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Tea Tree Oil on Toenail Fungus: Photos That Let You Decide If It Works

Updated on March 14, 2013

I Experimented on Me: The Evidence & Conclusion

This year again, after the nail polish removal at the end of summer, my toenails were yellowed, and four of the nails easily broke off and peeled away to almost nothing: a sign of toenail fungus. The big toenails were discolored underneath and split into crumbly layers when trimmed. I guessed this was "excess keratin buildup," whatever that was.The pedicurist told me my big toenails were ingrown. I wanted healthy feet. I looked at babies' tiny feet and toes. They were beautiful, with clear, pearly nails; we are born that way. Could I fix mine?

First I quit pedicures, because obviously twice-monthly pedicures and polish only covered up the problem. My feet weren't bad enough to see a doctor (if you are diabetic, see a doctor!), but I asked an M.D. about that prescription pill I saw advertised that can eliminate toenail fungus. She laughed and said droves of patients asked for it but she didn't prescribe it at all; it had possible serious side effects. Clear toenails were not worth the health risk.

Drugstore cures hadn't worked for me. On the Net I found some home remedies: vinegar-and-water soaks and then Vicks VapoRub ointment on the nails before bed. Last winter's nightly applications from November through March changed nothing.

Another home remedy sometimes mentioned was "tea tree oil," an all-purpose antiseptic drawn from an Australian plant (Melaleuca alternifolia). I'd have to apply it daily (preferably twice a day) for months. It was all hearsay whether it worked or not; nobody had proof. This fall, at the natural-foods store I grabbed a 2-ounce brown-glass bottle of 100 percent tea tree oil and at the register was stunned when the cashier rang up $26.

Took it home and began to apply a 50 percent oil/50 percent water dilution with a cotton swab every morning and night. Decided to keep a photographic record of my feet for 5 months. Tell me what you think.

Online discussions warned that tea tree oil at full strength might burn the skin or cause an allergic reaction. They also said the small nails would clear much faster than the big ones (duh). Others argued that tea tree oil couldn't eliminate toenail fungus at all. After I bought the bottle I committed to applying the oil daily. It smells strongly, like camphor or Vicks. I found it didn't irritate my particular skin, and from then on applied it directly, full strength now, to the nails once a day after showering and using a soapy scrub brush on my feet.

Feet November 1

Feet November 21

Feet January 15

I left the tiny trace of polish on the right big toe in order to track toenail growth.
I left the tiny trace of polish on the right big toe in order to track toenail growth.

Feet, February 15

Feet February 15
Feet February 15

Feet, March 14

My Conclusions: After 5 Months

  • DON'T POLISH. Yellowing and superficial scratch damage was at least in part from colored nail polishes and removers, and when I stopped those my natural pink toenail color came back.I'll use clear polish (maybe with french tips?) for sandal season.
  • SCRUB FEET AND TOES WITH A BRUSH. This made a big, big difference. It is now my habit.
  • DON'T CUT NAILS TOO SHORT. Cutting the nails to the quick, or rounding the corners, encourages ingrown toenails, which are unhealthy and trap dirt. Grow them out a bit.
  • WASH YOUR SOCKS inside out to give feet a cleaner environment.
  • SHOES AND SLIPPERS MUST FIT. If feet are sliding around in your footwear your toenails will receive trauma with every step. That's what I think happened to my right big toe, which had been coming along so well until March.I slogged around for a week in too-big sneaker clogs and that nail began to hurt. I don't think the discoloration beneath the nail is fungus. I think it's a bruise!
  • MY NAILS DON'T CRUMBLE ANY MORE. I don't know why, but I think brushing them helped a lot.

Did Tea Tree Oil cure my toe fungus? I don't think so. But this experiment made me much more aware that I can't neglect my feet or just hand them over for salon pedicures and expect them to be and look naturally healthy.


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