Sit back, relax . . . and let a fish nibble on your toes? Fish pedicures are the latest health and beauty craze. One fish species is known to feed on dead skin, making the unusual treatment a luxury solution for cracks and callouses. But is this popular peeling method sanitary? Or even safe?
Mahmoud Othman owns a café in the Gaza Strip, an area bordered by Israel, Egypt, and the Mediterranean Sea. For 11 years, Israel and Egypt have blockaded Gaza due to its ties to terrorism. The blockade has made it difficult for lawful enterprises there to survive.
To help boost business, Othman imported hundreds of Garra rufa, a Creation-Day-5 animal nicknamed “doctor fish.” Othman tried three times and for more than a month to get the permits to import the feet-feeding fish. Now they’re the star attraction in the spa section of his café.
When the toothless Garra rufa come into contact with tough, dead skin, they chew—or rather suck—the grayish top layer off. A 30-minute fish session costs 30 shekels. That equals about eight U.S. dollars, a hefty sum for most Gazans.
Still, business has been surprisingly brisk. Othman gets 30-40 customers a day. Many see the fish pedicures as healthful. They’re also a momentary escape from their difficult surroundings.
Mohammed al-Omari has painful warts on his feet. The bumps make wearing shoes problematic. He’s tried the fishy treatment four times. He believes it helps. “When I find something to relieve the pain and improve my mentality, 30 shekels becomes nothing,” al-Omari says.
Customers roll their pants to the knee and dip their feet into glass tubs. Tiny fish swarm around their toes while customers chat or scroll on their smartphones.
Fish pedicures sound weird but harmless. However, 10 U.S. states and at least three Canadian provinces have issued health warnings over fish pedicures—especially the high possibility of infections.
Othman says he sanitizes his tubs after every session. He also makes customers wash their feet twice and apply sterilizers before dunking their feet into the tubs.
But experts say the fish themselves can’t be cleaned between customers. That makes spreading infection a real possibility.
Some animal rights groups denounce fish pedicures. They say owners must starve the fish to “force” them to eat skin.
Should you decide to indulge in a fish pedicure, Beware! Another fish species is a look-alike for Garra rufa. But this species grows teeth. So that relaxing foot soak might become a whole different kettle of fish.