Clinical Review

Over-the-counter and Natural Remedies for Onychomycosis: Do They Really Work?

Author and Disclosure Information

Onychomycosis is a fungal infection of the nail unit that may lead to dystrophy and disfigurement over time. It accounts for up to 50% of all nail conditions, with toenails affected more commonly than fingernails. Onychomycosis may affect quality of life and increase the prevalence and severity of foot ulcers in patients with diabetes. Available oral agents approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of onychomycosis include terbinafine and itraconazole, which have demonstrated good efficacy but are associated with the risk of systemic side effects and drug-drug interactions. Topical medications that are FDA approved for onychomycosis include ciclopirox, efinaconazole, and tavaborole. These therapies generally have incomplete efficacy compared to systemic agents as well as long treatment courses and possible local side effects such as erythema and/or blisters. Given the need for safe, effective, and cost-effective options for onychomycosis therapy, there has been a renewed interest in natural and over-the-counter (OTC) alternatives. This review will synthesize the laboratory data, known antifungal mechanisms, and clinical studies assessing the efficacy of OTC and natural products for onychomycosis treatment.

Practice Points

  • Natural remedies, including tea tree oil, natural topical cough suppressants, natural coniferous resin lacquer, Ageratina pichinchensis extract, and ozonized sunflower oil, have shown antifungal activities in in vitro studies.
  • Some of these products have efficacy and appear to be safe in clinical studies.
  • Larger randomized clinical trials demonstrating efficacy are required before we can recommend these products to our patients.



Onychomycosis is a fungal infection of the nail unit by dermatophytes, yeasts, and nondermatophyte molds. It is characterized by a white or yellow discoloration of the nail plate; hyperkeratosis of the nail bed; distal detachment of the nail plate from its bed (onycholysis); and nail plate dystrophy, including thickening, crumbling, and ridging. Onychomycosis is an important problem, representing 30% of all superficial fungal infections and an estimated 50% of all nail diseases.1 Reported prevalence rates of onychomycosis in the United States and worldwide are varied, but the mean prevalence based on population-based studies in Europe and North America is estimated to be 4.3%.2 It is more common in older individuals, with an incidence rate of 20% in those older than 60 years and 50% in those older than 70 years.3 Onychomycosis is more common in patients with diabetes and 1.9 to 2.8 times higher than the general population.4 Dermatophytes are responsible for the majority of cases of onychomycosis, particularly Trichophyton rubrum and Trichophyton mentagrophytes.5

Onychomycosis is divided into different subtypes based on clinical presentation, which in turn are characterized by varying infecting organisms and prognoses. The subtypes of onychomycosis are distal and lateral subungual (DLSO), proximal subungual, superficial, endonyx, mixed pattern, total dystrophic, and secondary. Distal and lateral subungual onychomycosis are by far the most common presentation and begins when the infecting organism invades the hyponychium and distal or lateral nail bed. Trichophyton rubrum is the most common organism and T mentagrophytes is second, but Candida parapsilosis and Candida albicans also are possibilities. Proximal subungual onychomycosis is far less frequent than DLSO and is usually caused by T rubrum. The fungus invades the proximal nail folds and penetrates the newly growing nail plate.6 This pattern is more common in immunosuppressed patients and should prompt testing for human immunodeficiency virus.7 Total dystrophic onychomycosis is the end stage of fungal nail plate invasion, may follow DLSO or proximal subungual onychomycosis, and is difficult to treat.6

Onychomycosis causes pain, paresthesia, and difficulty with ambulation.8 In patients with peripheral neuropathy and vascular problems, including diabetes, onychomycosis can increase the risk for foot ulcers, with amputation in severe cases.9 Patients also may present with aesthetic concerns that may impact their quality of life.10

Given the effect on quality of life along with medical risks associated with onychomycosis, a safe and successful treatment modality with a low risk of recurrence is desirable. Unfortunately, treatment of nail fungus is quite challenging for a number of reasons. First, the thickness of the nail and/or the fungal mass may be a barrier to the delivery of topical and systemic drugs at the source of the infection. In addition, the nail plate does not have intrinsic immunity. Also, recurrence after treatment is common due to residual hyphae or spores that were not previously eliminated.11 Finally, many topical medications require long treatment courses, which may limit patient compliance, especially in patients who want to use nail polish for cosmesis or camouflage.

Currently Approved Therapies for Onychomycosis

Several definitions are needed to better interpret the results of onychomycosis clinical trials. Complete cure is defined as a negative potassium hydroxide preparation and negative fungal culture with a completely normal appearance of the nail. Mycological cure is defined as potassium hydroxide microscopy and fungal culture negative. Clinical cure is stated as 0% nail plate involvement but at times is reported as less than 5% and less than 10% involvement.

Terbinafine and itraconazole are the only US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)–approved systemic therapies, and ciclopirox, efinaconazole, and tavaborole are the only FDA-approved topicals. Advantages of systemic agents generally are higher cure rates and shorter treatment courses, thus better compliance. Disadvantages include greater incidence of systemic side effects and drug-drug interactions as well as the need for laboratory monitoring. Pros of topical therapies are low potential for adverse effects, no drug-drug interactions, and no monitoring of blood work. Cons include lower efficacy, long treatment courses, and poor patient compliance.

Terbinafine, an allylamine, taken orally once daily (250 mg) for 12 weeks for toenails and 6 weeks for fingernails currently is the preferred systemic treatment of onychomycosis, with complete cure rates of 38% and 59% and mycological cure rates of 70% and 79% for toenails and fingernails, respectively.12 Itraconazole, an azole, is dosed orally at 200 mg daily for 3 months for toenails, with a complete cure rate of 14% and mycological cure rate of 54%.13 For fingernail onychomycosis only, itraconazole is dosed at 200 mg twice daily for 1 week, followed by a treatment-free period of 3 weeks, and then another 1-week course at thesame dose. The complete cure rate is 47% and the mycological cure is 61% for this pulse regimen.13

Ciclopirox is a hydroxypyridone and the 8% nail lacquer formulation was approved in 1999, making it the first topical medication to gain FDA approval for the treatment of toenail onychomycosis. Based on 2 clinical trials, complete cure rates for toenails are 5.5% and 8.5% and mycological cure rates are 29% and 36% at 48 weeks with removal of residual lacquer and debridement.14Efinaconazole is an azole and the 10% solution was FDA approved for the treatment of toenail onychomycosis in 2014.15 In 2 clinical trials, complete cure rates were 17.8% and 15.2% and mycological cure rates were 55.2% and 53.4% with once daily toenail application for 48 weeks.16 Tavaborole is a benzoxaborole and the 5% solution also was approved for the treatment of toenail onychomycosis in 2014.17 Two clinical trials reported complete cure rates of 6.5% and 9.1% and mycological cure rates of 31.1% and 35.9% with once daily toenail application for 48 weeks.18

Given the poor efficacy, systemic side effects, potential for drug-drug interactions, long-term treatment courses, and cost associated with current systemic and/or topical treatments, there has been a renewed interest in natural remedies and over-the-counter (OTC) therapies for onychomycosis. This review summarizes the in vitro and in vivo data, mechanisms of action, and clinical efficacy of various natural and OTC agents for the treatment of onychomycosis. Specifically, we summarize the data on tea tree oil (TTO), a popular topical cough suppressant (TCS), natural coniferous resin (NCR) lacquer, Ageratina pichinchensis (AP) extract, and ozonized sunflower oil.


Next Article: