Why Fish Spas Have Already Been Banned In 10 States

Diply 9 Sep 2016

As the weather changes, skin has a way of reacting. As temperatures fluctuate, skin can easily go from smooth and glowing to dry and flaky. Yet it seems that no matter where in the year we are, our feet are always in need of a little care. This leads some style-conscious folks to seek exfoliation to keep their feet clean, soft and refreshed.

To achieve this, some spas are offering a unique treatment. Rather than toil on your feet yourself, they make it possible to stick them in special fish tanks and let the little nibblers take care of the problem for you. On the surface, it seems like you can't lose, because the fish eat away at the dead skin without bothering the healthy skin.

Yet, the process isn't quite as easy as it seems and public health officials are concerned that these "fish spas" may be unsafe for customers. The CDC has stated that over 10 states have banned the practice.

Today, we're going to find out why and help you decide whether trying it for yourself is a good idea.

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First, let's meet the fish responsible.

Dances | Wikimedia Commons

The fish are called Garra rufa and are sometimes known as "doctor fish" because of their supposed ability to treat skin diseases. These are tiny, toothless fish native to Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran where they've picked up their helpful reputation.

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To customers, the process starts as a tickle and ends up feeling like a tiny massage.

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While the tiny fish definitely exfoliate the feet, some proponents of the treatment claim they also improve circulation, reduce foot odor, help with athlete's foot, and alleviate psoriasis and eczema.

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This certainly sounds like an impressive list of benefits worthy of a "doctor fish"

The Beijinger | The Beijinger

However, there's no scientific evidence that the fish can treat any of these problems right now. Until the research comes in, it can only be said that the fish eat dead skin off the feet.

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In particular, doctors are calling the treatment's effects on psoriasis and eczema into question.

Giphy | Giphy

The National Eczema Society and the Psoriasis Association have both said that patients suffering from either problem will only raise their risk of infection by using the fish.

The reason is also a big part of why so many states are keen to ban this practice.

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So what's causing all the worry?

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Part of the problem is that the pedicure tubs are difficult to clean between customers as long as the fish are in them. The fish themselves also can't be properly disinfected without causing them harm.

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This wouldn't be so bad if the fish weren't so expensive.

Ullan Adventures | Ullan Adventures

Some spa owners reported paying the equivalent of $3,837 for about 200 of them. This means salon owners can only afford to use the same fish with many different customers, which health officials argue will increase the risk of spreading infections.

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To make matters worse, not all of the fish on the market are real Gurra rufa.

Garra Rufa Market | Garra Rufa Market

Some spas use a Chinese species of fish known as Chinchin, which is cheaper than the "doctor fish." Unfortunately, the problem is that these fish grow teeth as they reach adulthood, which means they can draw blood and make the threat of infections even worse.

However, there may be a reason the remaining states in the Union haven't moved towards banning the nibblers.

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The risk of infection may not be as high as some officials thought.

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Britain's Health Protection Agency investigated the issue back in 2011 and said the risk of infection is likely to be "very low" if spas "operate good standards of hygiene."

Furthermore, while nail salon foot baths have caused scarring infections in the past, no illnesses connected with fish pedicures have been reported yet.

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However, the HPA also said it's not a good idea for everyone to try the treatment.

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Experts recommended not visiting a fish spa if you have issues with your immune system or an underlying condition like diabetes or psoriasis due to the serious risk of infection.

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The HPA also had some additional guidelines for staying safe.

Giphy | Giphy

They said anyone with cuts or infections on their feet should wait until they're fully healed before trying the treatment. They also recommended waiting 24 hours before using the fish if you just shaved your legs or had them waxed.

However, it's not just the health of customers that have some officials worried about fish spas

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The process can also be unsafe for the fish themselves.

Instagram | @roadkilljill

The Centers for Disease Control reported that the fish are often starved in order to make dead skin seem appealing, which they said might be considered animal cruelty.

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However, this seems to depend on the spa.

Instagram | @fishspaiceland

Some salon owners recognize that there isn't enough dead skin on their customers to satisfy the fish so they supplement their diets with fish food. If you're interested in trying this treatment, that may be a worthwhile question to ask.

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There's also the question of what happens if the fish are released into the wild.

Instagram | @francesca.rose.wilde

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife service have warned that Gurra rufa could threaten American plant and animal life if they find their way into nature.

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