This weekend, a nail technician suggested that one of her clients give me a call regarding some essential oils. Her client had been recently diagnosed with toenail fungus and was hesitant to use Lamisil due to the number of potential side effects listed in Novartis' advertising. She wanted to know which essential oils were commonly used for fungal infections of the nail. I began to list some essential oils, beginning with manuka, and she cut me short by chirping, "But Dr. Oz says that you should put lavender on your nails because it's really good for toenail fungus."
Dr. Oz, besides being a celebrity, is one of the world's foremost cardio-thoracic surgeons. He's not an aromatherapist, nor, apparently, is anyone on his fact-checking staff. This isn't the first time the Dr. Oz has given confusing information on his television show regarding the use of essential oils, and unfortunately, it probably won't be the last.
Celebrity doctors are generally reliable sources of information on allopathic medicine, but they are often out of their element when it comes to complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). This includes Mehmet Oz, who used to run the fledgling integrative medicine program at Columbia Presbyterian in New York City (and who is quite knowledgable in the areas of energy work and yoga). These physicians are trained as medical doctors, and that is what they do best. They can't possibly know everything about the plethora of CAM remedies available to the public. The media would like us to believe otherwise, and the general public is willing to believe anything they see on TV. Just look at the character of Dr. Pete Wilder on Private Practice, an infectious disease specialist who is also an integrative practitioner. This fictional doctor is presented as an expert on acupuncture, ayurveda, all forms of herbalism, meditation, guided visualization, sound healing, energy work and a few other things I can't remember. Oh, yeah, and he's also a brilliant surgeon.
Physicians like that simply don't exist. Even Dr. Andrew Weil, the closest thing we have to a real-life Pete Wilder (and whom I admire greatly), has made misstatements about CAM therapies. I was annoyed when he advised readers of his newsletter to use daily applications of undiluted tea tree on their infected toenails. (It's never smart to use undiluted essential oils. I've tried it. Tea tree burns like the dickens.) Even Dr. Susan Lark has gotten in on the action, telling her readers to use undiluted thyme or oregano oil prophylactically on their nails, which is far more irresponsible than Weil's advice. Highly phenolic essential oils can and do cause burns.
Getting back to Dr. Oz and lavender essential oil, lavender (Lavandula augustifolia) has been shown to have a moderately anti-fungal effect on Trichophyton rubrum and Trichophyton mentaprophytes, two of nearly a dozen dermatophytes responsible for athlete's foot. Although T. rubrum can infect the nailbeds, T. mentaprophytes rarely does so. Onychomycosis (fungal nail infection) is often caused by other dermatophytes.
Because lavender has shown only moderate effectiveness against one type of dermatophyte that commonly causes onychomycosis, it would not be my first choice essential oil for that application. There are other essential oils that have a broader spectrum of action against nail fungus, and these include manuka (Leptospermum scoparium ct. E. Cape), tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia), thyme (various Thymus chemotypes, notably thymol), oregano (Origanum heracleoticum and other ssp.) and winter savory (Satureja montana).
The best approach to eradicating nail fungus with aromatherapy is to create a blend of several different essential oils in the proper dilution. This might or might not include lavender. The blend needs to be applied patiently and daily to the affected nails and nailbeds. This type of infection is stubborn. Allow a couple months to remove the infection, and 3 to 6 months for the disfigured and discolored nail to completely grow out. I don't advise using nail polish during this period. Allow the healthy new nail tissue to breathe.
Mehmet Oz misled his audience a bit on aromatherapy, and there are probably going to be more than a few consumers who try lavender essential oil with poor results. Don't get me wrong... I'm glad there are integrative physicians out there who are letting the public know that CAM therapies can and do work for many common ailments. I just wish they would do their homework a little better.