Immaculate Complexion 

I've used tea tree oil to dab on my blemishes for years, and I just saw an advertisement for a toenail polish that contains the oil. I think it's either supposed to prevent or cure toenail fungus. Is this just a bunch of hype or would it really work? My husband has been battling a case since we've been married and we have spent hundreds of dollars over the years for fungal medications that haven't done a thing. He wouldn't be caught dead wearing nail polish, but he'd definitely try plain tea tree oil if you think it might cure the nasty fungus.

—Teri

If only for the entertainment value, you should try talking him into the nail polish. While you may have no success convincing him to wear a couple of coats of Dante's Passion with traditional arguments of individualism and originality, you could always appeal to his altruistic side. Simply point out how much he'd be helping his fellow man by giving all the guys at the gym something to focus on while they're carefully avoiding eye contact in the showers.

An exclusively Australian export, tea tree oil is a centuries-old elixir that has roots in the original remedies of the aboriginal people. The needle-like leaves of this tree were apparently steeped into a tea and sipped by the indigenous Australians for any number of complaints. Today, a greenish-yellow concentrated essential oil is produced by steam distillation of the same foliage from vast plantations.

Countless products now contain the fragrant tea tree oil, including soaps, shampoos, lip balms, creams and lately, nail polishes. Despite its origins as a tea, the actual oil is toxic if ingested, so its primary uses are external. For that reason, the toothpastes and mouthwashes on store shelves are generally not recommended—even though the inherent risk is small. The surging popularity of these products is mostly due to tea tree oil's deserved notoriety as an enemy of bacteria, viruses, fungi and even parasitic insects.

One could say (too easily perhaps) that as an acne treatment, its reputation is unblemished. Applied in the manner you described, a direct dab of the oil has actually been shown to be as effective as benzoyl peroxide, but with fewer side effects. One such effect, the ridicule-inspiring white dots identifying sophomore band members, is gratefully absent. In a similar blemish category, tea tree oil applied to cold sores has been shown not only to speed healing, but to destroy the surface herpes virus particles, possibly reducing transmission to others.

The anguish herpes generates in an adult may only be exceeded by the effect an outbreak of head lice has on a child. But, tingly, eucalyptus-smelling tea tree shampoos are now proving effective against even these mortifying beasts (the lice, I mean, not the children). And for kids, the remote possibility of Koala bear infestation is a trade-off they can live with.

Fungal infections are notoriously difficult to cure, especially when they occur beneath the nails. One double blind and well-controlled study showed that direct application of tea tree oil to nails twice daily had the exact same cure rate as the standard topical prescription cream, though I doubt the nail polish would have the same curative effect since another study found a diluted preparation was much less effective.

Other fungal infections, like athlete's foot, jock itch and ringworm (yes, it's a fungus) also respond well to the essential oil. The mechanism for this seemingly magic cure-all appears to be that tea tree oil bursts open the cell membranes of fungus and bacteria, but why it also works on viruses and external parasites remains unexplained. Still, more findings like these and I might have to retire the biohazard suit I wear when babysitting.

The only real safety concerns are contact dermatitis or allergic reactions, which are surprisingly common. One Australian researcher found about 10 percent of people reacted to tea tree oil when given a patch test. So it's a good idea to test yourself, and certainly your kids, by applying a smidge to a small hidden skin area before using.

Since I cannot actually recommend the nail polish, having your husband try the tea tree oil on his stubborn nail fungus is a great idea. Just make sure that if, like most men, he gets creative and tries to cure his jock itch with the oil, he does a contact allergy test first. I'd hate to see him trade one itch for another and really give the guys in the locker room something to stare at.

Dr. Ed Rabin is a chiropractor practicing at Life Chiropractic Center in Boise. Send closed-toed shoes and health-related questions to theantidote@edrabin.com (on the Web at www.edrabin.com).

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