Plunging your feet into a tank containing flesh-eating fish sounds like something Blofeld might inflict upon James Bond, but in recent years this has become a very popular alternative to traditional pedicures. The fish, the garra rufa fish, eat only dead skin and the tickling sensation as they nibble on your feet is touted as far more enjoyable than being treated with a foot-file or razors. However, these fish spas are coming under increasing scrutiny by health authorities around the world and, in some countries, have even been banned. Just last month health protection authorities in Thailand, where there are an estimated 1,341 fish spas, and the UK launched investigations into potential health concerns.
The garra rufa fish, or "doctor fish", is a toothless freshwater fish native to Turkey. Originally used as a medical cure for psoriasis and other skin conditions, the fish are now being used commercially in spas. Clients at such spas sit with their feet, or whole bodies, in a tank and let the fish nibble away emerging buffed and glowing. The health authorities, however, are concerned about the transmission of disease from person to person through open wounds, and in December last year, the Ministry of Health also released a warning raising health concerns about fish pedicures in the UAE.
The Wild Wadi waterpark in Dubai is home to the FISHO Fish Spa which has around 6,000 garra rufa in its tanks. Chris Perry, the general manager of Wild Wadi, points out that the Government's warning was aimed primarily at unlicensed beauty salons. The FISHO Fish Spa markets the experience as a fun activity rather than as part of a cosmetic procedure, says Perry, and has been approved by Dubai Municipality's Health Department since its launch in April last year.
The spa enforces strict health policies to protect its clientele, Perry explains: "It is hygienic, the water is filtered and treated with ozone and UV. We also ensure there is ample circulation of the water for the effectiveness of the filtration and treatment process." Clients wishing to use the spa are required to wash their feet and have them examined by the trained staff supervising the spa. "The safety and security measures we employ at FISHO Fish Spa are very strict, and anybody with blisters, skin conditions or open wounds are not permitted to use the facility."
But even on dry land, how can clients in beauty salons be sure they are not making themselves vulnerable to disease with scissors, cuticle cutters and tweezers being used on one person and then another?
"If you had asked me 15 years ago, I wouldn't have recommended any woman go to any nail salons," says Jörg Stöbel, a German Board-qualified podiatrist and the general manager of the Chiropody Center in Dubai. "But about seven and a half years ago the big spas started opening up with proper hygienic standards and it's become much better."
He recommends that women going to nail salons should be more aware of the general cleanliness of the establishment before offering up their feet for treatment. "If you go to a small salon, you should take in the whole appearance of the place; that the girls are wearing a uniform, for example. You expect that they are clean, that they wash their hands, that they have a clean outfit. If they use a footbath, then check it is clean first. When they start using the tools, make sure they are coming from a steam-sterilised pouch."
The greater problem, according to Stöbel is more a matter of the techniques the pedicurists use to beautify your feet, which could lead to a visit to the podiatrist. "The girls try to make toe nails look like finger nails," he says. "Therefore they give them a certain shape that can lead to ingrown toenails. Many have no idea what a topical fungus looks like and have no idea that when they put nail polish on they will close in a certain number of bacteria and fungi. These days it's very rare that I see anybody with problems due to substandard hygiene in whatever beauty salon they are coming from, it is just what they are doing when they are there."
The key things to remember, recommends Stöbel, are to take off any nail polish after three days to prevent nail fungus occurring and never to have your cuticles cut. "The cuticle is a natural seal between the skin and the nail. The moment you start cutting it, it grows even faster and if you don't do it properly, then you basically open up the space between the nail and the skin for bacteria and dust to get in. If you have a cuticle which is overgrown and covering the nail, it should only be removed chemically. They use cuticle softener and push it back a little bit. But cutting it, with small scissors and clippers - no way."
Sara Abdulrazak is the managing director of the Sisters Beauty Lounge, with three salons in Dubai and one in Abu Dhabi. The health departments of the municipalities in Dubai and Abu Dhabi have rules for salon hygiene strictly enforced by fines and unannounced inspections, explains Abdulrazak.
"All the metal tools, the nail cutters, tweezers, any of this stainless steel equipment, gets scrubbed in an antiseptic solution and then put into a sterilisation machine." Abdulrazak says there are also regulations around the cleaning of hairbrushes and prohibiting "double-dipping", or recycling, of wax, and some of it is commonsense. "It's very important that before every client they spray and sterilise the footbath, you don't want to put your feet in a footbath someone else has used who has something wrong with their feet, just as you wouldn't want to share a bathtub. Then we, of course, have the usual: clean towels, clean paper, tissues."
Staff training is key in maintaining hygiene standards, believes Abdulrazak, who has instigated standard operating procedures and training for all her staff. She also has support from Dubai Municipality which holds forums and group meetings to educate salon owners. As Abdulrazak explains: "The last time they had a forum on health and safety, I sent all the branch managers, and they explain the dangers of henna, the dangers of various bacteria." Inspectors bring pamphlets to the salons and even show the nail technicians how to clean the tools. "Some of them are really good, really hands-on." Says Abdulrazak.
"I love it, it keeps my staff on their toes. I'm not there 24/7 and the Municipality can walk in at any time," she says.
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