The People's Perspective on Medicine

Why Did Purple Toenails Outrage This Reader?

Gentian violet is an old-fashioned topical treatment for a variety of fungal infections. There is a drawback: it leads to purple toenails. It can also turn penises purple as you will soon read.

We have a motto at The People’s Pharmacy: The customer or the reader is always right. We do our best to be understanding and supportive, but sometimes our patience is pushed to the limit. Such was the case when a reader complained that her toenails were turned purple by gentian violet. Really? This came as a surprise? Here is a link to the original column:

Why Is This Reader Shocked by Purple Toenails?

Q. You recommended gentian violet for toenail fungus, and I tried it. Now my toenails are purple, and I can’t get it off. What can I do?

A. When we wrote about this old-fashioned topical antifungal treatment, we warned that it stains the skin and nails purple. The color will gradually dissipate, but it will take time for your toes to return to normal. There is no way to wash gentian violet off.

A Short History of Gentian Violet:

This bright blue synthetic dye was created in 1861. During the early 20th century, doctors prescribed gentian violet for oral yeast infections (thrush) as well as impetigo and pinworm. It has broad antimicrobial activity and is occasionally used to treat some antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Gentian Violet and the Purple Penis Problem:

Before modern antifungal creams, some doctors prescribed gentian violet for vaginal yeast infections. The resulting purple color could be quite impressive, as this reader attests:

“I have worked in women’s health for 40 years. Back in the early 1970s the older doctors often painted women’s vaginas with gentian violet to treat persistent yeast infections. They always told the women to warn their husbands about the possibility of purple penises.”

Learn to Love Your Purple Toenails:

A nurse, Rose Hoban, RN, MPH, shared this story about coming to grips with purple toenails:

“When I was working for Doctors Without Borders in Indonesia, we used it for EVERYTHING from drying up skin infections to treating athletes foot.

“One friend used to elicit howls of laughter from people around him when he’d pull off his shoes and they’d see his purple toes. But it worked to kill his foot fungus!”

People’s Pharmacy Perspective on Purple Toenails:

Number One:

Gentian violet will stain you toes, toenails and any other tissue it comes in contact with PURPLE! If you are not prepared to live with purple toes for a a few months, DO NOT DO THIS! Of course you could always paint your purple toes with toenail polish, purple or some other dark color.

Number Two:

If purple toenails do not appeal and you are not into toenail polish, perhaps one of our other nail fungus remedies would be more acceptable. You can read all about them in our book, The People’s Pharmacy Quick & Handy Home Remedies book or our Guide to Hair and Nail Care.

Share your own gentian violet story below in the comment section. If you have had success with another less colorful nail fungus treatment please share your success story.

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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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My oldest brother used to bit his nails down to the quick when we were kids. Our family doictor had my mom paint his nails with something purple because it tasted bad, to stop him from biting them. I wonder if it was Genetian Violet? Anyone?

I now have purple toenails too. If it cures my fungus, I wont know. I cant see my nails.

When we were kids we just always called it purple medicine, and Mama used it for everything. It always seemed to work for what ailed you, but my grandchildren turn their nose up at it without even trying it.

Do you put the gentian violet on the nail only?

I had this treatment for yeast infections several times. It will stain everything, but it works. Doctors always had this remedy available on the counter in their examination rooms.

As a tropical fish hobbyist I remember years ago it was used as a treatment for fish mouth and or fin fungus, by application with a Q tip. Also another dye “V????” green was used.

Does gentian violet work more quickly on toenail fungus than other remedies? I’ve used a commercial productfor over a year but I can’t seem to get completely rid of the fungus.

I’ve had friends treat their nursing child’s thrush with gentian violet and they end up with purple breasts!

Evidently, this person ignored the information about the staining. Personally, I think I would much rather have purple toenails (or any other body part), than to live with a fungal infection. I’ve never heard of this before, but after reading the article and comments, I’m definitely going to look into this for my toes! Color me purple!! :)

My daddy always used something that turned his toes purple. I never knew the name of it but it helped him so I guess this was the same thing! Thanks for the memories!

This reader outraged by purple toe nails must not be around university campuses very much, because if he/she were, she would see all kinds of colors on both women and men. Purples penises would be more startling, but then those are usually kept out of sight!

Also works great in some circumstances for nursing moms.

I am 66 years old, and when I was a youngster back in the 1950’s I can remember a lot of little babies and children with purple mouths. It was great for parenting back then, because after you saw something like that, your Mom would warn you about putting dirty or dropped-on-the-floor things in your mouth. Thanks for the memory and blast from the past.

Many moons ago, my young niece decided that her uncle need to have his toenails painted purple. I was asleep in my big chair, or at least pretended to be. So I had purple toenails for a month or so. I could have borrowed my wife’s polish remover but heh, I had never had purple toes before. And no one at the gym was going to say anything nor would I have cared if they did.

My real issue is finding gentian violet in the stores or pharmacy. I have tried everything else on the toe fungus, and castor oil may be helping. Guess it is going to be an online order unless some one in side the Loop in Houston knows where to buy it.

Most drugstores carry it. It’s in the first aid/home remedy section. Ask the pharmacist (who is often surprised to find it in stock). If used on a cut, it’ll leave a purple tattoo—but you won’t have an infection.

I remember having a purple head and hands because they put it on kids for ringworm — pretty funny and didn’t bother me too much. I think I was about 7 at the time. Most every other kid had something purple too. Now I wouldn’t mind having the purple toenails (age 81) but don’t know where I’d find it!

LOL LOL! You really bring back some funny memories!

Regarding purple appendages: When I was a fresh new bride (65 years ago) I came up with a vaginal yeast condition for which my doctor prescribed gentian violet. I came to learn that this not only colored skin and toenails, one penis, and all the fabric it touched a violent purple color. I felt like I was waving the flag about the extreme itch I had in a private locale. Older folks smiled behind their hands, and my husband endured some pointed “off color” remarks with good humor. But it stopped the itch and made us whole again although months passed before the color faded or wore off. And we were both grateful. If you haven’t been there don’t knock it.

An anti-yeast supplement has worked wonders for me, plus it’s addressing, internally, any other yeast issues. Takes awhile, but you won’t have purple toenails!

Years ago I used gentian violet to cure the nail on my big toe. It worked perfectly, if not quickly, and I had a beautiful set of white socks with purple toes!

What is the anti yeast supplement called & where does one purchase it ?

My grandfather, a Dr. in Chicago in the teens and 20s, painted patients’ throats with GViolet for sore throats.

I thought the purple toenails were polish. I thought it was pretty, but I am a purple lover.

I think those who asked about the purple toenails or said they were pretty assumed that the picture used in the header for this article was from the person who’d used Genetian Violet on her feet.

No, it is probably just a picture for a stock photo site that People’s Phramacy used for the article, and it just so happened that the toenails were painted with purple nail polish, or they changed the nail color in Photoshop. I think at least two people here assumed it was a picture form the person who made the complaint.

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