Think fish pedicures are safe? Think again

On a recent trip to Greece, Dr. Joseph Stern saw a spa offering fish pedicures. He snapped a few snapshots so he could use the images in a lecture on the potential health dangers of the popular beauty treatment.

While soaking your feet in a tub filled with “doctor fish” that nibble off dead skin is quite common in places lke Greece, the Middle East and China, here in North America the practice has been banned in several provinces and states over the past few years.

Swimming in controversy

The treatment recently made headlines again after a spa in Gander, Nfld., started offering the service late last month. The spa’s Facebook page claims the treatment, among other things, “extracts aged and dead skin cells leaving skin smooth and soft” and “is perfect for human health as (there have been no documented cases) of the transmission of any disease.” The spa did not immediately respond to a request for comment on their new offering.

Indeed, there does not appear to be any known reports of infection specifically caused by a fish pedicure yet Dr. Stern a Vancouver-based podiatrist, insists the treatment is anything but “perfect” for human health.

“I think it should be banned everywhere in Canada,” said Dr. Stern, president of the Canadian Podiatric Medical Association, in a phone interview with Yahoo Canada. “I don’t agree with it.”

ALSO SEE: Bizarre beauty treatments banned around the world

Gnawing issues

Having small fish called Garra rufa nibbling away the dead skin on feet has long been commonplace in other countries, such as Turkey. The practice has only become more common here as a beauty treatment in recent years and quickly sparked serious concern among health professionals. Back in 2011, a spa on Vancouver Island garnered national attention when the local health authority banned the practice, citing concerns about bacterial infections possibly spreading from person to person. These days, the trendy treatment is offered at several spas in Montreal and costs about $40 for a half hour service. Several Montreal spas did not respond to requests for comment about fish pedicures. The treatment is reportedly banned in Ontario, Alberta, Manitoba and British Columbia. Newfoundland government spokespeople did not immediately respond to questions as to whether the treatment is, or will be banned, in that province.

Diving into the debate

The rising popularity of the treatment in the West has spurred several health agencies to speak out against it. In the U.K., the Health Protection Agency (HPA) produced a report on the health concerns surrounding fish pedicures. The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the U.S. has also expressed concerns over the treatment. Here at home, Health Canada says it’s up to each province to make a decision on whether to allow fish pedicures or not. The HPA report notes the main concern is the potential for the transmission of bacterial, viral and parasitic infections. The risk of infection from a fish pedicure is of concern for three main reasons, according to the CDC:

1.       The pedicure tubs can’t be sufficiently cleaned between customers when the fish are present.

2.       The fish can’t be disinfected or sanitized between customers. Due to the cost of the fish, salon owners are likely t use the same fish multiple times with different customers, which increases the risk of spreading infection.

3.       Chinese Chinchin, another species of fish that is often mislabeled as Garra rufa and used in fish pedicures, grows teeth and can draw blood, increasing the risk of infection.

ALSO SEE: Controversial ‘fish pedicure’ now offered in Gander

Spawning safety

Dr. Stern says getting any kind of pedicure can potentially be dangerous to your health, as there are no national regulatory standards that salons and spas must meet. He recommends checking what regulations your local health authority has, if any, for salons and spas in your neighbourhood first. Then try to verify that the salon or spa is following all the regulations before getting a pedicure.

The safest bet is skipping your next fish, or regular, pedicure and asking your podiatrist for a medical pedicure (a.k.a. a medi-pedi) instead, he says. Then, only get your nails painted at a salon, or safer yet – paint your nails at home yourself.