Essential Oils for Toenail Fungus

(Last Updated On: August 3, 2018)

Toenail fungus (onychomycosis) is a very common problem and it can be hard to treat. It looks unsightly, smells unpleasant, makes walking painful, and if left untreated can cause a great deal of damage to the affected toenails. In severe cases the nails will crumble and even detach from the nail bed and fall off.

Nail fungus can lead to more serious problems too. The compromised nail provides an entry point for bacteria which can lead to serious infections like cellulitis.

Conventional over-the-counter treatments are notoriously unreliable, and prescription medications often cause side effects. And neither option offers a cost effective solution to the problem, with treatments lasting many months.

Essential oils offer an alternative way forward. One that’s safe, effective and very easy on your wallet.

What Causes Toenail Fungus?

It Can Combat Athlete's Foot

Most cases of toenail fungus are caused by dermatophytes, minute organisms that use the protein in your nail (keratin) as a food source. Around 90% of fungal infections are due to dermatophytes. The other 10% of infections are caused by yeast and mold.

As the dermatophytes or yeasts eat up the proteins in your nail they excrete wastes which cause tissue inflammation and nail damage. Left untreated the fungal colony grows, and the inflammation gets worse and worse.

In an attempt to heal the damaged nail tissue, your body speeds up keratin production, leading to a thickened nail.

Symptoms of Toenail Fungal Infection

The first sign of an infected toenail is usually discoloration. This begins as white dots or patches under your nail and eventually results in the affected nail taking on a yellowed, white or brownish appearance.

Further symptoms you may experience  

  • Thickened nails prone to flaking.
  • More splits, cracks and others breaks.
  • Pain along the sides of your nails.
  • Unpleasant odor – When you have a fungal infection the nail will have an offensive, pungent odor
  • The nail lifting away from the nail bed.

Is It Really Toenail Fungus?

Calm the Fire in your Feet

Psoriasis and eczema can mimic the appearance of an infected toenail. If you suffer from either of these conditions it’s best to have your doctor make a diagnosis so that you aren’t treating the wrong condition.

Who’s At Risk of Toenail Fungal Infections?

Who's At Risk of Toenail Fungal Infections

While no one is immune from toenail fungus, certain illnesses and activities make it more likely that a fungal infection will take hold.

If you send a lot of time swimming or surfing, your feet are a perfect breeding ground for fungus. You’re even at risk if you don’t dry your feet and toes properly after you take a bath or shower.

Those with weak immune systems, diabetes, and untreated athlete’s foot have a higher risk for toenail fungal infections than healthy individuals.

The way that you trim your toenails could also increase the chances of toenail fungus taking hold. If you trim the corners of your nails, they could dig into the soft skin surrounding your toenail causing a break in the skin that allows infection in. Always trim toenails straight across.

Men have a higher rate of toenail fungal infection than women. This could be due to men being more likely to wear the same footwear every day, changing their socks less often, and having sweatier feet that create the damp environment that fungus needs to thrive – an average foot produces half a cup of sweat each day!

Toe nail fungus is also more common among smokers than nonsmokers.

Finally, older people have a high incidence of toenail fungal infections. Around 20% of over 60’s have the infection, rising to 50% in the over 70’s. Older people have weaker immune systems and less robust circulation which prevents the immune system from sending it’s fungus fighting cells to the site of infection. Diabetes is also more common among this age group.

Is Toenail Fungus Contagious?

Is Toenail Fungus Contagious

Yes, it’s very contagious. You can catch toenail fungus from the locker room floor or the shower stall at your gym, you can pick it up poolside or at your local pedicure salon, and you can become infected from sharing footwear with friends and family.

The fungus can also spread from one infected toenail to the other nails on your feet and it can even spread to your fingernails.

Always wear shower/pool shoes in public places instead of going barefoot. This will protect you from infections, and if you already have toenail fungus, athletes foot or verrucas, you won’t inadvertently infect anyone else.

When you go for a pedicure, make sure that they use a fresh set of sterilized tools. If the same tools are used on a string of clients, find a more hygienic salon.

What About Prescription Antifungal Drugs and Topical Treatments?

What About Prescription Antifungal Drugs and Topical Treatments

Conventional treatment with oral antifungals can make you feel sick to your stomach. They can also give you thumping headaches. Unpleasant as those side effects are, they aren’t the worst that these drugs can do – prescription antifungals can cause liver damage too.

Creams and medicated nail polishes can be effective in the early stages of an infection, but the chance of success is much lower once the fungus is well established. Later recurrence of the infection is also quite common.

How Do Essential Oils Help Get Rid of Toenail Fungus?

How Do Essential Oils Help Get Rid of Toenail Fungus?

Numerous essential oils have antifungal properties. That means that they can either kill fungus entirely or stop the growth of the fungus, allowing your immune system to swoop in and eradicate it.

Some essential oils are better antifungals than others and it’s these essential oils that we’ll focus on in this article.

In addition to being effective antifungals, essential oils (when used correctly) are very safe and won’t leave you with any side effects, and as a bonus they are very, very affordable.

Even though essential oils are a time tested home remedy for toenail fungus, they will give you better results the sooner you start using them.

If you begin an essential oil treatment as soon as you notice the first symptoms of infection, you’ll eliminate the fungus more easily than if you wait until an infection has fully taken hold of your nail.

Essential oils make a great preventative treatment too. Adding a few drops of essential oil to your regular foot care regimen will hold all kinds of infectious microbes at bay and keep your feet fresh and healthy.

Cade Essential Oil – rectified – (Juniperus oxycedrus)

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Juniper Essential Oil   

Cade essential oil is a type of juniper oil. Junipers are large evergreen shrubs with a long history of use in traditional medicine. Cade oil shouldn’t be confused with the essential oil obtained from the berries, needles or wood of the common juniper – Juniperus communis. Common juniper essential oils like juniper berry oil are easier to find, but they have less antifungal activity compared to cade oil.

In a study published in the Journal of Applied Microbiology, researchers evaluated several types of juniper essential oil against dermatophytes, candida and aspergillus. The oils were tested against various strains of the microbes, and minimum inhibitory concentrations (MICs) values were established for each oil.

Against the dermatophytes (the microbes responsible for the majority of toenail fungal infections) the minimum inhibitory concentrations ranged from 008 to 0.16, whereas the MICs for other types of juniper ranged from 0.64 to 2.5.

The lower the MIC the stronger the substance, and the tests proved that cade oil had the strongest effects against dermatophytes.

Additionally, cade essential oil had the strongest effects against candida (a yeast) and aspergillus (a mold), making cade essential oil a very good choice to cover all types of toenail fungal infections.

Clinical trials are yet to be carried out on cade oil and toenail fungus.

If you choose to use cade oil, it’s important that you only purchase the rectified oil. Unrectified (crude) cade is a potential carcinogen.

Rectified cade oil has an orange-brown color with a smoky, woody odor. The liquid is quite thick and oily.

To check that the cade oil you are using is pure and unadulterated, hold the bottle up to the light. If the contents have an orange/reddish brown hue, it’s a pure oil, if the liquid looks blackish-brown, it has been adulterated and isn’t safe to use.

Tea Tree Essential Oil (Melaleuca alternifolia)

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Tea Tree Oil

Tea tree oil is an excellent remedy for toenail fungus. In fact, studies have shown that tea tree oil is just as effective as clotrimazole -\ the active ingredient in may over-the-counter antifungal treatments.

Tea tree oil will also protect you from opportunistic bacterial and viral infections that take advantage of the conditions created by the fungus.

Researchers conducted randomized, double blind clinical trials to compare the effectiveness of two topical substances on toenail fungus – 100% tea tree essential oil and 1% clotrimazole solution.

Participants applied their treatment twice a day for 6 months. At the end of the treatment period cultures were taken from the affected nails and clinical assessments carried out.

For the group using 1% clotrimazole solution, full or partial resolution of the condition was achieved for 61% of the participants.

For the group using 100% tea tree essential oil, full or partial resolution of the condition was achieved for 60% of the participants.

Tea tree oil is a very common essential oil, and it’s also one of the most affordable. The spicy-camphoraceous liquid can either be colorless or a pale yellow-green color.

Eucalyptus Essential Oil (Eucalyptus citriodora)

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Eucalyptus Oil

This variant of eucalyptus essential oil offers antibacterial activity along with a good level of antifungal potency.

When evaluated in laboratory studies, lemon scented eucalyptus showed high levels of antifungal activity against the 4 strains of dermatophytes used in the tests. These results led  researchers to recommend this essential oil as a new antifungal treatment.

Lemongrass Essential Oil (Cymbopogon citratus)

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Lemongrass Essential Oil

Lemongrass is another essential oil that has demonstrated significant antifungal activity when tested against 10 common types of dermatophytes.

As well as acting to kill toenail fungus, lemongrass essential oil acts as an analgesic (pain reliever), so makes a good choice if a fungal infection is causing pain and making walking uncomfortable.

The antimicrobial properties of lemongrass also target opportunistic bacterial and prevent them from infecting the damaged tissue underneath your nail.

Another big benefit of this essential oil, especially for older individuals is the improvement that lemongrass can make to circulation, which allows the immune system to function more effectively.

Thyme Essential Oil (Thymus vulgaris)

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Thyme (Thymus Vulgaris)

Thyme essential oil is a truly multipurpose oil and when it comes to eradicating toenail fungus thyme has several very appealing properties.

Obviously, the most important is its antifungal activity, but you’ll be glad to know that thyme will also combat bacteria to keep other infections at bay, and boost circulation allowing the bloodstream to carry more immune cells to the site of infection

A number of studies have demonstrated the antifungal properties of thyme essential oil, and thymol, the main constituent of the oil, has been identified as the source of the oil’s potent fungicidal activity when used to eradicate toenail fungus.

One much loved home remedy for toenail fungus is vapor rub (the type you use when you have a cold) which has a high concentration of thymol. Rubbing a dab of vapor rub on your toenails serves as a convenient alternative to using thyme essential oil since the product is already diluted for you.

Tagetes Essential Oil (Tagetes minuta)

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Tagetes Essential Oil (Tagetes minuta)

Tagetes essential oil is obtained from the Mexican marigold plant, (not to be confused with calendula oil from the pot marigold).

Research on a slightly different member of the marigold family, the French marigold (Tagetes patula) found that tagetes essential oil was an effective antifungal against common strains of dermatophytes.

Tagetes minuta has similar characteristics to the tagetes used in the study and has long been used as an antifungal essential oil, it’s also much easier to obtain.

You do have to be careful when using tagetes because it’s one of the phototoxic essential oils and as such it reacts with sunlight to produce a very painful and long lasting skin rash.

Unless you can be certain that you won’t expose your feet to sunlight for 12 hours after application, tagetes should only be used at the very low concentration of 0.01%.

How To Use Essential Oils Safely

Essential Oil Safety

When you’re using essential oils without professional guidance, it’s important to follow safety guidelines. Even though some of the research studies we’ve mentioned have used undiluted essential oils, it’s unwise to use your oils without first diluting them.

The use of undiluted essential oils can cause an immediate reaction (burning, itching, rash, swelling), or sensitization could take place.

Sensitization is a delayed allergic response that will occur whenever you use that essential oil in the future.

There are advocates of using undiluted essential oils, however it should be noted that these people are usually involved in selling essential oils and tend to urge people to use larger quantities of the oils to boost their bottom line.

Ultimately the way you use essential oils on yourself is your choice. You could be perfectly fine after using a small amount of an undiluted oil on your toenails, or you could end up suffering from a painful reaction that takes many months to resolve.

To use essential oils without running any risks you must always dilute the oils in a carrier oil or other dispersant like alcohol (e.g. vodka, brandy) or glycerine.

For fungal infections anywhere on your body, it’s a good idea to use carrier oils that easily absorb into the skin without leaving behind a greasy residue that traps moisture.

Non greasy oils include sunflower oil, argan oil, rice bran oil and grapeseed oil.

Usually, a 2% dilution is generally considered sufficient – children and the elderly should use a 1% dilution (unless a lower safe maximum is noted) – and this strength will work well for many conditions. Your toenail fungus may respond well to this dilution, but it’s well known that toenail fungus is difficult to eradicate and a higher dilution may be necessary.

The maximum safe dilutions for the oils mentioned in this article are listed below and these are the recommendations given in Essential Oil Safety, the guide written for professionals by respected experts Robert Tisserand and Rodney Young. The number of drops given are the number used in one ounce (30 ml) of carrier oil.

Cade Oil – According to Tisserand and Young, when tested at a 2% dilution on 25 volunteers, topical application of cade oil did not produce any adverse skin reactions. At a 3% dilution, mild irritation was observed in 2 of the 25 volunteers.

Given this information a 2% dilution (12 drops) appears to be the safest upper limit.

Tea Tree Oil – Tisserand and Young recommend a 15% maximum dilution (90 drops) but state that the safe range is likely to be from 10% to 20% (60 to 120 drops)

Lemon Scented Eucalyptus Oil –  When tested on 25 volunteers at a 10% dilution (60 drops) no adverse skin reactions were observed.

Lemongrass Oil – The recommended maximum strength for this essential oil is 0.7% (4 drops). However a 4% dilution (24 drops) tested on 25 volunteers did not result in any skin irritation or sensitization.

Lemongrass is known to be one of the more problematic oils when it comes to causing allergic reaction and if you are susceptible to allergies or dermatitis, you should stick with the 0.7% strength dilution.

Thyme Oil – Use at a maximum dilution of 1.3% (7 drops). Best avoided during pregnancy.

Tagetes Oil – When applied at a 2% dilution (12 drops) to 25 volunteers, Tisserand and Young report that no adverse skin reactions were observed.

It’s easy to work out how many drops of essential oil you need for a specific dilution, so If you want to make a dilution at a lower strength than the maximums listed above use the following method.

One ounce (30 ml) of essential oil contains approximately 600 drops. The exact amount does vary depending on the thickness (viscosity) of an oil, but 600 drops is close enough when you’re making up small quantities of a topical treatment.

To work out the amount of essential oil you need for a given dilution simply multiply 600 drops by the corresponding decimal.

So a 2% dilution has this calculation – 600 x 0.02 = 12 drops. And a smaller 0.7% dilution has this calculation – 600 x 0.007 = 4.2 drops which you would round down to 4.

Applying Essential Oils

Footbaths

Before using your antifungals essential oil, make sure that your feet and toenails are clean. It’s a good idea to soak your feet for a while in warm water to help soften your toenails and make penetration of the oil easier.

Use a Q-tip to apply the oil to your toenails, making sure that you coat the skin surrounding the nail and work some of your oil under the tip of your nail.

Allow your nails to air dry, then slip on absorbent socks or a pair of sandals that will let your feet breathe.
You can use the oils twice a day.

Written by Irina Radosevic MD
Irina graduated from the University of Belgrade, School of Medicine as a Doctor of Medicine (MD) and spent over 3 years working in the Clinical Hospital Center Zvezdara, in the Department of Emergency Medicine. She also undertook a postgraduate in Cardiology from the same University and had previously worked for over a year as a Physician and Nutritionist Dietitian for the Fitness club Green Zone. She eventually left her chaotic but fulfilling job in the ER to pursue her passion of writing, travelling and mountain climbing which has included writing a first aid course for the alpine club of Belgrade. Irina currently works as a VA for PintMedia focusing on medical and travel writing. Feel free to connect with Irina on LinkedIn and FaceBook. Her CV can be seen here.