Ew! Beauty: How To Prevent And Treat Nail Fungus

Stop this nasty infection in its tracks

Collage photo by David McNew / Staff / Getty Images

Let’s face it: Along with summer’s heat, humidity, and other sweat-inducing qualities comes a ton of gross beauty problems. From dry, cracked feet to ingrown hairs and chafing, there’s a lot that can hold you back from living the confident poolside life you’re destined to lead. But don’t worry—we’re talking to experts about how to fix them. Welcome to Ew! Beauty.

Ah, nail fungus. This nasty looking infection—the culprit behind yellow, split, and crumbly fingernails and toenails—is something no one really wants to talk about, no matter how common it is (very).

Luckily, this relatively harmless (though no less gross) condition can not only be prevented but is also usually pretty treatable too. We chatted with Jin Soon Choi, founder of Jin Soon Nail Spas and Nail Lacquer; Rita de Alencar Pinto, founder of Vanity Projects; and Dr. Mark J. Landsman, podiatrist at Manhattan Podiatry Associates, to get the lowdown on how to prevent and treat nail fungus, so that we can all have happy feet and hands. 

First off, nail fungus is an infection invading the compromised area through small cuts or tiny separations between the nail and bed, caused by different types of fungi and yeast that get trapped and grow under the nails.  

While many people may think fungus is something you only contract at a nail salon, Choi says you can just as easily get it from other sources. “Fungi favor moist, warm environments, so make sure you avoid putting yourself in such conditions,” she says. “Don’t wear damp sneakers after running in the rain, check that any public shower you use at your gym is clean, and never use any dirty towels."

Additionally, according to Pinto, nail enhancements (acrylic or gel overlays) that lift and trap water underneath the nail bed are also a pretty common cause of infection. 

Here are some foolproof tips to avoid contracting nail fungus.

Keep your hands and feet clean
The best way to prevent infection is to always make sure your hands and feet are clean. “You can’t really prevent it, other than following normal hygienic practices,” says Dr. Landsman. “If your feet perspire a lot, change socks midday and use a foot powder to absorb moisture.”

Pay attention at your nail salon 
A nail salon that doesn’t properly clean equipment or perform treatments correctly can leave you susceptible to infection. Both Choi and Landsman recommend being aware of your salon’s sterilization and hygienic practices. 

“Customers should always examine what kind of sterilization equipment a salon uses,” says Choi. “It should be a hospital-grade disinfectant or a medical autoclave. Also, check to see how your technician performs the manicure or pedicure—if it causes pain or the technician is removing too much of your cuticle, they may be exposing you to infection.” Dr. Landsmen stresses that disposable liners should always be used during foot soaks—so if you don’t see one being used, ask for one. 

Dr. Landsman even suggests going so far as purchasing your own nail instruments to bring to the salon with you, and make sure they are always cleaned thoroughly with an alcohol-based solution. If you have acrylic or gel nails, Pinto stresses to be sure to keep up with your appointments every two weeks to avoid lifting and trapped moisture.

Still, sometimes an infection happens. Some people are genetically susceptible to it, while others can’t do much to change their environmental exposure, which can cause the fungi to grow. So, if infected, how does one get rid of it?

Try a homeopathic method
If doesn’t seem too serious at first, there are a number of homeopathic methods that will do the trick. According to Choi, tea tree oil is the best-known homeopathic method. Soaking the nail with tea tree oil has been said to efficiently knock out an infection. Pinto suggests mixing the tea tree oil with clove oil for a more potent effect. If you don't have these oils on hand, Choi says a mixture of water, vinegar, and Epsom salt could also kill the infection.

Visit your doctor to discuss treatment
If a homeopathic method doesn’t work, your doctor can prescribe a topical and oral antifungal medication to clear up the infection. “A prescription of weekly fluconazole given orally should do the trick,” says Pinto.

There are other options available, such as laser treatment (check your local podiatrist for this). However, sometimes the infection is tougher to beat. Dr. Landsman says that while some infections can be easily cured, others are not, and these may require combining multiple methods of treatment knock it out completely. Just remember, prevention is always the best cure, so keep those toes and fingers dry and clean. Nail fungus is one beauty problem nobody wants to combat.