A longstanding rumour among those who suffer from fungus-ridden feet contends that over-the-counter Vicks VapoRub has a hidden podiatric power: it allegedly cures toenail fungus.
A 2009 piece from the New York Times backed up the unwittingly miraculous cure, citing one study that noted how one of the ointment’s active ingredients, thymol, had unforeseen anti-fungal qualities. Herbal medicine enthusiasts probably relished the scientific validation, because thymol is a chemical compound found in the oil of the common household herb thyme.
Perhaps owing to the insignificance of toenail fungus in light of other, more pressing health matters, the intrigue around this alleged cure still stands. And the question obviously remains: does it actually work?
What did the New York Times article say?
Researchers have been studying the effects of the herb, thyme, on curing toenail fungus — a condition that, while not normally harmful, eats up an expectedly large portion of Americans’ medical bills every year. Over-the-counter medications for eliminating nail fungus are plagued with drawbacks: They’re expensive, don’t have great results, and have a whole slew of side effects. Here’s what The New York Times had to say in 2009 about the research surrounding the use of herbal remedies such as thyme to treat dermatophytes — a common type of fungi that humans contract from contact with other humans, animals, and soil.
In one study, scientists tested the antifungal effects of the ingredients in a generic medicated chest rub. Of the seven ingredients, thymol was among the most effective at inhibiting the growth of dermatophytes that cause nail fungus. Other studies in animals have also shown thymol oil to be effective against dermatophytes. And studies have also shown that thymol oil destroys another cause of nail fungus, Candida, by disrupting its cell membranes and metabolism.
Does the rest of the podiatry world believe it?
Not exactly. There isn’t enough of a scientific literature directly applied to the use of Vicks VapoRub and thymol to make a definitive conclusion as to whether it will help your toenail fungus. It’s likely that your podiatrist won’t advise you to use it for this purpose.
Writing for Podiatry Today in 2016, Tracey Vlahovic looked at one of the more influential studies in the area, deducing that there just isn’t enough evidence to support this specific ointment as a good treatment.
Time will tell if this ointment truly can eradicate fungus or, by virtue of its ointment properties, simply creates a more hydrated nail unit that gives the appearance of a healthier nail.
Additionally, Dr. Christopher Hull, a dermatologist at the University of Utah, recently claimed the remedy “probably won’t help. But it won’t hurt anything either.”
Hull went on to explain why topic treatments usually don’t do much:
There’s a lot of those things out there. A lot of people use vinegar, tea tree oil. The hard part with any of these topical medicines is they don’t penetrate the nail unit very well. So getting them, actually, to the fungus in the nail unit is very difficult. And that’s why a lot of the prescription topical medicines have such limited effects.
The best course of action is take whatever anti-fungal drugs your doctor recommends. There might not be an exciting over-the-counter cure sitting in your medicine cabinet, but at least your doctor can prescribe a drug that will.
This story was originally published in 2009 and was updated on December 11, 2020 with more complete and current information, and to meet Lifehacker style guidelines.