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Toenail fungus can turn an otherwise healthy toenail into a discolored, thickened, and cracking one. While fungal toenail infections may be fairly common, this doesn’t mean you should use common household products — like bleach — to treat the infection.

Keep reading to find out why bleach is a bad idea for your toenail fungus, and what doctors recommend you use instead to treat it.

Bleach (sodium hypochlorite) may actually cause toenail fungus to worsen and increase the likelihood of a toenail infection.

According to an article in the Asian Journal of Research in Dermatological Science, use of topical bleach can increase the risks for fungal infections because it can damage the skin and nails. This allows opportunistic fungus to come in through the damaged skin or nail and cause an infection.

Topical bleach warnings

Never apply concentrated (undiluted) bleach to the skin. It can create a painful chemical burn that may require medical attention. Breathing in concentrated bleach fumes can also damage your lungs.

If you do get bleach accidentally on your skin, quickly rinse the bleach away with water.

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What about bleach baths?

Bleach baths are an approach dermatologists may recommend for treating skin conditions such as atopic dermatitis and recurrent Staphylococcus infections on the skin. These involve mixing a very small amount of bleach in bath water — typically a half cup of bleach to a full-sized bathtub of water.

While it’s true that bleach baths may temporarily kill bacteria, fungi, and viruses, the effects aren’t long-lasting and aren’t likely to treat an existing toenail fungal infection.

Bleach bath precautions

You shouldn’t take a bleach bath unless a doctor recommends it. This is because bleach baths can irritate and dry out the skin for people who don’t really need the approach.

Also, the bleach can worsen conditions like asthma. Accidentally drinking bleach can burn the mouth and throat as well as lead to severe stomach upset and bleeding.

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Potential safe uses for bleach

The myth that bleach could treat toenail fungus may be less related to topical applications and more about using bleach to clean other items that could potentially infect the toenails, such as nail clippers or files.

Shoes and socks exposed to toenail fungus can be washed with bleach. Follow the bleach product’s directions for your washer and laundry load size. You can also use bleach-based solutions to clean areas where fungus may grow in your home, such as your shower tiles, bath mats, or floor.

Wear gloves when handling bleach

Always wear gloves when handling bleach and mix any bleach solutions in a well-ventilated area. Don’t mix bleach with other household cleansers — only water.

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Now that you know bleach isn’t an effective toenail fungus treatment, let’s look at some options that are.

Antifungal medications

Most of the time, you’ll need to see a doctor for a prescription antifungal medication, such as terbinafine or itraconazole. These will often involve taking a pill that helps to kill the fungus. Sometimes, you may have to take these pills over an extended time period (12 weeks or more) before you see improvements in your toenail.

However, oral antifungal medications can have potentially severe side effects. A doctor should review these effects with you to determine if this treatment approach is right for you and your overall health.

Laser therapy

If you don’t want to take antifungal medications, or your doctor is concerned with how well they may work, laser therapy is another option.

Laser treatments involve applying a photosensitizing compound to the toenail and exposing the toenail to laser light. This has the effect of killing off fungus or keeping it from multiplying.

Toenail removal/debridement

When a doctor is treating your infected toenail, they may debride the nail or remove the outer most, damaged layers. a professional should do this to prevent further damage to your nail.

In rare instances when the toenail fungus has severely damaged your toenail, a doctor may recommend removing the nail.

Unfortunately, the warm and moist environment inside your shoe can make you vulnerable to fungal infections. When these occur on the toenail, doctors call the condition onychomycosis. Fungal skin infections commonly called athlete’s foot can often affect the foot as well.

One of the most common ways you get a fungal toenail infection is when fungus invades small cracks in your toenail. Some people are at greater risk for this occurring, including those with:

  • circulation problems, especially related to the feet
  • diabetes
  • history of injury, surgery, or damage to the nail
  • impacted immune system function

Preventative steps to take

While you can’t always help your risk factors for toenail fungus, there are some preventive steps you can take:

  • Bring your own sterilized instruments, such as nail clippers, to a nail salon.
  • Keep your toenails short and clean to prevent nail trauma that can lead to cracking. If you have difficulty trimming your own toenails, your doctor may recommend seeing a podiatrist to help.
  • Don’t share personal care items like fingernail clippers or pumice stones with another person.
  • Throw away or treat potentially infected footwear.
  • Wear clean socks and wash socks after use.
  • Wear sandals when walking in a locker room, public shower, or any other places where fungus is likely to grow.

Toenail fungal infections have a high rate of recurrence, even after you’ve treated them. That’s why it’s important to couple treatment measures with preventive ones to give yourself the best chance for keeping your toenails healthy in appearance.

Bleach isn’t a good method for treating or preventing toenail fungus. Bleach can burn the skin and shouldn’t be applied (even in highly diluted amounts) unless a doctor recommends it.

Fungus infections often require oral medications or specialized laser treatments. Even then, the infection can come back.

If you’re concerned about a fungal nail infection, talk to a doctor about the most effective treatments for you.