Fishing for compliments?

To pay to have your extremities gnawed on by flesh eating fish sounds like a rather unlikely concept. Yet it is exactly this, the so-called ‘fish pedicure’, which has become one of the fastest growing health and beauty trends of the last few years. Nicknamed the ‘doctor fish’, the Garra rufa is a small species of toothless carp indigenous to Turkey. Its curious ability to gently nibble away at hardened dead skin cells leaving smooth, healthy skin untouched has been harnessed in the treatment of skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis, as well as in the pursuit of smooth, youthful skin in the beauty industry.

Pioneered by beauty salons in Japan and the United States and popularised by high profile clients like Jessica Simpson, the craze took off last year in the UK with the opening of the first fish pedicure centres. Since then, tanks of hungry Garra rufa seem to have sprung up everywhere from airport departure lounges, to the Westgate centre, to Worcester College Ball.

Bolstered by curiosity, and the unsettling realization that my pathetic, cobble-weathered feet will soon be on view in a pair of flip flops on the Costa del Sol, I decide to give it a try at a recently opened branch of the fish pedicure chain store, ‘Appy feet’.

My advance research reveals some conflicting issues. While fish spa fans hail the Garra rufa as the most exciting contemporary addition to natural and healthy beauty treatments, concerns have been raised over the potential of ‘doctor fish’ to spread infection from customer to customer, particularly from open wounds. As both a living creature and an expensive commodity, the fish cannot simply be sanitised or discarded after every single use as other beauty products can. The treatment has been banned in many American states, and although a report by the Health Protection Agency published in March this year stated that it found the risk of infection contracted through fish pedicures to be very low, it is currently conducting more detailed investigations.

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Salons have defended the treatment, claiming that constant water filtration and draining tanks after use keeps conditions sanitary. I discover on arrival that my chosen store requires each customer to wash their feet and to fill in a form confirming that they are free of everything from HIV to fake tan before allowing them to put even a toe in the water.

When I am finally permitted to begin my treatment and cautiously dip my feet in the tank, the fish home in on every available area of skin within less than two seconds. Their feeding makes for a very peculiar tapping and tickling sensation which, while definitely not painful, is not what I would call enjoyable. I’ve never been that ticklish, but it is with difficulty that I fight the overwhelming instinct to pull my feet out as quickly as possible. I find myself unable to look down. Some deep breathing and pointed looking away is required for the first few minutes, as the idea that my toes are being chewed by several hundred fish is a little too much for my brain to handle. Thankfully the bizarre faces being pulled by my sister, whose feet are in the tank opposite, provide a hilarious and welcome distraction.

The brochure I picked up at the counter promises that the massaging effect will help to ‘regulate the nervous system, relax the body… reduce fatigue’ and even improve circulation. Although the weirdness of the tickly feeling subsides a little after five minutes, I cannot exactly relax. This might have started out as a luxury salon treatment for cloistered A-list celebs, but fish pedicure for the masses seems to be rather more a public affair. It’s difficult to feel pampered when you’re in the middle of a busy shopping centre sandwiched between River Island and Debenhams with your jeans rolled up to your knees and your feet in a glass box full of carp. Several shoppers even stop to have a giggle, to ask how it feels, or if it’s my ‘first time’.

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The ‘doctor fish’ do not live on dead skin cells alone. The assistant informs me that their diet is supplemented with a protein-rich fish food. They seem hungry to me though, barely parting from my skin for the entire duration of the treatment. I am still mildly perturbed when they swim between my toes or sucker their way up my legs to break the water’s surface. Just when I think I am coming to terms with the whole experience, I am informed that my time is up.

Drying off with some clean, white towels, my sister and I note with approval that our skin is indeed considerably softer and smoother than before. Dare I say that I might even be brave enough to dig out my sandals again tomorrow? At ten pounds for a fifteen minute session, a fish pedicure is not going to break the bank as a one off treat to ready your feet for the beach. We are each given loyalty cards with the first stamp filled in, and are reminded that for best results, we should return about once a fortnight.

Yet, I come away from ‘Appy feet’ not entirely sure whether I have enjoyed myself or not, and with a persistent phantom nibbling feeling from the knees down. This is certainly not a treatment for anyone who is the least bit uncomfortable with having their feet touched or tickled: it will freak you out. I can’t help wondering if the boom of custom these stores are experiencing is nothing more than fleeting and due to flounder when the novelty wears off. There is no doubt that the fish pedicure has relatively pleasing results as a quick fix, but I suspect that there are not many who would commit to it more than once or twice. My cynicism on the longevity of this latest celebrity beauty fad remains far harder than the skin on the soles of my feet.