Fish nail jobs – pedicures — could spread bad bacteria

In 2008, a new craze swept the nail industry as women (and men) put their feet into water containing fish that ate the dead skin off feet.

Washington State, and others, said no way, and would not approve the process.

Now there’s some data to back up the ban.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control published a report by the Centre for Environment, Fisheries & Aquaculture Science in the United Kingdom, which studied the kinds of bacteria carried by the Garra rufa, or "doctor fish," an 2.5-cm-long silver carp native to Southeast Asia.

"To date there has been only limited information on the types of bacteria associated with these fish," lead researcher David Verner-Jeffreys said. "Our study identified some of the species of bacteria associated with this fish species, including some that can cause infections in both fish and humans."

It’s no secret that water provides a fertile breeding ground for all kinds of bacteria. Mix the bacteria living on fish scales or in their waste with even the tiniest cut from an overzealous doctor fish, and the risk of infection is very real.

Doctor fish generally are imported to salons from Indonesia or Malaysia, which can make it difficult to control the quality of the fish breeding and environment.
After an outbreak of strep bacteria last year in a shipment of the fish, the British government seized five containers from London’s Heathrow Air-port and found they carried some species of bacteria that can cause disease in humans and fish.

These bacteria included: Aeromonas, which causes wound infections and gastrointestinal problems in humans; Streptococcus agalactiae, which causes skin and soft tissue infections; and Mycobacteria, which the study reported have been responsible for skin infections in some pedicure clients in the U.K.

"To date, there are only a limited number of reports of patients who might have been infected by this expo-sure route," the report says. "However, our study raises some concerns over the extent that these fish, or their transport water, might harbor … pathogens of clinical relevance."

"It should be emphasized that neither us nor the [British] Health Protection Agency are advising that the practice should be banned," Verner-Jeffreys said.

No nail jobs in Washington fish tanks

The Washington state Department of Licensing has decided that pedicures by fish — the use of live, tiny carp to clean feet — is unsanitary and illegal.

Christine Anthony, spokeswoman for the department, said it’s impossible to sanitize the live fish.

"You can clean the tank, you can clean the water, but there’s no guarantee that the fish aren’t carrying something from the previous customer."

The Seattle Times reports that the pedicures, popular in Turkey and other Asian countries, started gaining attention in the states after a Virginia-based spa talked to the media this summer about the benefits of using the fish instead of razors to slough away scales and calluses.

At Peridot, the only Washington salon believed to offer the nail job, an employee who declined to give his name, said he was "speechless" about the state’s ruling.

A nail job in a fish tank

Local health inspectors may have a new task to add to their burgeoning workload: inspecting salons that offer pedicures in tanks filled with toothless fish that nibble away at dead skin.

MSNBC reports that fish pedicures are creating something of a splash in the Washington D.C. area, where a northern Virginia spa has been offering them for the past four months.

John Ho, who runs the Yvonne Hair and Nails salon with his wife, Yvonne Le, said 5,000 people have taken the plunge so far.

"This is a good treatment for everyone who likes to have nice feet," Ho said.

He said he wanted to come up with something unique while finding a replacement for pedicures that use razors to scrape off dead skin. The razors have fallen out of favor with state regulators because of concerns about whether they’re sanitary.

Ho was skeptical at first about the fish, which are called garra rufa but typically known as doctor fish. They were first used in Turkey and have become popular in some Asian countries. …

First time customer KaNin Reese, 32, described the tingling sensation created by the toothless fish: "It kind of feels like your foot’s asleep," she said.

The fish don’t do the job alone. After 15 to 30 minutes in the tank, customers get a standard pedicure, made easier by the soft skin the doctor fish leave behind. …

State regulations make no provision for regulating fish pedicures. But the county health department — which does regulate pools — required the salon to switch from a shallow, tiled communal pool that served as many as eight people to individual tanks in which the water is changed for each customer.

The communal pool also presented its own problem: At times the fish would flock to the feet of an individual with a surplus of dead skin, leaving others with a dearth of fish.

"It would sometimes be embarrassing for them but it was also really hilarious," Ho said.