Fish Pedicures Associated With Health Concerns: Why You Should Say No to the Fish Spa

Victoria Curthoys, of Perth, Australia, was vacationing in Thailand in 2010 when she stumbled across a spa that offered fish pedicures.  The service had grown extremely popular globally and involves submerging your feet in water populated with tiny fish (garra rufa, or “doctor fish”) that eat the dead skin from your feet. Those who have tried it say it feels like an exfoliating massage (1). Originating in the Middle East, they’ve been used historically for treating psoriasis (2, 3). Now, before you start Googling “fish pedicure near me”, you should know how Victoria’s story ended.


Australian Woman Loses Toes From Fish Pedicure Infection

Many years prior, Victoria Curthoys had to have a section of her big toe amputated. Nevertheless, she enjoyed her visit to the Thai fish spa. “I thought nothing of it as I’d watched the owner set up the system and it looked very clean, but how wrong I was,” she told  Daily Mail. 

However, over the next 2 years, she suffered from a new bone infection in her partially amputated big toe. Her doctors were unable to figure out the cause of her infection.

“I ended up getting another bone infection in my big toe and it took doctors over a year to figure out what type of bug I had. By the time they’d realized what it was, my entire toe bone had been eaten away and I’d been suffering from sickness the whole time.” (4)

Victoria was eventually diagnosed with a shewanella infection originating from her fish pedicure. Unfortunately, this second amputation wouldn’t be her last. As a consequence of no longer having a big toe on her right foot, an infection developed in her second toe. “A year of walking without a big toe caused ulcers on the second toe from the pressure placed on it. It had a rough callus over the top, but I was unaware that underneath that there was another raging infection. This time, the doctors took the second toe and left me with three toes. I was healthy for another two years, I thought I was very lucky to still have my foot and carried on with my life. But then I started to get sick again,” Victoria explained. (4)

Then in 2017, Victoria’s remaining toe started showing signs of a bone infection as well- doctors had no choice but to amputate in November, and she was left without any toes on her right foot. (4)

Are Fish Pedicures Safe?

fish pedicure

Although Victoria’s experience is quite unusual, there are still a number of serious concerns about fish spas, namely their sanitization, ethics, and regulation. In fact, many US states and Canadian provinces have cracked down on them (1).

Sanitization Concerns

“Using the same fish to clean the skin of multiple spa clients could lead to the spread of infection,” explains Joanne Woodward Fraser, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care in Ontario. (1) This concern makes sense since all other tools and supplies used in spas and beauty salons must be very diligently sanitized or simply replaced with each client.

Tami Chu, a Canadian salon owner, says her staff always make sure that clients are free of any cuts or infections before allowing them to have their fish pedicure service. (1) Hygiene Garra Spas, an American fish pedicure chain, has a patent-pending system which filters the water regularly: “In a 20-minute timeframe, the water gets completely changed more than five times”. (5) It’s uncertain, of course, how many businesses operate with the same care.

Ethical Concerns

PETA has also publicly raised concerns about fish pedicures. They implore people to stay away for ethical reasons: (6)

  • The reason garra rufa eat dead skin is that they are starving for real nutrition
  • The Turkish government, (garra rufa originate from Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran) has had to enforce new protection for the fish species to combat overfishing
  • Many fish die while being transported to their buyers in plastic bags

They also reiterate that fish tubs are a welcome environment for pathogenic bacteria- even strains that are resistant to antibiotics. (6)

Regulation Concerns

The CDC notes that, along with these concerns, some businesses have unknowingly purchased a different type of species than garra rufa, the Chinese chinchin, which in fact develop teeth and can cause damage to people’s feet. (7)

Now, if you’re that concerned about rough heels that you’d allow fish to nibble on your feet, we suggest checking out these DIY approaches instead. Stay safe!