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Are Garra Rufa Fish Pedicures Safe?

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Cynthia is an administrator, has a degree in Business, Economics, & History, and is a qualified Hypnotherapist. She loves to write & travel.

Doctor Fish Nibbling Feet

Doctor Fish Nibbling Feet

My Introduction to Fish Foot Spas

As I was ambling down my local High Street the other day, I saw a sign advertising Garra Rufa fish pedicures. As I hadn’t heard of a fish pedicure before, I went over the road and peered in the window of the beauty salon where there were two large fish tanks sitting in the window filled with tiny, silverfish and bubbling water, with wooden benches on either side. The sign said that you could either pay for a fifteen-minute session or a twenty-five-minute session, and the idea of sitting and relaxing with my feet immersed in the cool water while the tiny fish nibbled away at all the dry skin and calluses was very appealing.

However, a few days later I mentioned that I had seen a salon that offered fish pedicures when I was having lunch with some friends, and instantly there were looks of horror and howls of ‘No, don’t do that, it’s dirty’ and ‘You’ll get someone else’s athlete’s foot!’. This reaction was not the one that I had been expecting, as I had happily been picturing a girl’s morning out at the fish foot spa followed by a spot of lunch, so I returned home to do what every writer does best—do some research on the internet to find out whether or not having a Garra Rufa fish pedicure was safe?

What Is a Fish Pedicure?

So what exactly is a Garra Rufa fish pedicure? Many people are concerned with how their feet look and feel, especially during the summer months, when we want our feet to look their best in sandals and open-toed shoes. A traditional pedicure and foot pampering session involves trimming and filing the toenails, painting the nails with nail polish and the removal of dry skin and calluses from the soles of the feet and heels with tools and moisturising cream.

An alternative and novel way of removing this unsightly and uncomfortable dead skin came about when it was discovered that the tiny silver Garra Rufa fish would happily nibble away at the dry skin on people’s toes and feet, and leave any rough skin very efficiently exfoliated. It is also thought that having one can also help to soothe skin conditions on the feet and ankles such as psoriasis and eczema.

So what does having one feel like? People have reported that when the fish are nibbling your feet that it feels like a light massage and that the sensation is very relaxing. Garra Rufa fish are also known as ‘doctor fish’ because of their strange appetite for snacking on people’s dead skin, but they are actually a species of toothless carp that are native to the Middle East, being found in river basins in Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq. They have to be encouraged to nibble on dead human skin and this is usually done by not providing enough food or feeding the fish erratically.

Where Did Garra Rufa Fish Pedicures Start?

The doctor fish were first put to work in Japan when a fish spa resort was created in Hakone in 2006. Fish foot spas swiftly opened up in other countries such as China, Croatia, Hungary, Spain, France and Hong Kong. The first ones were opened in the US in 2008 in Virginia and the first fish foot spa opened here in the UK in Sheffield in 2010. However, I also discovered that fish pedicures have now actually been banned in 14 US states and some Canadian Provinces and that the Health Protection Agency in the UK has been investigating the safety of fish foot spas in beauty salons. So what are the dangers of having a group of friendly Garra Rufa fish nibbling at your feet, and removing all that unsightly dead skin?

Dangers of Garra Rufa Fish Pedicures

Most of the concerns raised seem to be overusing the same group of Garra Rufa fish working on the feet of multiple clients, as it is thought that diseases could be passed between people through any open wounds on the feet and ankles. In the US there are very rigorous health and hygiene standards that must be met by licensed beauty therapists when working with their clients, and one of them is that any tools or implements used in a beauty treatment must be disposed of or sterilised after every treatment. As you cannot effectively sterilise or cleanse the mouths of living Garra Rufa fish, and it would be far too expensive to provide new fish for every client, it is argued that the fish pedicures do not comply with the regulations. There have also been fears that some salons are not cleaning the tanks effectively or frequently enough.

If You Want a Fish Pedicure, What Should You Look For?

However, it is still perfectly legal to enjoy a Garra Rufa fish pedicure in the UK, and it is important to note that so far the Health Protection Agency has not discovered any cases of infection being passed on in fish foot spas. So what do you need to check out before you hand over your money and your feet to a beauty salon with a fish foot spa?

What to Look for in a Fish Pedicure Salon

  • The general look and feel of the beauty salon. If it looks grubby or not that clean, then it is probably not a good idea to put your feet into their fish tank.
  • The cleanliness of the tank. If the water in the tank does not look clear and fresh or if the fish do not look healthy, don't put your feet in. Some salons keep their fish in tanks with ultraviolet filters that help to keep the water fresh.
  • Check whether the salon has a policy regarding people who have fungal foot infections, as ideally they should not be offering fish pedicures to customers who do have fungal infections on their feet and each customer’s feet should also be cleaned before they are placed in the tank.
  • There are also beauty salons that provide each of their clients with a separate tank to put their feet in, which should be more hygienic than having one, large communal tank.

There are also services available in some countries where they deliver a tank of Garra Rufa fish to your home so that you can rent the tank for one or two weeks for a fee and have the chance to really get your feet looking smooth and well moisturized.

Would You Get in a Bath Full of Eels?

Since the height of their popularity in 2011, fish pedicures are no longer available in so many top spas and beauty salons, partly because of the publicity surrounding some of the potential health problems associated with them. However, some salons still feature them and you can find them at some music festivals and fairgrounds. You should probably be more wary of these traveling or 'pop-up' fish pedicure tanks, as they may be able to more easily avoid regulation and not follow all the health and safety regulations.

But astonishingly, a new way to exfoliate your skin using fish is heading to our shores from China. In this new beauty 'treatment,' you immerse your whole body into a tank of water full of slender, pencil-long eels that nibble away all your dry skin. However, along with all the potential infection risks, such as HIV and Hepatitis C, you might be laying yourself open to bigger risks than you would with Garra Rufa fish pecking at your feet. The eels potentially pose an even bigger, very painful threat. In China, there has already been a case of a man who got into a tank of exfoliating eels, only for one of them to find its way into his urethra and then travel up into his kidney. The man suffered excruciating pain and had to undergo a three-hour operation to remove the eel.

So if you are tempted to try this new treatment to improve the smoothness of your skin, make sure that the salon or spa you are going to attend has followed all the guidelines and regulations issued by the Health Protection Agency. Also, wear some close-fitting swimwear!

Would You Do a Fish Pedicure?

I have to say that I am now very unsure about whether I am still happy to have a Garra Rufa fish pedicure. There is still a part of me that would like to try it and experience tiny fish nibbling at my feet rather than having to rub away with a pumice stone, but I have been put off by some of the reports that say that fish foot spas are dirty and can spread infection. Like any health or beauty procedure, it really pays to check out the beauty salon or health spa that you are thinking of going to and questioning them about their hygiene rules and procedures.

Another thing to consider before having a fish pedicure or eel exfoliating treatment is that the fish are living creatures who deserve to live in good conditions and be treated properly. Concerns have been raised as to how these fish are being kept, so you need to ask yourself if you are potentially contributing to cruelty to animals by booking these sessions.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2011 CMHypno


Kris on March 21, 2019:

Me and my friends did this in Cabo and it was amazing. We had our feet washed and examined before the procedure. All of the tanks (4) were clean and the fish looked healthy. We were given a foot massage after. Will do again. Loved it.

pristine on June 05, 2017:

Girlfriend and I did this in Mexico in April. The spa was spotless, the tanks clean and had the special lighting to keep things clean. the Fish - 150 for each of us - in our own seperate tanks. We did 25 minutes. (My feet could easily have stood another hour plus). We had our feet washed and prepared for the fish. This spa rotates the fish, they only do one customer a day at most. The bulk of the fish are "stored" in a comfortable living environment. My colleague is a wound care nurse, so we were especially interested in the science and process. Folks it is no different than when grubs are used medically to remove necrotic tissue in wounds. Yes this tickles a bit, but is very pleasant. I agree though, that the real issue as to whether one should partake would be the cleanliness etc. of the establishment, the fish and tanks.

Alex on December 30, 2016:

My husband and I did the fish spa in South Korea. The place we went was very tidy and the water was clean. The fish were active and looked healthy. We had to soak and scrub our feet with something before we could put our feet in the fishy water. It was actually a really neat experience. No infections or anything after, just super soft skin.

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on October 19, 2011:

Well the health Protection Agency announced this week that they were concerned that Fish Foot Spas could spread hepatitis or HIV, so eeeewwww is probably the right response WriteAngled! Thanks for reading the comment and the shriek!

Krys W from Abertawe, Cymru on October 18, 2011:

Eeeewwwww! The ubiquitous ads about this have always turned my stomach.

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on August 21, 2011:

Thanks for reading about fish foot spas 2patricias - part of me would like to try one, but now that I have done the research I am not so sure!

2patricias from Sussex by the Sea on August 21, 2011:

These fish foot spas seem to have become very popular here in the UK. I have not tried one: I just don't like the idea of fish nibbling at my toes.

Well researched hub - thanks.

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on June 04, 2011:

Hi ethel, these fish foot spas do look seductive, but after doing the research for the article I think that I may give them a miss, as fungal infections are very hard to eradicate. Thanks for reading the hub and leaving a great comment

Ethel Smith from Kingston-Upon-Hull on June 04, 2011:

I have toyed with this. Thanks for the warning. Making an informed choice is important

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on May 31, 2011:

Hi suejanet, so you don't fancy a fish foot spa? Thanks for reading about fish pedicures, I think that you probably just have to be very careful that the salon or spa is looking after the fish tanks properly and is clean and hygienic.

suejanet on May 31, 2011:

I don't think I would want to have this done at all.

Nell Rose from England on May 30, 2011:

Good idea, let me know when you get some time and we will try to get it right this time! lol well me, at least!

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on May 28, 2011:

Simone must have been disappointed, but she hid it really well and did a really great job and the coffee was on HubPages! Maybe we could arrange a social HP not in London? Case1worker is in the Midlands, I'm in Herts so maybe somewhere in middle of where we all live and see who else we can drum up?

Nell Rose from England on May 28, 2011:

Hi, that sounds like a great idea! The trouble was with me, my son was coming back and forth from Wales and I was traveling up to london with him, if only it had been on the same day it would have been perfect. I bet Simone was disappointed though, I wonder what happened to everybody else? But back to the meetup, we will have to arrange something. I will look forward to it!

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on May 28, 2011:

Hi Nell, I think that the fish pedicure could be good if you could afford your own private garra rufa tank at home! Thanks for reading the hub, but like you I'm not quite ready to share my feet with the rest of the world. Yes there was only two of us at the London HubCamp, myself and Case1worker. But we had a great time with Simone, and it was amazing to meet a real hubber and member of HubPages staff for the first time. Sorry you couldn't make it, but maybe we can arrange a hubber's UK social some time, and then I could get to meet you in person?

Nell Rose from England on May 27, 2011:

Hi, I had to read this because I was going to write a similar hub! lol I did exactly the same as you, I walked past a salon in my town and saw it advertised! I thought, 'What?' how does that work then? the first feeling that came to mind was disgust! yuck! I can't think of anything more revolting! lol and as you said, what about cleanliness? who ever came up with this idea, well, let's just say they need to go back to the drawing board! thanks for the explanation of it, I wondered how it worked! cheers nell

p.s. was it really only the two of you at hubcamp? oh my God, I feel terrible now!

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on May 10, 2011:

Hi James, I think that having your feet nibbled by fish in the River Jordan is probably the ultimate fish foot spa, and sitting with your feet in a fish tank downtown will not have the same appeal! Thanks for reading about foot pedicures and glad that you didn't lose a toe to a bigger fish!

James A Watkins from Chicago on May 09, 2011:

Thank you for publishing this interesting article. I have not had an official fish pedicure but a year and a half ago I was standing in the River Jordan and enjoyed an unofficial fish pedicure. It was a strange sensation. I kept hoping a bigger fish wouldn't come along and start taking chunks. But it proved harmless and felt good.

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on May 05, 2011:

Thanks for reading the hub Katie. I think that fish pedicures took their time getting to the UK Katie, so the media have only just recently started running stories on them. Fish pedicures are fascinating, but I think that I would prefer to have new doctor fish that hadn't nibbled on someone else's feet first!

Katie McMurray from Ohio on May 05, 2011:

I had no idea this was still popular. Its fascinating how these little fish remove all the dead skin cells from feet allowing them to be renewed and soft. Some amazing pedicure. I appreciate this health and beauty report. :) Katie

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on May 03, 2011:

Thanks for reading about fish pedicures jamiesweeney, and glad that you found the information useful

jamiesweeney from Philadelphia, PA on May 03, 2011:

Great, Thanks for more information.

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on April 29, 2011:

Hi Alicia, thanks for the kind comment. I'm the same as you - part of me is intrigued by a fish pedicure and part of me is very wary by what I have read!

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on April 28, 2011:

A fish pedicure is an interesting thought - I've never heard of it before. I don't think that I'll ever have one, but it was certainly enjoyable to read about it in your hub!

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on April 28, 2011:

I haven't been brave enough to try the fish foot spa yet Stephanie, but by all accounts it does tickle a bit when those fish nibble away! Thanks for reading about fish pedicures and leaving a great comment

Stephanie Henkel from USA on April 28, 2011:

I'd never heard of a fish pedicure before reading your hub. Very interesting what people will do for the sake of beauty, but it's not for me! It has to tickle too much!

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on April 28, 2011:

No Simone, fish pedicures are no joke! Those little fish really do get to nibble at human feet! Maybe we should have a group visit at the London HubCamp? Hub wisdom and smooth feet - what a deal!

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on April 28, 2011:

Hi Pamela, unfortunately the welfare of the fish does not seem to be high on anyone's priority list, although I believe that Turkey has restricted fishing of Garra Rufu in order to protect them. Thanks for reading about fish pedicures and leaving a comment

Simone Haruko Smith from San Francisco on April 27, 2011:

I saw a reference to these a while back on Ugly Betty- I thought it was just a joke! Very interesting, hehee! Don't think it's quite the thing for me though.

Pamela N Red from Oklahoma on April 27, 2011:

This is really weird. I'm wondering how safe it is for the poor fish. Pretty sure we don't have it yet here in Oklahoma. I'll stick with the regular kind of pedicure.