Does tea tree oil for nail fungus work? Or is it a waste of time?

Does tea tree oil cure nail fungus?

May 17, 2023

Tea tree essential oil is a popular essential oil. It’s often diffused for its energizing scent, added to invigorating soaps and scrubs, and it’s even been studied for its skin-clearing potential.

In this post, we’re dissecting one of its uglier uses: treating toenail fungus.

Even if they’re kept hidden away in our shoes, we can’t get away from the fact that fungal toenail infections are very common. They begin as a yellow or brown spot under the tip of the nail, and as the spot spreads and infection goes deeper, the nail thickens and crumbles at the end.

If you notice a fungal infection, you want to treat it before it gets to this point. Could tea tree oil be the solution? Let’s look at whether tea tree oil can treat nail fungus or is it simply a waste of time and product? 

(Warning: you might want to finish your dinner before you read this one!)


  1. What are the claims?
  2. What causes nail fungus?
  3. Is tea tree oil for nail fungus safe?
  4. Does tea tree oil cure nail fungus?
  5. Tea tree oil for nail fungus studies
  6. Conclusion

Tea tree oils 

What are the claims that tea tree oil can treat nail fungus?

Let’s start with a quick overview of the history of tea tree oil for treating nail fungus.

In Valerie Ann Worwood’s The Fragrant Pharmacy (1992), a foundational text in modern aromatherapy, she shares the following recipe for treatment:

    She says to put the baking powder in a plastic bag, add the oils, shake it, and allow it to try. And voila – you have a natural foot power to dust your feet with and sprinkle in your shoes.

    Now you’ll find many articles online recommending different ways to use tea tree oil, such as diluting it in a foot soak or blending it with a carrier oil to be applied directly to the nail.

    You could take these suggestions at face value, but at The Soapery, we believe knowledge is key to knowing what’s worth your time, money, and effort. 

    With that in mind, let’s get into the cause of nail fungus, whether using tea tree oil is safe, and if there’s proof it’ll be effective.

    What causes nail fungus?

    Nail fungus is generally caused by environmental factors, like hot and humid climates, or personal hygiene, such as communal baths and showers. Wearing closed shoes increases the risk of infection too.

    On the science side of things, Trichophyton rubrum (T-Rubrum), a type of fungal infection, accounts for more than 90% of all nail infections.

    Is it safe to treat nail fungus with tea tree oil?

    Is tea tree oil for nail fungus safe?

    Our number 1 safety rule for any essential oil is don’t apply it directly to the skin. This is to avoid reactions like stinging, itchiness and skin irritation

    You should never take tea tree oil internally. If you’re pregnant or are using them on your children, consult with your doctor first.

    When it comes to tea tree oil specifically, Tisserand & Young recommend a maximum of 15% dilution for the skin.

    A bigger cause for concern is leaving the infected nail untreated, or not treated effectively, which can lead to the infection spreading. Will tea tree oil be up to the job?

    Does tea tree oil for nail fungus work?

    In Dr. Maria Lis-Balchin’s The Chemistry & Bioactivity of Essential Oils (1995), she states that the ‘antifungal action’ of Tea Tree Oil is substantial. She refers to several studies on aromatherapy to back up her point, many of which we couldn’t locate.

    And if we’ve learned anything from our previous investigations, it’s that often laboratory findings can’t be easily generalized to everyday use.

    We need to get into the nitty-gritty of specific studies to know what they really tell us about using tea tree oil for nail fungus…

    Tea Tree Oil for nail fungus studies

    These frequently referenced studies look at tea tree oil for nail fungus based on its antifungal properties and compared to other treatments.

    Can you use tea tree oil topically to treat nail fungus? The first study

    1. The antifungal properties of tea tree oil

    This 2013 lab study found tea tree oil was effective at reducing the growth of the fungus responsible for nail fungus, T-Rubrum.

    How many people took part in the study?

    None. The study was carried out in a lab on human nail clippings and lab-grown T-Rubrum fungus. We don’t know whether tea tree oil would have the same effects on humans’ infected toenails.

    Which oil did they use?

    They used tea tree oil in nano-scale capsules and emulsions.

    Did they give a treatment recipe?

    Same as above.

    Unless you’ve got a lab set up in your basement where you can create these nanosystems (in which case, we think you’re very cool), you won’t be able to replicate this study at home.

    How much treatment was applied?

    We’re not sure how much was applied, but the study ran for 14 days.

    KEY TAKEWAY: Although the treatment did reduce fungal growth, it wasn’t carried out on humans, and therefore is low-quality evidence that’s impossible to replicate at home.

    Tea tree oil for nail fungus, the second study

    2. Tea tree oil and butenafine hydrochloride

    At first, this 2002 study seems a little more promising. Participants used a cream combining tea tree oil with butenafine hydrochloride, a common antifungal treatment.

    An impressive 80% of people were cured of nail fungus.

    But there’s a catch. Diluted tea tree oil was also used in a placebo group, and 0% of those people were cured of nail fungus. 

    It’s a classic case of ‘‘was it the essential oil or the other ingredient that had the effect?’’ (our version of the ‘chicken or egg’ debate on the blog).

    How many people took part in the study?

    60 poor souls with toenail fungus.

    Which oil did they use?

    They used tea tree oil in a cream containing Butenafine Hydrochloride.

    Did they give a treatment recipe?

    2% butenafine and 5% tea tree oil - that’s all the details we’ve got.

    How much treatment was applied?

    The treatment was applied three times a day for up to 8 weeks.

    KEY TAKEWAY: This low-quality evidence shows that a tea tree oil treatment may not be effective as typical toenail fungus treatments.

    Is tea tree oil safe for treating nail fungus? The 3rd study

    3. Tea tree oil vs. Clotrimazole

    We’re heading back to 1994 for this study, which compares pure tea tree oil to Clotrimazole, another popular topical antifungal treatment.

    We’ve found a few online articles using this study to claim tea tree oil is as effective as clotrimazole in treating fungal toenail infections. We think they’re using the term ‘effective’ loosely here.

    An underwhelming 18% of participants were cured after 6 months. Worse, 56% of people reported full or partial reoccurrence after the treatment. 

    That’s essentially a year of infected toenails. Not fun.

    How many people took part in the study?

    117 participants desperate to save their toenails.

    Which oil did they use?

    They used 100% pure tea tree oil. Oh dear – remember our number one safety rule!

    Did they give a treatment recipe?

    As above, just 100% pure tea tree oil.  

    How much treatment was applied?

    They applied the oil twice daily for 6 months (now that’s commitment).

    KEY TAKEWAY: it’s never a good idea to use 100% pure essential oils on your skin, not to mention the cure rates were relatively low.

    Does tea tree oil work on nail fungus? Conclusion

    Conclusion: Does tea tree oil work for nail fungus?

    Ultimately, if you apply tea tree oil to your nail fungus it is unlikely to cure it. Instead, we recommend going to the pharmacy or speaking to your doctor using the treatment they suggest.

    Much better uses of your time and tea tree oil include:

    Our organic tea tree oil is sourced by a trusted supplier who is changing the lives of Kenyan farmers. They’re improving the community’s healthcare, education, access to clean drinking water, and much more.

    So while it might not fix your toenail fungus, you can be confident our tea tree oil will have other (better) benefits for you and the farmers who sourced it.

    What’s your favourite use for tea tree oil? Let us know in the comments!

    Leave a comment

    Please note: comments must be approved before they are published.