot or wear sandals. But this problem is not seasonal, and some people notice misshapen or discolored nails even during the colder months.

Using Multiple Remedies for Nail Fungus:

Q. After keeping nail polish on my toenails all last year, I found that the nail on my big toe was thick and hard to cut.

Assuming this might be nail fungus, I decided to try all the remedies I could find. I did a vinegar and Listerine soak every morning. Then I sanded the nail down and applied tea tree oil. Once a week, I soaked my foot in Epsom salts. I did a hydrogen peroxide soak at noon and applied Vicks VapoRub before bed.

After two months, my nail is now completely normal. I’m not sure what cured it, but maybe a little of everything.

A. You certainly did try a wide range of remedies! Keep reading for details on each of them.

Your persistence apparently paid off. We are a bit surprised that it took only two months. Usually toenails take longer to grow out fungus-free.

Treating Nail Fungus:

Q. I have been seeing TV commercials for nail fungus treatments. These are all OTC products.

Two of my toenails have become thick, discolored and misshapen. I am wondering if any of these products would be worth a try.

A. The OTC remedies for nail fungus that we have seen contain undecylenate, undecylenic acid or tolnaftate. The FDA has approved these compound for treating toenail fungus. We have not seen evaluations of their effectiveness.

Nail fungus may be something of a misnomer. After all, a substantial number of cases may be caused by bacterial as well as fungal infections. One study reported that as many as 50 percent of icky nails were caused by bacteria alone (Journal of the American Podiatric Medical Association, March 1, 2021).

Readers have been telling us for years that soaking their feet in old-fashioned amber Listerine, with or without white vinegar, can be helpful against nasty nails. That may be partly because of the alcohol content, which could discourage both fungus and bacteria.

Others report that an OTC antibiotic ointment such as Neosporin (bacitracin zinc, neomycin sulfate, and polymyxin B sulfate) applied twice daily helps eradicate some infections. To learn more about a variety of approaches against ugly nails (including Neosporin), you may wish to read our eGuide to Favorite Home Remedies.

Looking for Remedies for Nail Fungus:

Q. What is a good home remedy for yellow, ugly toenails? Yuck!

A. Just when we thought everyone in the known universe had become sick and tired of reading about remedies for nail fungus, along comes this question from Pat in Irvine, California. Perhaps there are a few other people who are also suffering from unsightly thick, yellow-brown nails.

The official dermatological name for this condition is virtually unpronounceable: “onychomycosis.” (Try it this way: Oh-nicko-my-kosis.) Dermatologists do love their Latin and Greek names. “Mycosis” means infection caused by fungus. “Onych” or “onycho”) means a condition of the finger or toe nail. A German doctor (Rudolf Virchow) came up with the name in 1856 and derms still use it to this day. They also refer to it as tinea unguium.

We have been writing and talking about remedies for nail fungus for decades and offering a variety of creative solutions to solve this unsightly problem.

Questions About Infected Nails and Remedies for Nail Fungus:

First, some questions to ponder:

Why do some people get fungal infections under their nails while others appear resistant?

As far as we know, the dermatological community does not have a good answer. We suspect there is an immune component, because people tend to be more susceptible as they age. Presumably, their immune systems are less capable of fighting off the invasion.

Why do some people get quick relief with a particular home remedy (like Vicks VapoRub) and others see no benefit even after several months of diligent application?

Again, there is no good answer. We are constantly surprised why some people respond to one approach but others say it is worthless. Part of the difference may be which specific fungus is causing the infection. They may have differing sensitivities.

Why do dermatologists generally reject home remedies for nail fungus as a waste of money?

We are a bit puzzled by this attitude, though we suspect they may see a lot of patients who report home remedy failures. People who are happy with the results of a home remedy are not likely to go back and mention their success to a doubting doctor. Generally, home remedies are a lot less toxic and expensive than prescription anti-fungal medications.

Is the infection caused by fungal or bacterial pathogens?

The answer to this question determines which remedies will help clear the nails. That applies for prescription medications as well as home remedies. Even though we refer glibly to “nail fungus,” as though it is all the same thing, in fact researchers have found that many infections are bacterial (Journal of the American Podiatric Medical Association, March 1, 2021).

People’s Pharmacy Remedies for Nail Fungus:

We make no promises about any of these approaches. What works for one may not do the job for another. We have heard from many people, though, that these remedies for nail fungus can be surprisingly effective.

Gentian Violet:

Q. After reading that white iodine could help nail fungus, I went to get some. I couldn’t find any but picked up a bottle of gentian violet. I knew this was used for yeast infection, so I decided to try it.

I was amazed at the results. It worked better than anything I’ve ever tried! Be mindful that it stains clothing or sheets, so wear old socks.

A. Gentian violet goes back to the 19th century. It has antibacterial, antifungal and antiparasitic activity. The stain is bright purple, which might be alarming if you were not expecting it.

Many cases of “nail fungus” may be bacterial, at least in part. As a result, gentian violet might be a reasonable choice to tackle multiple types of pathogens.

Vicks VapoRub:

MW wrote:

“I have been using the Vicks for a number of years. It takes a long time (about 6 months) for the nail to grow out, but the fungus is gone. However, it does come back and the treatment has to be repeated.”

Martha had success with Vicks:

“I have had fungus and nail bed damage on my right thumb nail (about half way up the nail) for approximately 8 eight years. My nail technician has suggested, and I have tried, everything: anti-fungal treatments, vinegar, etc. She said the nail would probably never grow out because of unknown nail bed damage.

“At one point, we even glued one half of an acrylic nail on each week for about a year to protect the nail. Nothing helped, or even looked right. I always had to have my nails polished because of the ugly discoloration.

“About six months ago, on my own, after reading one of your columns, I began using Vicks VapoRub twice a day. I just dabbed a little on a toothpick and gently rubbed it around and under the nail. Lo and behold, after two months, I could see new growth! Now, it has almost completely grown out. I am so excited! I only use the Vicks once a day now. Hope this long information helps someone else.”

Cornmeal Foot Soaks:

Larry’s doctor suggested cornmeal:

“When examining me, my doctor noticed that I had nail fungus affecting toes on each foot.  He recommended that I make a batter by mixing cornmeal and water, let it sit for an hour, and then using a shallow pan, soak my feet for an hour.  He told me to do this once a week for a month.  If the fungus was not gone, I was supposed to apply Vicks Vaporub once a week for a month.

“I did the cornmeal therapy for three week and the fungus was gone. I don’t know why it works, but it’s cheap, harmless, and it worked for me.” Larry

Shirley found the cornmeal foot soaks easy to do:

“I’ve used vinegar and Listerine foot soaks in the past and it does help but takes an extremely long time to see good results. In the last year, I started soaking my feet in the cornmeal paste (also reported by the Graedons) once a week and started seeing results within three weeks. By three months the fungus was gone, and within six months my toenails had grown to the point where I started wearing toeless shoes again and was no longer embarrassed about hideous toenails.

“I highly recommend the warm cornmeal paste and found that it was so easy because I’d soak my feet for an hour while reading the morning paper. (Killing two birds with one stone.)”

Listerine & White Vinegar Foot Soaks:

LM had a setback in hot weather:

“I have tried Vicks, hydrogen peroxide and tea tree oil with no benefit. The Listerine and white vinegar soaks was the only treatment that worked on my nails. I used it for about 2 months and saw things get better.

“Then I went to a festival for 3 days. It was 30 degrees and did not bring anything for my nails. Needless to say back to square one. Is it possible that results could show after like half a year? Maybe I just quit too soon.” L.M.

Kathleen found that Listerine and vinegar soaks also keep athlete’s foot away:

“I have been using generic white vinegar and generic brown Listerine for a couple years now ever since I read about it in the Peoples’ Pharmacy. I just do a maintenance soak twice a month now, mostly because it makes my feet feel so good. A nice side affect. You will never have athletes’ feet again! Thanks again Peoples’ Pharmacy!”

NP substituted apple cider vinegar instead of white vinegar:

“I have been keeping up on your ideas to combat toenail fungus. I am happy to say that since March, 2013 I have been soaking my toes every day for 30 minutes with a combination of Listerine and ACV (apple cider vinegar) with great success. All my nails are nice and pink-colored now except for one. That one will require more soaking to complete the deal.

“What a sight to see (normal nails). I also treat my nails with Vicks for the remainder of the day. Thanks so much! I will continue to treat sparingly to stay ahead of any returning fungus.” N.P.

Tea Tree Oil:

Q. I successfully treated my nail fungus with topically applied tea tree oil. I saw improvement in only a few days and had complete results in about two weeks.

It then took time for the damaged area to grow back without fungus. The treated nails are not discolored or deformed. I had already tried several over-the-counter formulations with no improvement. I was considering prescribed pharmaceuticals, but they take months and have side effects. This worked for me.

A. Tea tree oil comes from an Australian tree, Melaleuca alternifolia, that has long been recognized as valuable for treating skin problems. The oil has antifungal activity, but some people are allergic to it.

Learn More About Remedies for Nail Fungus:

To learn more details of these and many more remedies for nail fungus, we recommend our 264-page book Quick & Handy Home Remedies (published by National Geographic). You will learn about cornmeal mush foot soaks, hydrogen peroxide, de-colorized iodine, Listerine and vinegar and tea tree oil, not to mention the strangest of all… urine soaks!

Even if you treat your fungus-infected toenails with a prescription medication, one of these remedies for nail fungus may be useful to prevent recurrence. Dermatologists recommend preventive topical treatment weekly or monthly to keep the fungus from coming back (Skin Appendage Disorders, Sep. 2016).

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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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  • Love E et al, "DNA sequencing to evaluate nail pathogens: An investigation into bacteria and fungi." Journal of the American Podiatric Medical Association, March 1, 2021. DOI: 10.7547/18-122
  • Tosti A & Elewski BE, "Onychomycosis: Practical approaches to Mmnimize relapse and recurrence." Skin Appendage Disorders, Sep. 2016. doi: 10.1159/000448056
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