A fungal infection certainly isn't ideal, but it can happen to anyone. And when you're dealing with these types of skin issues—think ringworm, athlete's foot, jock itch—it's imperative to treat them with an ingredient that's going to work specifically to target the root of the issue (with the guidance of your dermatologist, of course). And in the world of antifungal ingredients, undecylenic acid is one of the most common and effective options out there. Ahead, New York City-based dermatologists Dr. Nava Greenfield and Dr. Morgan Rabach explain how it works, what it can do, and how to use it.
Type of ingredient: Anti-fungal
Main benefits: Prevents and eliminates topical fungus
Who should use it: Individuals with diagnosed fungal skin infections can benefit from using an anti-fungal topical treatment containing undecylenic acid, says Rabach.
How often can you use it: Most over-the-counter products can be applied twice daily.
Works well with: It works well with and is often formulated with zinc. This combination provides a soothing and healing environment for the skin, which can become irritated from a fungal infection, says Greenfield. Rabach adds that combining undecylenic acid with zinc may also help minimize the potentially irritating side effects that the ingredient might cause.
Don't use with: According to Rabach, there's no data showing that it's problematic to use it with any other ingredients.
What Is Undecylenic Acid?
While some might think it's an acid like glycolic or salicylic acid, undecylenic acid is actually a fatty acid, an unsaturated one that's already naturally-found in the body. "It's used as an active ingredient or part of an active ingredient in many topical antifungal treatments," explains Rabach. (Fun fact: It's not just for topical use. It's also found in many oral supplements in order to increase good bacteria in the gut, she adds.)
Benefits of Undecylenic Acid for Skin
As mentioned, it's an antifungal, meaning it prevents and eliminates topical fungus that can grow on skin (often times on the feet and around the toes, or in areas like the groin and under the breasts) as well as the nails. But, how exactly does it do that? "Undecylenic acid works by preventing candida albicans, a yeast that can live on the skin, from morphing into fungus," explains Rabach. It may also have fungicidal activity, which means that not only does it stop the fungus from growing, but that it can actually kill the fungus as well, adds Greenfield.
Side Effects of Undecylenic Acid
Minor redness and irritation may occur and is normal, says Rabach. But if it persists and is accompanied by swelling and/or pain, discontinue using the ingredient, she adds. Greenfield points out that having an actual allergy to the ingredient is also possible.
How to Use It
Like with so many other things, how often you use it ultimately depends on both the particular product you're using and the concentration of undecylenic acid it contains. Your best bet is to always follow directions for any specific product (more on that point in a moment). That being said, as a general rule of thumb, undecylenic acid, can usually be applied twice daily, particularly when it's in a cream formulation, says Greenfield. It should always go on clean, dry skin.
Also worth noting: While the ingredient can work against fungus on both the skin and nails, look at the product you choose carefully. "Many are marketed as 'skin' and 'nail area' fungus treatments, but will only mention in the fine print that they're ineffective in treating fungus on the actual nail in the fine print," says Rabach. "Make sure you read the instructions to ensure you're using your products correctly and that they are effective in treating your condition," she adds. In other words, choose any undecylenic acid product based on the particular area of fungus you're trying to treat.
No matter where you're using it, remember that many times a prescription-strength product is needed to treat these types of fungal infections, says Greenfield. Go ahead and try an over-the-counter version, for sure, but don't be discouraged or concerned if it doesn't get the job done.
The Best Products With Undecylenic Acid
If you're dealing with athlete's foot, try this cream. "This product mixes a high dose of the more tolerable zinc undecylenate with a low dose of undecylenic acid to really fight fungus but provide minimal irritation," says Rabach. She also points out that it rings in at a great price point, and is also available in a powder variant for those who prefer that method of application.
With a 25 percent concentration of undecylenic acid, this is a potent anti-fungal fighter for feet and the area around the nails (though despite the name, it won't work no the actual nail itself). The brush-on applicator makes for easy and mess-free application, as does the fact that it goes on clear, dries fast, and has no odor.
Products such as this one, which use straight up undecylenic acid, can be useful if you find that gentler formulas aren't as effective, notes Rabach. Still, keep in mind that may increase the likelihood of developing irritation at the application site, she adds. And per her point about reading the fine print, despite the fact that this is called a nail treatment, it will only eliminate fungus on the skin around nails.
A spray formula boasting a 25 percent concentration of undecylenic acid, this is easy to apply on larger affected areas. Just keep in mind that the directions for frequency and duration of use differ based on the part of your body you're treating, so, as the doctors said, be sure to read and follow product directions.