Most treatments for nail fungus do not clear the fungus entirely but can help prevent it from spreading. However, these conventional medications can cause skin irritation and other symptoms, such as ingrown nails.
As a result, some people have turned to natural products, such as tea tree oil, to treat nail fungus.
While tea tree oil does appear to have antifungal properties, its efficacy in treating nail fungus is unclear. As with conventional treatments, tea tree oil can also cause some unpleasant side effects.
This article outlines research on the antifungal properties of tea tree oil. We discuss whether tea tree oil is effective against nail fungus, how to use it, and its potential side effects.
Does it work?
There are very few studies investigating tea tree oil as a specific treatment for nail fungus. We outline the available research below.
Findings from lab studies
Current reseach into tea tree oil as a treatment for nail fungus is sometimes conflicting.
A 2013 laboratory study found that tea tree oil is effective in treating the fungus Trichophyton rubrum (T. rubrum). This particular fungus commonly affects the toenails and can cause athlete's foot.
The study showed that tea tree oil was significantly more effective at inhibiting the growth of T. rubrum than a placebo.
However, the researchers experimented using lab-grown T. rubrum cultures and human nail clippings. It is not clear whether tea tree oil would have the same effects on infected nail tissue in humans.
The researchers also administered the tea tree oil in a nanosuspension. A nanosuspension contains small particles of a drug suspended in water, which makes the drug easier to absorb. It is not clear whether widely available forms of tea tree oil would have the same effects on nail fungus.
Findings from studies involving humans
Two earlier studies investigated the effects of tea tree oil on nail fungus in humans.
A 1994 study found that tea tree oil applied directly to toenail fungus is as effective as clotrimazole cream. Clotrimazole is an antifungal cream available on prescription or from a pharmacy.
A study published in 1999 investigated whether an antifungal cream containing tea tree oil could help manage toenail fungus. The researchers used tea tree oil alone as a placebo. Participants applied either the combination cream or the placebo for 16 weeks.
The combination cream completely cured the nail fungus in 80% of the participants. However, none of the people who used the tea tree alone saw any improvement. This suggests that tea tree oil alone may not be an effective treatment for nail fungus.
The three studies provide varied results regarding tea tree oil's efficacy as an antifungal nail treatment.
Further research is necessary to determine the effects of tea tree oil in humans. Scientists believe that any future research should examine the effects of widely available forms of tea tree oil.
How to use it
A person can apply tea tree oil to a nail using a cotton ball.
Although the research on tea tree oil and nail fungus is unclear, the oil does appear to have some antifungal properties. Some people may, therefore, wish to try it alongside conventional treatments for nail fungus.
Tea tree oil is relatively easy to use. As with conventional medications, a person would likely need to use it daily for several weeks, months, or longer before noticing results.
Always mix essential oils with a carrier oil before applying them to the skin. Doing so helps to dilute the essential oil, reducing the risk of side effects when it contacts the skin. Carrier oils also help to deliver or "carry" essential oils into the skin. Two potential carrier oils include olive oil and coconut oil.
Methods for applying the tea tree oil mixture to the skin include:
- soaking a cotton ball in the oil and holding it against the affected nail for several minutes
- using a cotton swab to apply a layer of oil to the affected nail and allowing it to dry
- adding the oil to a tub of warm water and soaking the affected hands or feet
During treatment, a person should keep their toenails as clean and dry as possible. This includes keeping the nails trimmed.
Tea tree oil can cause several unwanted side effects.
Never take tea tree oil internally. Swallowing tea tree oil can lead to the following serious side effects:
- decreased muscular control
- loss of consciousness
Tea tree oil can also cause side effects when a person uses it topically. The following side effects usually affect the area of skin where the individual applied the oil:
- scaling skin
Parents and caregivers should not use tea tree oil on a child's skin, unless under the direction of a pediatrician.
Other nail fungus treatments
There are a number of nail fungus treatments available in pharmacies and online.
There are several over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription treatments for nail fungus.
Most treatments require several months to take effect. In some cases, the treatment may only help stop the fungus from spreading or getting worse.
Some potential treatment options include:
- the medicated nail lacquer amorolfine
- other OTC medicated topical solutions (e.g., ciclopirox, efinaconazole, and tavaborole)
oral antifungal medications (e.g., terbinafine and itraconazole)
People may also wish to try additional home remedies for nail fungus. Some people claim that the following home remedies might help, although there is little scientific evidence to support these claims:
- applying Vicks vapor rub
- using oregano oil
- applying vinegar or doing vinegar soaks
- placing chopped or crushed garlic on the nails
- soaking feet in a Listerine foot soak
So far, research investigating the use of tea tree oil for nail fungus has provided conflicting results. Further research involving human participants is necessary to determine whether, and to what extent, tea tree oil is effective.
However, tea tree oil does appear to have some antifungal properties. People may, therefore, wish to use it alongside conventional treatments for nail fungus.
People who use tea tree oil should be aware of the potential side effects it may cause. If a person experiences any side effects, they should stop using the oil and consult their pharmacist for advice on alternative treatments.
People who are concerned about nail fungus might consider seeing a doctor who can provide stronger medications to treat the infection. People should be aware that the treatment may take a long time to begin working.