There’s the rub

Dear Lucy: Is it safe to use Vicks VapoRub daily for many months to try and cure a toenail fungus? I’ve seen lots of lay literature talking about this as a home remedy for toenail fungus; however, I could only find one scientific article. This article didn’t mention doing bloodwork or otherwise confirming the safety of the product when used in this off-label fashion, and it also was not a blinded, controlled study. 

And how about the safety of other home remedies, such as soaking feet in vinegar or Listerine daily or twice daily for 10–30 minutes?  —Vic

Dear Vic: Lucy gets a surprising number of questions about toenail fungus—testimony, no doubt, to the ubiquity and persistence of the condition. Fortunately, Lucy is blessed with an equally persistent answerer of such questions, Allison Larson, MIT Medical’s valiant dermatologist. 

Larson undertook a limited literature search in response to this question but tells Lucy she could find no other mentions of Vicks VapoRub as a treatment for toenail fungus. “As your letter-writer mentions, this one study is not a controlled experiment,” she notes. “It also included only 18 subjects, a very small number.”

Her conclusion? The study doesn’t tell us much about whether Vicks VapoRub is effective against against toenail fungus. But, Larson tells Lucy, whether it works or not, it won’t hurt you. “As a topical treatment,” she says, “Vicks VapoRub can be used safely on the skin of the feet, on toenails, and elsewhere.”

As for the other home remedies you mention, while Larson can’t comment on their efficacy, neither vinegar nor Listerine is likely to be unsafe. “Dermatologists sometimes recommend vinegar soaks, diluted about 1:8 in water, to treat foot infections,” she explains. “However,” she adds, “vinegar can be irritating when used on thinner or more sensitive areas of skin.”

As for Listerine, Larson tells Lucy that she has no specific information about its irritant capacity. “But,” she notes, “since it’s predominantly alcohol, I imagine it would cause a burning feeling on open skin but otherwise be fine.”

Although Lucy gets a number of questions on this topic, she thanks you for an unusually interesting entertaining one and hopes you’ll report back on your experience with any of the home remedies you try. Good luck!  —Lucy

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