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It's certainly not cute or glamorous, and can even be downright embarrassing, but nail fungus happens. Nail fungal infections — technically called onychomycosis; say that three times fast — actually occur in 10 percent of the general population, 20 percent of people older than 60 years old, and 50 percent of those older than 70, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians.
What Causes Nail Fungus?
Onychomycosis happens when cuts or cracks in the skin allow for fungi to get between the nail and skin, causing an infection, explains Lucy Chen, M.D., a dermatologist at Riverchase Dermatology in Miami. On top of infection, you can also experience discoloration, thickening, and separation from the nail bed. (Related: How to Strengthen Your Nails)
Unfortunately, the simple truth is that everyone is exposed to the microorganisms that cause these infections, says Dana Stern, M.D., a New York City-based dermatologist and nail health expert at Nu Skin. So, why do some people develop full-on nail fungus and others don't? "The causes are multi-factorial but some of the more common factors that put you at risk for fungal infections include older age, diabetes, suppressed immunity, poor circulation, excessive sweating, and irregular growing nails," notes Dr. Stern.
The Most Common Types of Nail Fungus
The most common type of nail fungus is known as distal subungual onychomycosis, and is caused by a fungi known as a dermatophyte, says Dr. Chen. It can show up on fingernails or toenails, and manifests as a yellow-ish area on the nail that can ultimately lead to splitting, crumbling, or even separation of the nail from the skin as it gets worse, she says. It's also worth noting that this is the same fungi that causes athlete's foot, a fungal infection that can spread from the skin to the nail, adds Dr. Stern.
White superficial onychomycosis is the second most common; it leads to white spots on the surface of the nail, which can ultimately spread to resemble a white chalky powder covering the entire nail, says Chen. (Related: What It Means If You Have Peeling Nails (Plus, How to Fix Them))
How to Prevent Nail Fungus
Even though the fungi responsible for these nail infections are pretty much everywhere, there are a few universal things you can do to aid in prevention. Both derms warn that it's important to be cautious at the nail salon. "A client with fungus can spread it to other clients if proper disinfection precautions aren't followed when it comes to porous tools such as emery boards and toe separators, as well as pedicure footbaths," says Dr. Stern.
Not picking at your nails is also paramount, as well as wearing footwear in wet communal areas, such as locker rooms and swimming pool decks, points out Dr. Chen. And since most fungal infections of the toenails start with a fungal skin infection that spreads to the nail, it's important to protect the skin. (If you're looking for protective, waterproof footwear for gym showers or for wearing around a hotel pool, shop this guide of outdoor sandals.)
The Best Nail Fungus Treatments
And if you do end up with a nail fungal infection? The bad news is that it can be challenging to completely banish it; the infections are often persistent and even if they are effectively treated, can often have high recurrence rates, explains Dr. Stern.
The other tricky part is that the infection needs to be diagnosed properly, and comparing your nail situation to your Google search isn't the way, she says. Not every nail problem is caused by a fungus — some conditions may appear similar, such as nail psoriasis and nail trauma, according to the American Academy of Dermatology Association. Derms have the expertise to determine what's causing your nail problem and to recommend the right treatment, including various oral and topical medications that could be highly effective.
While it's best to get a diagnosis from a professional, if you are traveling or simply don't have time to book an appointment with your derm right now, there are many over-the-counter anti-fungal ointments and creams that can treat fungal nail infections, says Dr. Chen. The catch? If you don't see improvement after two months for fingernails or four months for toenails, see a dermatologist, advises Dr. Stern.
Ahead, six of the best nail fungus treatments, according to experts and customer reviews. (Related: The Best Nail Strengtheners for Brittle, Weak Nails, According to Experts)
Best Overall: Ariella Nail Fungus Treatment for Toenail and Fingernail
No matter whether you're trying to treat your fingernails or toenails, this Amazon fan-favorite nail fungus treatment will do the trick. Shoppers repeatedly rave about how it's out-performed many similar products they've tried and how easy it is to use. To that point, it touts a super convenient and mess-free brush-on applicator, and the liquid formula dries very quickly. The brand promises you'll see results in 2-4 weeks, and recommends applying the treatment 2-3 times per day to help eliminate discoloration and strengthen nails.
One reviewer wrote: "This is the only product that has worked on a nail fungus I've struggled with since high school. After decades of covering it with acrylic toenails, I decided to attack this at its roots. The pen-style allows easy application of the product. It also absorbs quickly into to the nail."
Best Multi-Purpose: Kerasal Multi-Purpose Nail Repair
Amazon's choice for "nail repair," this one-stop-shop can not only help treat fungal infections, but it's also ideal for addressing any type of nail damage or discoloration — be it due to one too many gel manicures, aging nails, or just general brittleness. It needs to be used twice a day for the first week, and then once a day thereafter, but the formula is clear and odorless, so it's easy to discreetly use no matter where you might be "working from home" these days. Plus, it's earned more than 2,000 five-star ratings from Amazon shoppers who swear it works.
"I bought this for a nail that has had fungus for 20 years," reported a shopper. "Nothing has worked to clear it, and I’ve tried almost everything. I’ve been using this for two weeks, morning and night. It’s working!"
Best for Toenails: Fungi-Nail Anti-Fungal Ointment
"This is one of my favorites because it relieves symptoms such as burning and itching, and also restores the skin under the nail and around the cuticle," says Dr. Chen. "It's also very easy to use and won't break the bank," she adds. It touts Tolnaftate 1%, a clinically proven anti-fungal active ingredient, to cure and prevent infection, as well as five essential oils — tea tree oil, aloe vera, eucalyptol, olive oil, and lavender — to restore skin health. (Related: What Are Essential Oils and Are They Legit?)
"My nail was cut in a pedicure, causing my nail to get fungus," shared a customer. "This stuff cleared it right up. My nail fell off and grew back healthy. Worked and quickly in about a week."
Best for Fingernails: Dr. Remedy Anti-Fungal Caress Cuticle Oil
Applying cuticle oil daily is arguably one of the best (and easiest) things you can do to keep your nails both healthy and hydrated. And this one goes above and beyond the call of duty, thanks to the inclusion of undecylenic acid, an ingredient to help treat and even prevent fungal infections from starting. The other nice thing? The formula can even permeate polish, meaning you can apply the oil even if your nails are painted. (Related: The 10 Best Cuticle Oils, According to Experts)
"This is one of my favorite products from Remedy Nails," raved a fan. "I've suffered from toenail fungus for years and tried many products. This has been the only one I've had success with. I love using it on my fingernails as well. My cuticles look healthy!"
Best Natural: Healing Solutions Tea Tree Essential Oil
If you're in search of a totally natural nail fungus treatment option or just an easy at-home remedy, Dr. Chen suggests tea tree oil. Naturally anti-fungal, "it's been studied to be just as effective as clotrimazole, the active ingredient found in many over-the-counter fungal treatments," she says. You never want to apply an essential oil directly to the skin (since it can cause irritation or an unwanted reaction), however, so dilute it with a carrier oil (olive or jojoba are both good options), before dabbing it onto the nail and surrounding skin. This tea tree oil, specifically, has more than 10,000 five-star ratings on Amazon, so it's a total no-brainer.
One reviewer said: "I bought this to combat nail fungus. I've had it for years. No matter what I used, nothing made a dent. This was true until I tried tea tree oil. In a matter of days, my nails have started to clear up!! Highly recommend."
Best Alternative: Vicks Vaporub Ointment
Yes, you read that correctly. Vicks VapoRub is often mentioned as an effective nail fungus treatment because of both the active and inactive ingredients it contains. says Dr. Stern. "Thymol, menthol, camphor, and oil of eucalyptus have shown efficacy against dermatophytes in a lab setting," she explains. The caveat? If you're using this (or any other type of alternative) regularly and not seeing any improvement after two months for fingernails or four months for toenails, see a dermatologist, she advises. (Related: Amazon Shoppers Say This $4 Nail Treatment Makes ‘Paper Thin’ Nails Longer and Stronger)
"I bought this after watching a YouTube video about using Vick's for toenail fungus — so it was a good deal to get these here," noted a shopper. "It seems to be working, but it's only been one month and the videos say it could take more like three. The only thing is it's greasy and messy, so you have to wrap your toe to not get it everywhere."