An unorthodox beauty treatment designed to rejuvenate the feet became a disturbing medical mystery for this young woman. According to a case report published by her doctor at JAMA Dermatology, the patient’s toenails stopped growing and began to fall off shortly after receiving a pedicure session with fish.
It is called pedicure with fish to the treatment in which some small fish nibble your feet while soaking in a tub of warm water or at room temperature. The species of fish used – a carp without teeth known as Garra rufa – is usually herbivorous, but in case of need they also eat dead human skin. It is said that the voracious feast of fish helps treat conditions such as psoriasis and beautify the skin, which gives them the nickname of “doctor fish”.
Unfortunately for the anonymous woman in her 20s, her experience was anything but rejuvenating. After his pedicure, most of his toenails stopped growing and began to fall, a condition known as onychomadesis. Six months after having nail problems, she visited a dermatologist who ruled out any known cause of onychomatosis, such as a serious illness or a side effect of certain medications. The most likely culprit was the fish pedicure.
“While the mechanism of action is not entirely clear, the fish is likely to traumatize the nail matrix,” Sheri Lipner, an assistant professor of dermatology at Weill Cornell Medicine of Columbia University and a woman’s treating physician , told Gizmodo . The case, from what Lipner knows, would be the first documented instance of onychomadesis ever caused by fish.
For the sake of protecting the anonymity of his patient, Lipner can not reveal where the woman got his pedicure. But he notes that these treatments are quite popular outside the United States, for example in China. They reached their peak in popularity in the United States about a decade ago, but have since been banned in at least 10 states, including New York, largely because of health problems.
On the one hand, fish are often used by more than one person, which makes the risk of transmitting infections a real possibility. And although pedicure advocates with fish argue that they can properly disinfect animals and tubs between uses, researchers have shown that the bacteria that cause disease can be found easily in both the tubs and the fish used in these spas. Some reports have also directly linked foot infections to these treatments.
“I do not recommend pedicures with fish for any medical or aesthetic purpose,” Lipner said. “In addition to onychomatosis, there are also serious infections associated with pedicures with fish.”
As for the woman, her nails will probably grow back, but not for a long time. Lipner notes that toenails only grow one millimeter per month on average, while a complete nail may take up to 18 months to be replaced. “Therefore, we will have to wait a long time to see the result,” he said.