A lot of people know what a manicure is. You book an appointment at a high-priced nail salon, soak your hands in soothing, soapy warm water and sit back while a trained cosmetologist trims your fingernails, pushes back your cuticles with a special tool, and applies slippery lotions or cremes (emollients) to dry, cracked skin.
For an additional charge, you might add nail polish and exit looking absolutely fabulous.
Of course, many people perform their own manicures at home. Those fingernails aren’t going to trim themselves, after all.
A pedicure is a very similar treatment for the feet and legs. It, too, can be done in the privacy of one’s own home or as a social event in a day spa or salon.
Although we think of manicures and pedicures as beauty treatments, they really are necessary to promote good health and prevent medical problems with the nails and digits.
In addition to all the services provided during a manicure, a pedicure typically also includes exfoliating the bottom of the feet with a pumice stone to remove excess dead skin and callouses that build up naturally over time. Tight, chaffing footwear such as high heels or tightly fitting shoes can aggravate the problem of unwanted excess dead skin accumulation.
Unlike a manicure, a pedicure may also feature a soothing lower leg and foot massage with skin-softening lotions. What’s not to like?
Pedicures are more important than you might think because they take care of ingrown toenails, brittle nails, and fight disease-causing bacteria and fungi.
But have you ever heard of a fish pedicure? I certainly hadn’t. In fact, I thought the person who told me about them was joking. But no – this is a real thing, especially in the Middle East (Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq) where the practice originated.
The Turks have been getting fish pedicures for some 400 years. The medicinal procedure then spread to Asian countries. In 2008, the first doctor fish spa opened its doors in Alexandria, Virginia, bringing the alternative foot cleanse to the U.S. where it continues to grow in popularity.
How does a fish pedicure work?
Tiny fish called garra rufa (also known as “doctor fish”) are used in a fish pedicure. Garra rufa are unusual because they thrive in warm water temperatures that range between about 75F and 85F. In contrast, trout eggs will not hatch in water heated above about 58F and Chinook Salmon eggs die at 65F.
Doctor fish belong to the carp family. In their natural habitat, suction helps them stick to rocks where they eat plankton.
During a fish pedicure, about 100 garra rufa are removed from a communal tank and placed into a sterile tub of warm water below and in front of a comfortable chair.
The person getting the treatment sits down and removes her or his shoes and socks. A pedicurist cleans the exposed feet and ankles, and checks for cuts and open wounds which are show-stoppers.
Once approved as clean and wound-free, the customer dunks their bare feet and ankles into the fish-filled container. The garra rufa immediately begin nibbling away at the dead skin on the immersed feet.
As mentioned before, unlike most other kinds of fish, garra rufa thrive in warm water. Most aquatic plant and animal life can’t survive in a warm environment so the food available for garra rufa is limited. Consequently, these fish adapted and gain supplemental nourishment consuming the dead scales of other live fish.
Dead fish scales and dead human skin are both food sources for the doctor fish. A doctor fish has no teeth – thank goodness – so there is never any danger of being bitten or having living skin torn away. Instead these fish suck. Literally.
The first sensation produced by the darting little fish is described by many people as ticklish. After a while, tickling turns into tingling, sometimes described as that “pins and needles” feeling you get when your foot falls asleep and then wakes up.
The hungry fish remove dead skin from the feet, leaving behind newer more tender and resilient skin. The treatment is usually quite relaxing. The rejuvenated skin exposed by the doctor fish is reportedly as soft and smooth as a baby’s bottom.
After the doctor fish have done their thing, a regular pedicure completes the session. Individual footbaths are cleaned and sanitized between uses.
Garra rufa have been used to treat the heartbreak of psoriasis, a common skin condition where rapidly growing surface skin cells produce unsightly and uncomfortable scales and red patches. Psoriasis is common and transient – it comes and goes. There is no known cure so treatment is the only way to keep it in check.
Enter the fish pedicure which is also an effective treatment for eczema, a skin allergy that causes dryness, itching, bumps, and scaling.
If one session doesn’t solve a customer’s foot condition, the spa technician will recommend repeated visits.
A fish pedicure in America costs between $45 to $100. The price depends on how long the treatment lasts and additional services added on. A typical treatment is 15 to 30 minutes long.
Not everyone reports a positive outcome from visiting the doctor fish. A young woman whose toenails began to separate from her toes consulted with dermatologist Dr. Shari Lipner.
Because the patient had no prior medical history that would cause her feet to shed her toenails, Dr. Lipner concluded that a fish pedicure the woman had undergone six months previously had caused her foot problem (called onychomadesis).
Victoria Curthoys had a downright horrific experience after she visited a fish spa in Thailand. Bacteria from the unsanitary fish tank gave her such a bad case of onychomadesis that she had to all the toes on one foot amputated.
Because of these unsettling cases of good fish pedicures gone bad, the treatment has been banned in 10 U.S. states and some European countries.
Note that the CDC (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stated that doctor fish are safe for human treatment – but bacteria present in unsanitized tank water “have caused outbreaks of nontuberculous mycobacterial infections that left infected pedicure customers with boils and scars.”
If you want to try a fish pedicure, be sure to check out the salon or spa in advance. Make sure strict sanitation is practiced. Ask other customers about their experiences and shop around for a reputable provider.
In other words, make sure there is nothing “fishy” about the garra rufa facility you visit for fish doctoring.