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What Ingredient in Vicks VapoRub Kills Nail Fungus?

Did you know that there are several fungi that can cause nasty nails? Were you aware that there are studies to suggest that Vicks Vaporub Kills nail fungus?

For more than two decades, we have been hearing from readers of our syndicated newspaper column that Vicks VapoRub kills nail fungus. For much of that time there was little, if any, science to support this old-fashioned remedy. By the way, should you be interested in the history of Vicks you can find it in our free Guide to Unique Uses for Vicks at this link.  Now, however, we have some actual science to reinforce the idea that Vicks VapoRub kills nail fungus!

The Very First Vicks Q&A, May 24, 1999:

Q. After reading about toenail fungus, I could not resist passing along my recommendation. Four months ago a nurse who does foot care suggested I use Vicks VapoRub for my own nail fungus.

I rub it on each nail every day, and my nails are growing out clear. The treatment is cheap and easy. I’m sure many households keep Vicks on hand for congestion just as we do.

A. This is not the first time we have heard about using Vicks VapoRub on nails infected with fungus. Several years ago, a professional foot care nurse told us that this old-fashioned herbal ointment might be helpful.

The ingredients in Vicks VapoRub include camphor, menthol, eucalyptus oil, cedarleaf oil, nutmeg oil, petrolatum, thymol and turpentine oil. Some of these ingredients have antifungal activity. Applying a dab to a diseased nail seems like an inexpensive and safe treatment, though we have yet to see a published study of its effectiveness.

That answer from more than two decades ago was fairly lame. We didn’t have a lot to go on, other than some in vitro (test tube) research. There were no actual studies in humans. That has changed.

Science to Support Vicks VapoRub Kills Nail Fungus:

A pilot study published in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine (January 2011)  recruited 18 volunteers from the Malcolm Grow US Air Force Medical Center. They had to have onychomycosis (nail fungus) “on at least one great toenail.” It was verified by microscopy and culture. The participants were advised to apply Vicks VapoRub at least once a day to their affected nail(s).

The Findings:

“We demonstrated in this pilot study that Vicks VapoRub provides a positive effect in the treatment of onychomycosis. This is the first clinical study in the literature to describe this finding.

“To date, treatment for onychomycosis is accomplished primarily with oral (cure rates, 48% to 76%) and/or topical (34% cure rate with ciclopirox 8%). The cost for a complete course of oral medication treatment for onychomycosis ranges from $780 to $900 (not including associated costs for laboratory monitoring); a course of treatment with ciclopirox 8% is approximately $200. A 1-year course of Vicks VapoRub, by comparison, can be expected to cost approximately $24 to $36 (the cost of 2 to 3 6-ounce jars).”

The authors conclude:

“In this pilot study, Vicks VapoRub seemed to have some clinical effect in treating onychomycosis, particularly when C. parapsilosis and T. mentagrophytes were the infecting organisms. Regardless of clinical effect, participants were highly satisfied with the simple, innocuous treatment strategy of once-daily application of Vicks VapoRub to the affected nail. Vicks VapoRub may represent a significant addition to the clinical options for treating onychomycosis, not only because of its clinical effect but also because of the minimization of side effects and its lower cost compared with established therapies.”

There is also a study published in the Journal of the Association of Nurses in AIDS Care, Jan-Feb., 2016). People with AIDS often have compromised immune systems. That may make them more susceptible to a variety of infections including those caused by fungi. The nurses report that Vicks VapoRub was safe and effective for their patients with nail fungus.

Dermatologists Push Back:

We have heard from many health professionals, especially dermatologists, that something as simple and cheap as Vicks VapoRub couldn’t possibly work as well as pricey FDA-approved anti-fungal treatments. They point out, correctly, that the FDA has never approved Vicks as an anti-fungal treatment against onychomycosis. We have also heard from readers that Vicks doesn’t always do the job.

Of course, even pricey prescription anti-fungal drugs don’t always do the job either. And it takes a very long time to get rid of nail fungus. We’re talking months and months, not weeks and weeks. Many of the drug company-sponsored trials last about a year.

There is also something called fungal resistance. The fungi have “learned” how to resist some anti-fungal medications.

There is one other factor that most people (and some health professionals) don’t take into account.

Nail fungus is not one single entity:

“Onychomycosis are fungal infections of the finger or toenails, mainly caused by fungi of genera Trichophyton, Microsporum, and Epidermophyton, and some Candida species. The predominant agent is T. rubrum, which is found in 60 % of these kinds of infections.” (Mycopathologia, Oct. 19, 2015)

So, what might work for one fungal infection might not work for another. This may explain why some people report success with certain drugs or home remedies while other people are disappointed.

The authors who described the different genera of fungi above note that:

“Thyme oil, obtained from Thymus vulgaris, is one of the more antimicrobially active plant oils. Thyme essential oil shows a strong antifungal activity even against clinical isolates from onychomycosis.

“Many studies about antifungal activity of essential oils extracted from Eucalyptus species have been conducted and showed an excellent and strong activity against various pathogenic fungi and yeasts, including clinical isolates of F. oxysporum, C. albicans, T. rubrum, T. soudanense.

“Eucalyptus oil is part of the Vick’s VapoRub™ medicine, a chest rub indicated for respiratory diseases, and due to its ‘folk uses’ for the treatment for onychomycosis. Ramsewak et al. isolated the monoterpenes camphor, thymol, menthol, and eucalyptus oil from the remedy and evaluated them against 16 strains that cause onychomycosis. The authors suggested that, since the major constituent of the essential oil is a monoterpene, mixtures of different monoterpenes in a similar composition should be considered as a potential candidate to treat onychomycosis.”

The Bottom Line on How Vicks VapoRub Kills Nail Fungus:

The conclusion from the article in Mycopathologia (Oct. 19, 2015)  is that:

“Essential oils may become the source of new therapeutic molecules and also their incorporation into topical formulation an interesting, safe, and effective alternative for the treatment for onychomycosis.”

Fast Forward to July, 2020:

Here is a brand new question from a reader. She wants to know whether the revised ingredient in Vicks VapoRub kills nail fungus:

Q. Does Vicks VapoRub ointment still have the ingredient that kills toenail fungus? I used to work in a nursing home, and the nursing staff rubbed Vicks into the feet, paying special attention to the toes. It definitely cured active nail fungus in some residents who came to us with horrible problems.

A. Vicks VapoRub contains camphor, eucalyptus oil and menthol, along with inactive ingredients including cedarleaf oil, nutmeg oil, petrolatum, thymol and turpentine oil. About 15 years ago, the manufacturer began using synthetic rather than natural camphor, but we haven’t seen any indication that the effect on toenail fungus has changed.

Camphor, menthol, thymol and eucalyptus oil are active against five types of fungus that can infect toenails (Phytotherapy Research, April 2003).

If you would like to learn more about other remedies for nail fungus, here is a link to our free guide to Hair and Nail Care. It can also be located in our Health eGuide section

Share Your Story:

Have you ever had nail fungus? How bad were your nails? Please relate your experience with medications or home remedies in the comment section below. 

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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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