The People's Perspective on Medicine

Will Your Toes Be Fungus-Free and Purple?

Gentian violet is an old-fashioned topical medicine that can treat fungal infections. It will turn your toes purple, though.

When the weather gets warm, are you embarrassed to put on sandals so everyone can see your toes? Even though it is very common, toenail fungus can be unsightly.You might also have trouble getting rid of it. Your doctor could prescribe Jublia or Kerydin, but these drugs are pretty pricey. Home remedies are more affordable, though they don’t always work. Whichever treatment you choose, you’ll need a lot of patience. The nails need to be treated until the healthy nails have grown in completely. One reader is enthusiastic about an old-fashioned treatment, gentian violet.

Treating Your Toes with Gentian Violet:

Q. I have used gentian violet for my toenail fungus with great success. It does dye my toes purple, but with nail fungus I was not wearing open-toe shoes anyway.

You can get this online or at most pharmacies. Gentian violet is really cheap, like $2 a bottle.

What Is Gentian Violet?

A. Gentian or crystal violet is a bright blue-violet dye that was synthesized in the 19th century. Its name may have been inspired by the color of flowers in the genus Gentiana.

This compound has antibacterial, antiviral, antiparasitic and antifungal activity. Dermatologists have reported benefit using this old-fashioned topical medication for treating toenail fungus (Maley & Arbiser, Experimental Dermatology, Dec. 2013). It is even being used to treat MRSA, a Staphylococcus infection that does not respond readily to the penicillin-family antibiotic methicillin.

Toes Aren’t All That May Turn Purple:

Gentian violet was developed as a medicine and was not used to dye clothing. However, it will stain nearly any tissues it touches. Several years ago, we wrote about gentian violet for treating Candida infections. Although it is effective, patients ended up with purple in some interesting spots.

Q. I have been breastfeeding my baby for seven months and have suffered through recurring infections with Candida albicans. The antifungal pill fluconazole worked but I needed a very high dose. That worries me. I’m interested in a more natural approach for this yeast infection. What are your thoughts on gentian violet?

Gentian Violet for Candida:

A. Gentian violet is an old-fashioned topical treatment for fungal infections like thrush (Candida). The compound can interfere with Candida even at concentrations too low to kill the fungus (Mafojane et al, Archives of Oral Biology, Oct. 2017).

One reader offered this advice:

“Lactation consultants often recommend gentian violet for mothers who have yeast infections on their nipples. We have the mother put a little olive oil on the baby’s lips and cheeks, paint her nipples with gentian violet and nurse the baby. The mother will have two purple nipples and the baby will have a purple mouth.”

Another reader wrote:

“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.”

Other readers have offered further reminiscences.

Judith P said:

“What is old is new again. I think this is the second or third time around in my 40 year career as a nurse for gentian violet. We always keep some at the office for those persistent cases. It does not seem to cause resistance and works better than expensive creams and toxic oral medications, however, you do have to like purple.”

Cindy B. wrote:

“How funny… I had never heard of this until just this afternoon, when a woman author was being interviewed on NPR. Anyway, she was talking about using Gentian Violet for candida, and said it turned her breast milk purple as well. Talked about how weird it was to be half-asleep, pumping purple breast milk at 3am…”

Rose Hoban, RN, MPH, recalled:

“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 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!”

Buttercup in Tennessee thought back to her childhood:

“When I was a little girl, my Mom used Violet Bismuth on me for sores or cut and scrapes. It was used for thrush and mouth sores inside and outside the mouth. Everyone in the neighborhood had this and used it for everything.”

Current Research:

Dermatologists occasionally use gentian violet to treat more serious conditions. A recent report described success treating a skin lesion caused by B-cell lymphoma with an injection of gentian violet into the lesion (Rao et al, Experimental Dermatology, Jan. 2018). Doctors have also used topical gentian violet to treat erythema multiforme, a skin eruption that is often a reaction to certain medications (Murthy, Van & Arbiser, Experimental Dermatology, May 2017).

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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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It also makes a beautiful wood stain if purple wood is necessary!!!

I recently started using Gentian Violet for a very persistent toenail fungus for which I had taken some heavy duty meds two years ago that didn’t work. Very expensive and potentially harmful to my liver. In spite of its name, I was surprised at the deep purple color of the GV liquid. So my questions are: is there any way to remove it from my toe, and how will I know if the fungus has been destroyed if I can’t see my nail? Thanks!

There is no way to remove this dye. It will wear off or the toenails will grow out. As they do, you’ll be able to see if they are healthy.

A few of the readers asked the same thing that I wanted to know. How long does it take for the purple to wear off?

I’ve never even heard of gentian violet, so it is interesting to add this to my education. As always, thak you for this column and helping me learn. I’m only 81 and, apparently, need to keep my eyes and ears open for things that can matter in my life.

I want to try Gentian Violet on my toenail fungus but need to know how often to apply it and I see it comes in 1% and 2% versions so is the 2% better? Also how long did it take to see some clear nail growth?

Will Tea Tree oil help toenail fungus?

Not in my experience. Used it for 2 years, and it did nothing!

I had good luck with urea cream for my foot fungus. I used prescription-strength 40% to get rid of toenail fungus and also athlete’s foot and cracked heels (which are also caused by fungus). When my prescription ran out, I switched to Udder Cream with 20% urea and that’s also been effective. Doesn’t stain anything either! Urea will kill foot fungi but the toenail is still damaged, so it took about 8 month of using the cream twice daily for my toenails to grow out and have a completely normal appearance. I still use it from time to time for a couple of weeks at a time to keep the fungus at bay.

My father was prescribed 40% urea cream for his severe foot fungus. However, the instructions say to keep away from nail cuticle and nail itself, as it can also be used to unsurgically remove a toenail. After seeing your comment, was thinking of having another family member use for toenail fungus.

Did you place the 40% and/or 20% creams directly on your toenails? If so, did they remain intact and clear up or did toenails come off?

When I was a kid…about 85 years ago, I had pet turtles that were developing some sort of fungus growth . My father immediately knew the cure—gentian violet. That’s how long it’s been around.

After the nail fungus is gone, will your toes remain purple? And for how long? Or do you have to continue to use the gentian violet periodically to keep the fungus at bay?

I would also like to know how long the staining lasts. Do you have to wait for the toenail to grow out?

I wonder how long the purple lasts.

When I was a little girl I got pinworms and I had to take gentian violet pills. One day after dinner at my aunt and uncle’s house I threw up on their front walk. The purple spot lasted for years, despite a lot of scrubbing. The same thing happened to our bathroom sink.

Is there a method to rid skin of the staining or how long does the stain take to wear off with regular bathing?

I use nail polish remover to get the purple off my skin, and it works well so maybe it can remove the GV color off the nail bed if uses persistently.

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