Fish therapy, also called ichthyotherapy or doctor fish treatment, is an unusual form of skin exfoliation using live fish to nibble away dead skin cells.
This complementary therapy is growing in popularity at specialty spas and salons. But is fish therapy safe and effective? Let’s dive into the benefits, risks, and key considerations.
What is Fish Therapy?
Fish therapy involves placing your hands or feet in a shallow pool filled with a freshwater fish species called Garra rufa, or doctor fish. These toothless, non-predator fish gently suck and nibble on the skin surface eating away dry, dead skin cells.
Some reported benefits of fish therapy include:
- Exfoliates and softens skin by removing dead cells
- Improves circulation
- Reduces pain and inflammation for conditions like arthritis
- Provides stress relief and relaxation
Garra rufa fish pose very little risk of biting and do not survive in non-freshwater conditions. Salons typically provide single-use gloves and thorough disinfection procedures between clients.
Potential Risks and Safety Concerns
While generally considered safe, there are some risks associated with fish therapy to be aware of:
- Bacterial or fungal infection if fish or tubs are not properly sanitized
- Allergic reaction to components in fish saliva
- Aggravation of open wounds or skin conditions
- Lack of regulation for sanitization procedures
To reduce risks, only visit reputable salons with strict hygiene protocols and well-maintained tubs. Avoid fish therapy if you have any open cuts, sores, or known allergies. And consult your doctor if you have a condition like diabetes that affects skin sensitivity and healing.
A Woman’s Toes had to be amputated after Fish Therapy?
In 2018 there were few news websites covering the story of Victoria Curthoys, an Australian woman who lost all the toes on one of her feet after having a fish pedicure in Thailand.
She developed a rare infection called mycobacterium abscessus, which is difficult to treat and can cause serious damage to the skin and bones.
Although Curthoys’ case is extreme, there have been other reports of people getting infections from fish therapy, including some that have required hospitalization.
For this reason, many health experts advise against fish therapy, especially for people with diabetes or other health conditions that make them more susceptible to infection.
Fish therapy is not regulated in most countries, so there is no guarantee that the fish tanks are properly cleaned or that the fish are healthy. If you do choose to have a fish pedicure, be sure to choose a reputable salon and tell the staff about any medical conditions you have.
How to Try Fish Therapy Safely
Fish therapy provides an unconventional form of skin exfoliation that many find relaxing. If you wish to try it, keep these tips in mind:
- Ask about the salon’s cleaning routine for equipment and fish.
- Inquire about the Garra rufa’s health, living conditions, and source.
- Start with a brief 5-10 minute session to test for any reactions.
- Never use fish therapy with broken skin or if you are immunocompromised.
- Notify staff of any medical conditions or sensitivities.
With proper precautions, fish therapy can be an interesting, low-risk skin treatment option. But oversight for safety practices remains limited. Do your research to find a high-quality, hygiene-focused provider for the best fish therapy experience.