Posted on by Catherine Omondi

If you have a nail fungus infection and have picked up an over-the-counter toenail fungus treatment, you’re probably wondering how it works to treat the stubborn nail infection. See, these treatments are not some magic potion. They work because they contain a combination of ingredients that kick the fungus to the curb. There are four main ingredient categories that these treatments contain, and they team up to get rid of the fungus infection. These ingredients are:

  1. Antifungal agents
  2. Penetration enhancers
  3. Keratolytic agents
  4. Moisturizers and nail conditioners

Let’s discuss these ingredients in more detail to uncover the science behind these game-changing nail fungus treatments.

1.    Antifungal agents

Antifungal agents are the heavy hitters of any nail fungus treatment. These ingredients go straight to the fungus and take it down to restore order to your nails. They contain potent chemicals that target the fungus’ cell membrane and interfere with its structure. These chemicals break down the membrane, weakening it and ensuring it can’t survive anymore. This process allows your body’s natural defenses to destroy the fungus.

There are different types of antifungal agents out there, each with its way of getting the job done. Some antifungal ingredients you might read on the packaging of your non-prescription nail fungus treatment include clotrimazole, terbinafine, ciclopirox, or Undecyclenic acid. These potent antifungal agents work wonders to get rid of the toenail fungus.

2.    Penetration enhancers

Another category of ingredients present in nail fungus treatments is penetration enhancers. These ingredients help the antifungal agents get to where they need to go. They are added to nail fungus treatments to help active ingredients penetrate deep into your nails to where the fungus is hanging out. You see, nails can be pretty tough barriers to break. If the nail fungus is underneath, the nail itself is a protective barrier that makes it harder for antifungal agents to attack. That’s where penetration enhancers come in. They soften your nails, making them more permeable and allowing the antifungal agents to slip through and do their job.

A popular penetration ingredient you might read on the label of your nail fungus treatment is urea. It has a knack for softening up nails, making it easier for antifungal agents to get to the source of the problem.

3.    Keratolytic agents

Keratolytic agents in nail fungus treatments are the cleanup crew. When nail fungus attacks, your nails get thick and gnarly due to the accumulation of keratin debris under the infected nail. Keratolytic agents break down all that buildup, clearing the way for the antifungal agents to work effectively. These agents soften and dissolve the tough, thick layers of keratin under the nail. By getting rid of this buildup, they make it easier for antifungal agents to reach the fungus hiding underneath.

Think of it like this: if antifungal agents are the soldiers fighting the fungal infections, penetration enhancers are the spies sneaking them into the battlefield, and keratolytic agents are the ones clearing away the rubble so the treatment can get through. Urea is an example of a keratolytic agent that softens the keratin layer without being too harsh on your nails.

4.    Moisturizers and nail conditioners

Moisturizers and nail conditioners keep your nails healthy and strong while the other ingredients fight the fungus. They are the nourishing vitamins for your nails. When you are dealing with a stubborn fungus, your nails take a beating. They become dry and brittle. Moisturizers and nail conditioners hydrate and nourish the nails, keeping them in tip-top shape. They prevent them from breaking so your nails can heal faster. Moisturizers and nail conditioners restore flexibility to your nails, strengthen them, and make them more resilient to fungal attacks.  By supporting your nail’s natural defenses, these ingredients ensure your nails are healthy and strong. This ensures your nails are better equipped to fight off the infection and recover without damage.

Some of the moisturizers and nail conditioners you might see on the treatment label include jojoba oil, almond oil, or vitamin E. These ingredients are known for their nourishing and hydrating properties, making them perfect for restoring the health of your nails.

How to maximize the effectiveness of nail fungus ingredients

While these four main ingredients are very effective at getting rid of nail fungus infections, there are certain things you can do to maximize their effectiveness. They include:

1.    Maintaining clean and dry nails

Fungus loves warm, damp environments. Dirty and moist nails make it difficult to treat the nail fungus infection. That’s why it’s crucial to keep your nails clean and dry when using nail fungus treatments. Dirty nails can inhibit the effectiveness of the medication, making it harder for active ingredients to penetrate the nail and do their job.

So, how do you keep your nails clean and dry? Wash your feet regularly, especially before applying the treatment. After washing, thoroughly dry your feet before applying the toenail fungus treatment.

2.    Thinning thick nails with a nail file

Thick nails can act like a barrier, preventing the treatment from reaching the fungus hiding underneath. That’s where a trusty nail file comes in. By gently filing down the thick nails, you create a smoother surface that allows the treatment to penetrate more effectively.

Here’s how to do it: grab a nail file and gently file down the nail’s surface, focusing on particularly thick or overgrown areas. Be sure not to go overboard – you don’t want to damage your nails in the process.

3.    Consistent application

Consistency is essential when treating nail fungus. Fungal infections can be stubborn. Even if it looks like the fungus has cleared up, it’s important to keep applying the treatment as directed. Skipping doses or stopping treatment early can give the fungus a chance to return. Keep applying the nail fungus treatment regularly, even if it seems like the fungus has gone into hiding. And always follow the instructions on the label.


Knowledge is power, especially when it comes to taking care of your nails. By understanding how these toenail fungus treatments work and why each ingredient is essential, you are taking control of your nail health and giving yourself the best chance at success. Armed with this knowledge, you can now use the treatment confidently, knowing exactly what you are putting on your skin and how each ingredient works. With consistency, diligence, and some know-how, you’ll be on your way to healthier, happier nails in no time.