One of the fastest-growing beauty treatments in Britain, fish pedicures – during which tiny toothless carp smooth down feet by eating dead skin – has come under new scrutiny from health experts and animal rights campaigners, reports the Sunday UK media.
The number of UK outlets offering pedicures with Garra rufa, fish that lifts off hard skin and, through an enzyme in their saliva, diathanol, is thought to heal conditions such as psoriasis and eczema – is growing rapidly. As the craze catches on, beauty salons are already starting to move on to full body immersion tanks. But the treatment is not without controversy.
Following the decision by more than a dozen states in the US to ban the pedicures over fears they could spread infections and disease, scientists from the UK Health Protection Agency have begun an investigation into potential risks. A spokesperson for the agency said that, while it did not expect to be enforcing a ban in the UK and believed the risk of catching an infection from a fish foot spa to be very small, it was looking at publishing guidelines for the public.
The HPA and Health Protection Scotland are currently unaware of any cases of infection associated with the use of fish spa pedicures in the UK, the spokesperson said. However, following a number of inquiries to the HPA from local environmental health officers, the HPA, Health Protection Scotland and the Health and Safety Laboratory are currently examining the most up-to-date evidence and will publish practical advice to help both salons and the public to minimize any possible risk in due course.
Animal rights groups have also voiced alarm over the conditions in which the fish are kept. We do have concerns about the welfare of any fish involved in this practice, a spokeswoman for the RSPCA told the Observer.
Fish are covered by the Animal Welfare Act. They need a stable environment, with the correct water quality and temperature range. Sudden changes in temperature should be avoided as they can severely compromise welfare and even kill the animals. Water quality is of paramount importance in maintaining healthy fish. Having people bathe in the water with the fish is likely to affect quality, particularly if they are wearing any lotions or other toiletries that could leach into the water. Similarly, chemicals used to disinfect tanks and to clean patients' feet beforehand would have to be non-toxic to the fish.
The practice of using Garra rufa fish – often called doctor fish – to heal skin dates back over 400 years in their native southern Turkish river basins.
Turkey's government has now made the Garra rufa a protected species over concerns about over-exploitation by spas, which has led to some outlets in the US using the chin chin, which masquerades as a Garra rufa but doesn't do the job as well and often dies in the process.