How does a fish pedicure work?


It takes about 150 fish to clean the dead skin from one spa customer.
It takes about 150 fish to clean the dead skin from one spa customer.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Each spring women rush to the spa to get pedicures, so those tootsies look pretty and fresh for sandal season. But pedicures don't just involve getting your toenails painted. They also involve removing dead skin and calluses from the bottom of the foot. This skin can be removed through various methods -- via buffing with a pumice stone or through scraping with a metal foot file or razor. Many salons no longer use the metal scraper due to liability issues, but sometimes the pumice stone just isn't enough.

This is where the fish come in. Yep, we said fish. The fish, called garra rufa fish, or sometimes "doctor fish," actually nibble the dead skin from your feet.

History of the Fish Pedicure

Garra rufa fish are part of Cypriniformes family, found in Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq. Recently, due to fish pedicure popularity, Turkey has taken steps to ensure the fish are not overharvested. It's believed that the people of Turkey have been using garra rufa fish for healing purposes for at least 400 years. Besides the softening effect the fish have on the skin, people began to realize the fish provided relief from conditions such as psoriasis and eczema as well. Repeated doctor fish treatments showed healing for these patients.

Outside of Turkey, Asian countries began exporting the fish and opening salons and spas. Europe began picking up on the craze, and then the first garra rufa fish spa opened in the United States in Alexandria, Va., in 2008. Fish treatments have been popping up in spas all over the U.S. ever since.

The fish are moved from a communal tank to a personal footbath for each customer (each footbath is cleaned and sanitized between customers). About 100 fish go into each footbath at a time. Because no plant or aquatic life can really survive in the warm water in which the fish thrive, the fish have learned to eat whatever's offered to them -- including the dead skin on the bottom of your feet. In the wild, garra rufa survive by sucking the dead scales off other living fish, so perhaps sucking the dead skin off our feet isn't that much different.

Because the fish have no teeth, they are just nibbling and sucking at the dead skin. Without teeth, they can't remove live skin, so you don't have to worry about being bitten.

What to Expect from a Fish Pedicure

Fish pedicures date back hundreds of years.
Fish pedicures date back hundreds of years.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

In the United States, a fish pedicure will run you between $45 to $100, depending on the length of the treatment and what services you purchase along with it. The treatment generally lasts 15 or 30 minutes. Most spas will recommend you come back for regular treatments to get the best results. But many people report seeing and feeling a difference in just one session.

A fish spa treatment from a qualified salon should go something like this:

Once you arrive at the salon and remove your shoes and socks, your feet and ankles will be carefully and thoroughly cleansed and inspected to ensure there are no open cuts or wounds. Next, you'll sit down at your own individual foot spa. Each spa should have its own filtration system that cleans, refreshes and sanitizes the water regularly throughout the day.

Each spa holds about 150 fish or so. Once you dip your feet in, the fish will flock to all the areas on your feet with dead skin. Most people report the initial feeling as very ticklish! Soon after, though, the ticklish feeling usually turns to a feeling of "pins and needles" or a tingly massage. In all the reviews I've read, though, nobody has described the feeling as unpleasant. Most people enjoy it and many describe it as quite relaxing.

After the fish treatment is over, your feet will be rinsed off, and your regular pedicure will continue, with your feet feeling rejuvenated and baby soft.

Fish Pedicure Controversies

Fish pedicures might sound like a win-win situation -- the fish get to eat, and you lose the dead skin -- but they're not without controversy. In fact, in the U.S. fish pedicures are banned in 10 states for hygiene reasons.

Although no infections or illnesses from fish pedicures have yet been reported, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists several reasons why one should be cautious about fish pedicures:

  • Fish pedicure tubs can't be completely sanitized when the fish are present.
  • The fish themselves can't be disinfected between customers, but due to financial constraints, spas can't use new fish for each customer.
  • Chinese "Chinchin" fish are sometimes mistaken for and sold as garra rufa. Chinchin can grow teeth, increasing the risk of drawing blood and infection.
  • Garra rufa are not native to the United States and could cause a threat to plant and animal life if released into the wild.
  • The fish will only eat skin if not provided with any other food, which can constitute as animal cruelty.

Although fish pedicures do remain legal in many states and across the U.K., British and U.S. officials do warn certain people to avoid them:

  • Anyone with open sores or cuts
  • Diabetics
  • Anyone with a compromised immune system (e.g. AIDS or cancer)
  • Those of advanced age

In April 2011, British authorities discovered a bacterial outbreak among some 6,000 fish imported from Indonesia to British salons. The fish were infected with Streptococcus agalactiae (group B Streptococcus), a bacteria that can cause pneumonia as well as infections of the blood, joints and bones. No illnesses were reported.

What do you think? Does it sound fishy to you? Or, would you try it?

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Sources

  • BBC. "'Doctor Fish' Clear Skin Disease." Nov. 21, 2008. (June 2, 2012) http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/england/kent/7741594.stm
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Fish Pedicures and Fish Spas." May 17, 2012. (June 2, 2012) http://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/hygiene/body/fish_pedicures.html
  • Fish Spa Solutions. "FAQs." 2010. (June 2, 2012) http://www.fishspasolutions.com/faqs/
  • Middleton, Christopher. "A Pedicure With 100 Hungry Creatures." Telegraph Weekend. June 19, 2010. (June 2, 2012) http://www.aquasheko.co.uk/telegraph_19_june.pdf
  • Mozes, Alan. "'Fish Pedicure' a Recipe for Bacterial Infection, Researchers Warn." U.S. News & World Report. May 17, 2012. (June 2, 2012) http://health.usnews.com/health-news/news/articles/2012/05/17/fish-pedicure-a-recipe-for-bacterial-infection-researchers-warn
  • MSNBC.com. "Tiny Carp Nibble Your Toes in Fishy Pedicure." July 21, 2008. (June 2, 2012) http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/25783483/#.T8a-VZlYu2A