I Tried The Fish Spa Treatment That's Banned In 15 States

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Review: I Tried The Fish Pedicure Treatment Banned In 15 States

Most people know that beauty fads come and go. As an editor at a beauty magazine—a position I held for ten years—I often had a front-row seat to the madness. I researched (and in some cases tested) at-home chemical peel kits, self-stick eyeliner, peel-off lipstick, and vampire facials.

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But one of the strangest fads to hit the industry had to be the "fish pedicure." In the spirit of having first-hand knowledge to impart to our readers, I decided to indulge in one.

Fish pedicures are believed to have originated in Turkey, Croatia, and other parts of the Middle East, before making their way to the U.S. The idea: Stick your feet in a tank filled with so-called "doctor fish" (Garra Rufa), let them suck off dead skin, and walk away feeling smooth and callus-free. 

In the past, I'd enjoyed regular pedicures, so I hoped that adding fish to the mix would only add to the feeling of pampering—or at least make for a good story. I booked an appointment at a high-end spa in Los Angeles and was looking forward to my adventure.

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The entire experience was shorter and stranger than I could have imagined. Upon entering the salon, I was instructed to roll up my jeans to my knees and wash my feet in a basin filled with room-temperature water from a nearby faucet. I had expected to take a little soapy foot shower (for cleanliness), but it was just plain water.

Next, the technician gave me little elastic paper-type booties (the kind you wear in the hospital) and led me to the fish tanks. Imagine an old-time shoeshine rack where you take 3-4 steps to an elevated seat, and you’ll get the picture. But in place of shoeshine shoe rests, each client had a square Plexiglas tank of about 100 fish that sat a few feet off the floor, just like fish tanks in a Chinese restaurant. I guess the display was designed so other customers could witness the procedure.

I happen to be scared of steps because I've fallen down them a few times and suffered one too many joint injuries as a result. But I cautiously made my way up (couldn't they invest in some handrails or armrests?!) and perched myself on the seat, which was about 5 feet off the floor.

Relieved that I made it up the steps and into the chair without falling or kicking over the tank, I lifted my feet over the tank and was about to put them in one by one. The technician stopped me and instructed me to put my feet together and lower them as one unit into the tank. I looked down. My feet were an inch away from submersion, and the fish were already starting to flock together as if they intended to engulf my feet upon contact.

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Which is precisely what they did. Once my feet were submerged, they were suspended in the tank about 6 inches from the bottom, so the fish had full access. The sensation was an immediate, overwhelming ticklish onslaught of tiny (1” to 2” long) grey fish on my soles, the sides and tops of my feet and—ugh—between my toes. The fish are not biting you, but rather, latching onto your (dead) skin and sucking it off. Every few seconds, I felt a tiny stab, similar to what you feel when you prick your skin with a pin, or you step on a staple.

I suppose there are some who would describe the feeling as pleasantly ticklish or soothing, but I was not one of those people. I closed my eyes and tried to focus on my breathing until the ordeal was over. About 20 minutes later, a little timer signaled that my time was up. I walked over to the rinsing basin and rinsed my feet off, put my shoes back on, and left.

When I got home, the first thing I did was hop in the shower because I felt a little weirded out. As I dried off afterward, I noticed that my feet were very soft and looked baby-smooth... but that they didn't look much different than they did after a regular pedicure. I deemed the fish pedicure a unique experience, but not one that I had any desire to repeat. (People are obsessed with this at-home foot peel that makes dead skin shed off like a snake.)

Reflection—and panic

In the weeks following my session, I talked with friends and colleagues about my experience, and a few asked about the possible health risks. Although I hadn't noticed any negative effects, I started doing some research (something I probably should have done before my appointment) and discovered that many salons had been shut down due to sanitation issues. Eek.

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Although the spa I visited looked nice enough and the tanks certainly appeared clean—they even had air bubblers to nourish the fish and keep the water circulating—I realized that I had no idea how often they actually cleaned the tanks between clients.

My wonder soon turned to concern. I remembered reading about women who’d developed infections of flesh-eating bacteria after they’d had (regular) mani-pedis at salons that didn’t properly sanitize their tools. What if the previous customer had an infectious disease? What if there was mold or other bacteria in the tank? What if the fish themselves transferred other peoples’ germs, bacteria or diseases to me and others?

I was so freaked out that I booked an appointment with my doctor. Thankfully, he assured me that the risk of trouble was pretty low, but he gave me a blood test just to confirm that there wasn't any sign of infection. And a few days later, I was thrilled to find out that he was right: My blood work was perfectly normal.

Still, there's a reason to think twice before opting for this quirky beauty treatment, assuming you can even find a spa that still offers it.

Although the CDC says that there hasn't been any official reports of infections stemming from fish pedicures, 15 states have banned them because of sanitation issues. And then there's the issue of the fish, which are supposedly starved so they'll be hungry enough to eat the skin. Also concerning: Some salons mistakenly use Chinese Chinchin instead of the Garra Rufa fish that are traditionally used in fish spas. What’s the difference? Chinchin fish have teeth and can draw blood.

I don’t know about you, but the thought of 100 miniature Jaws sharks swimming toward my feet doesn't exactly make me feel relaxed and pampered. The next time my feet need a little TLC, I'll happily settle for soaking them in the tub and slapping on some foot cream or spring for a traditional, relaxing pedi.

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This article was originally published at Prevention. Reprinted with permission from the author.