Flesh-Eating Fish: The Good and The Bad

  • By RenewAlliance, Inc.
  • 03 Dec, 2015

Fish spa pedicures are all the rage – but are they safe?

Doctor Fish Feet Pedicure
Dead skin-eating fish called Garra rufa, or "Doctor Fish" are a popular beauty trend.

Flesh-eating fish might sound like something out of a horror film, but they’re now part of a popular beauty trend. Garra rufa are a type of carp commonly referred to as “doctor fish”. A fish spa pedicure involves putting your feet in a footbath with warm freshwater and as many as 100 live Garra rufa fish. The fish nibble away dead, callused skin from your feet. Treatments typically take anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes.

A fish spa pedicure is painless and is in fact quite relaxing. The Garra rufa fish are about the size of minnows and have no teeth, so they cannot bite flesh. When they gently suck on and nibble dry skin, it creates a tingling sensation. The treatment reveals the soft, new skin underneath and makes your feet feel refreshed.

Garra rufa fish come from natural river basins in the Northern and Central Middle East. People in Turkey have long known about their healing properties. In the early 1800s, people in Turkey began visiting springs that contained these healing fish, which are said to be effective in treating eczema and psoriasis.

Fish pedicures have become ubiquitous at nail salons and spas around the globe. The primary form of sustenance for these fish is dead skin, but in some spas, the fish are also fed a special fish food formula as a supplement. 

Due to health risks and potential for spreading infections, many states in the US have banned the use of fish in foot spas.

The Downside of Fish Spas

Despite their worldwide popularity, doctor fish have their fair share of critics. Due to health risks and the potential to spread infections, many states in the US have banned the use of fish in foot spas. The fish may carry bacteria that cause skin and soft tissue infections.
Although the risk of infection is very low, the possibility of fish spa pedicures spreading illnesses like HIV and Hepatitis C cannot be entirely excluded either. People with open sores or skin cuts, an underlying medical condition like diabetes or a compromised immune system should avoid fish spa pedicures altogether. The following are some reasons why fish spas are falling out of favor:

  • Footbaths containing fish can’t be cleaned properly between treatments and the same fish are used multiple times. 
  • The fish aren’t sanitized between treatments, so they can spread infections.
  • The Chinese Chinchin fish is another species of fish that is often mistaken for Garra rufa and used in foot spas – Chinchin fish have teeth and draw blood, increasing the risk of infection .
  • Garra rufa fish may threaten native plants and wildlife if they are released into the wild.
  • In order to get the fish to eat dead skin, they are inhumanely starved.
  • The fish deposit their waste in the water where your feet are soaking.
There have been no published reports in the United States about illnesses arising from fish spa pedicures, but fish-free footbaths at nail salons have been implicated in mycobacterial infection outbreaks, leaving customers with boils and scars. If you want soft, beautiful feet without the health risks or ick factor, your best bet is to treat your feet at home.  
For soft beautiful feet without the health risks, treat your feet at home.
Use sea salt for soaking and a pumice stone for scrubbing your dead skin away.
Soak your feet in warm water for 30 minutes prior to exfoliating so that the dead skin comes off more easily. Use a foot file or pumice stone to scrub the dead skin away. Massage foot cream into your feet and then put a pair of socks on to lock the moisture in. If you do this two to three times per week, you can keep your feet soft and smooth without fish pecking away at your feet.

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