A new health and beauty craze is appearing in salons and spas across the capital. Garra rufa (otherwise known as doctor-fish) pedicures, in which hundreds of little creatures nibble around your feet, leaving your tootsies sparklingly fresh and clean.
Squeamish? Ticklish? Sceptical? As the answer’s probably yes we at RiverOnline decided to research this bizarre new treatment for you. We went to the nearest dedicated practitioner, FaB Fish Spa in Fulham, to find just why it is time to go back in the water.
The garra-rufa fish originate in Kangal, Turkey, where the story goes they were discovered by two brothers who used to swim in one particular spring, and returned time and again to be nibbled by the little fish that lived there.
The spring grew in popularity, and several spas were founded. Now garra rufa are exported across the world, to Japan, to Europe and the United States.
Some practitioners claim that they can cure skin ailments such as psoriasis. This is unproven, but all are agreed that they are very good masseurs.
So, off we went to FaB and were greeted by Ben, who runs the spa with his wife, Fatima. A genial, welcoming man, Ben decided that after years working in the oil industry to switch careers for something more relaxing which he was actually interested in – and this enthusiasm shines through.
After a few preliminaries we are led into the treatment room, which contains the tanks; knee deep acrylic boxes, with mirrored bottoms, set into the floor in front of luxurious comfy benches. Unlike the communal tanks common throughout South East Asia, UK spas use one tank per person.
Our feet are then washed by Fatima using a special agent which, I am told, removes any moisturiser or other chemical treatments. This is just one of the many steps taken to ensure the health of our tiny finned therapists.
There’s some apprehension when it’s finally time to take the plunge. One foot is held over the tank, and the fish flock like iron filings drawn to a magnet. The foot is dipped into the warm water, and they dart forward like friendly piranha, hitting home with surprising force.
It does make one jump, and the first sensation is almost uncomfortable, but you soon get used to the bubbly, soothing feeling. Real garra rufa (and some less reputable establishments have been known to use cheaper fish) are members of the carp family, with no teeth and are therefore able to suck off only dead skin.
In fact any gingerness came more from a worry that the fish might get hurt, accidentally pressed against the side of the tank or squidged between my toes. It’s also disconcerting to watch one cling onto your foot when you lift it out of the water, unwilling to relinquish the tremendous free buffet that’s just presented itself.
I ask if the fish ever get full, but all of the ones here are imported from the wild, and so will carry on eating as long as they can.
Ben tells us that right now you do not need a license to run a fish spa, although they are still subjected to the usual health and safety checks which cover all spas. If regulations do tighten up, he expects several establishments to lose their fish, partly because of sanitation, but also because of the conditions the fish are kept in.
Animal welfare is the only obvious downside of fish pedicures. Although the fish in these tanks seem happy enough, Ben still loses two or three a week out of a stock of around 800. This, he tells us, is a respectable amount, compared to some spas. He mentions one spa that lost the majority of its stock over a weekend.
The water here is filtered five times every hour by a big machine: all tubes and pumps and odd muslin filters called ‘socks’. There is also sand that houses friendly microbes to turn any biological detritus into harmless natural by-products.
The tanks can look a little empty and bleak, with nothing for the fish to do but nibble manky feet all day. Not much of a life, one feels. But at least at FaB they seem well looked after, and are fed every day with a specially formulated food to compliment their daily diet of human skin.
After half an hour, I lift one foot out of the water. Apparently it takes five or six treatments to notice any real improvement in the appearance of your feet, but I’m already convinced that my skin is a little softer.
More importantly, it’s been fun, relaxing, and all very natural. We thank Ben and Fatima, and bid farewell to my new podiatrists, then walk outside on a clean pair of heels. All in all it had been a thoroughly enjoyable time – definitely good for the sole.