Researchers have identified many plants with antifungal activity. This activity can be put to good use in treating fungal skin infections such as athlete’s foot, clinically called tinea pedis. Athlete’s foot is quite common and results in itching, redness, scaling, and vesicles on the skin, especially between the toes. This highly infectious condition can be caused by various types of fungus that invade the upper layers of skin. Although athlete’s foot is more of a nuisance than anything, the fungus can progress to penetrate deeper layers of skin, and affected skin can also become infected with bacteria. Incorporating antifungal herbs into oils or lotions, foot powders, and footbaths can relieve and control the symptoms of athlete’s foot.
Tea tree, garlic and cloves
Three antifungal herbs that have proven effective in clinical trials for treating athlete’s foot are tea tree oil (Melaleuca alternifolia), garlic (Allium sativum) and cloves (Syzygium aromaticum).
Tea tree oil. When used twice daily for a month, a cream containing 10 percent tea tree oil provided significant improvement in symptoms of athlete’s foot when compared to a placebo. There are several commercially available ointments containing tea tree oil, but you can make your own. Simply add 2 teaspoons of tea tree oil to ¼ cup of vegetable oil. Apply this to the affected area one to two times per day. If you experience skin irritation, dilute your solution with another ¼ cup of vegetable oil or discontinue use.
Garlic. Ajoene is an antifungal component of garlic. A cream containing 0.4 percent ajoene was found to relieve symptoms of athlete’s foot when used daily. You can make your own ajoene-containing oil by infusing vegetable oil with garlic. To do this, crush 2 garlic cloves in ¼ cup of vegetable oil and let stand for two to three days at room temperature. Strain out the garlic and apply oil to the affected area one to two times per day. Store the oil in the refrigerator.
Cloves. A tincture of cloves was found effective in treating athlete’s foot. Make a tincture by covering a handful of cloves in about 1 cup of vodka (enough to cover the cloves) in a covered container. Let stand at room temperature for one to two weeks, shaking daily. Alternatively, add 10 drops of clove essential oil to ¼ cup of vegetable oil. Apply to the feet one to two times per day.
Other antifungal herbs
Many easy-to-grow and common garden herbs possess antifungal activity, including rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), sage (Salvia officinalis) and thyme (Thymus vulgaris). Take advantage of their antifungal properties by using them in a footbath or foot powder. To prepare a footbath, place ½ cup of herbs into a pot and fill it with about 2 quarts of water. Cover and simmer for five to ten minutes. Pour this into a basin or washtub large enough for your feet. When the water has cooled enough, sit down, relax, and soak your feet.
Moist feet are more susceptible to athlete’s foot, so keeping your feet dry is important. One way to promote dryness is with a foot powder. Make your own by first using a blender to grind the above-mentioned herbs (rosemary, sage, thyme, or a mixture of them) to a powder. Mix 1 cup of cornstarch, ½ cup of white clay, and 1 tablespoon of your ground herb. Sprinkle this powder on your feet in the morning before putting on your socks and shoes.
Essential oils of lavender, cinnamon bark, lemongrass, thyme, perilla and citron have recently been identified as having activity against the fungi that cause athlete’s foot. You can use these essential oils in a number of ways. To ½ cup of vegetable oil, add 20 drops of essential oil. Smooth this on your feet once a day. Add 5 to 10 drops of essential oil to the recipe above for foot powder or a footbath to give them an extra boost.
Although controlling athlete’s foot should not be difficult, be aware that more serious fungal infections can cause open skin lesions, fever or raised bumps on the skin. If these symptoms are present, or if an infection does not clear up with treatment, a physician should be contacted. Severe fungal infections of the skin can turn serious.
Cindy L. A. Jones, Ph.D., is a biochemist and author of The Antibiotic Alternative (Inner Traditions, 2000) and Herbs for Healthy Skin (Mushroom eBooks, 2002). She also teaches at the University of Colorado at Denver. Her website is