Are Garra Rufa Fish Pedicures Safe?
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.
Fish Pedicure Hits US Salons
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 have a garra rufa 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.
Please be aware that any information given in this article should in no way be used to replace advice given to you by your medical practitioner. Anybody suffering from a medical condition or who is at all concerned should always consult their podiatrist or doctor before booking a fish pedicure appointment. Anyone who is elderly, suffering from diabetes or circulatory problems should always have their feet cared for by a qualified podiatrist or medical practitioner.
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