Lauded as an alternative healing method or a pampering treat for your feet, fish spa have become as ubiquitous as massages. You may have seen or even experienced it for yourself. Visitors place their feet in a tank full of Garra Rufa fish — a variety of Turkish toothless carp—and sit back while the fish eat away their dead skin.
However, there are fears that there may be something fishy (pun intended) about this practice as bacteria and infections could be easily spread, especially if there are blisters or cuts on your feet, which are entry points for micro-organisms to potentially enter your body.
Health officials and doctors in Singapore have raised fears about this popular practice in comments for Channel NewsAsia.
“If the fish carry strains of bacteria and a user has open wounds on his feet, there is a theoretical risk that when the fish nibble on a user’s skin, these bacteria could be transmitted,” said Dr Nisha Suyien Chandran, Head and consultant with the Division of Dermatology at National University Hospital.
“The same can occur if the fish have open wounds on their own skin,” added Dr Chandran.
It might not be smoother, softer feet you’re bringing home. In fact, your holiday souvenirs could inadvertently include bacterial and fungal infections. “Possible skin infections include staphylococcus and microsporum infections,” said Dr Eileen Tan from Eileen Tan Skin, Laser and Hair Transplant Clinic.
Even as far back as 2011, UK health officials were already concerned about this trend, as seen in a Daily Mail article published which highlighted that the risk of hepatitis infection and even HIV was “low but could not be completely excluded”.
If you are wondering if this is cause for concern here in Singapore as well, rest assured that it is not very likely.
According to Dr Chandran, if a user is infected with a blood-borne infection such as HIV and has open wounds on his feet, there is a theoretical risk that the infected blood could enter the water and subsequently infect another user, should this user also have open wounds on his feet. This risk, however, is theoretical and very low.
There has also been any locally reported cases of infection or disease contracted from a fish spa. However, fish spas have been banned in some parts of the United States, including Florida, Texas, New Hampshire and Washington. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US conceded that the fish pedicure tubs cannot be sufficiently cleaned between customers when the fish are present. Neither can the fish be disinfected or sanitized between customers.
Closer to home, Singapore’s Ministry of Health has advised using a pumice stone in lieu of a fish spa to rid your feet of dead skin, especially if you suffer from health conditions such as diabetes and a weakened immune system, or inflammatory skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis. Also, if your skin is more sensitive due to shaving or hair removal treatments, give that fish spa a miss.