A tank full of flesh-eating fish sounds like something from a horror movie – but it’s the latest way to treat dry skin conditions. Jonathan Brown dips in a toe

Anyone who is still terrorised by memories of the low-budget horror flick Piranha II: The Spawning should look away now. The appeal of the killer fish cinematic genre may have dimmed somewhat in recent years, but there is a dark, wet corner of many people’s imagination still haunted by the prospect of being devoured alive by a shoal of hungry aquatic predators.

Indeed it was Shakespeare who laid out the way the food chain should work when he had Hamlet say: “A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king; and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.” Note: it is the man that hath eat of the fish – not the other way round.

So is it possible that Britain is about to start entrusting care of its vital appendages to the avaricious little sucker, Garra rufa, a small fish that feasts on dead skin? It was with this question in mind that I journeyed to the unlikely surroundings of the Meadowhall shopping centre in Sheffield, to sample a little ichthyotherapy for myself.

Fish pedicures and manicures have already proved popular in Asia, Europe and parts of the United States. In more adventurous lands, devotees submerge themselves in a whole bathful to achieve the full body treatment. They are the modern-day inheritors of a therapy first discovered in the Sivas region of central Turkey, some 400 years ago, when an injured shepherd fell into a river and found himself besieged by hundreds of hungry little fish intent on nibbling away at his stricken parts. The wounds healed miraculously and ever since, the people of the region have made use of the Garra rufa’s unique flesh-eating services, deploying it as a treatment for everything from psoriasis to depression.

Yet for many of us, getting one’s feet out in public requires a certain degree of courage. Immersing them in a tepid bath holding 150 fish in full view of a busy mall takes that to another level, not least as curious shoppers munching their Gregg’s sausage rolls press their noses up at the window to see what on earth is going on.

Before you can start to paddle in the pools quietly bubbling away in the cheerful tangerine-coloured surroundings of Appy Feet, the first fish-therapy outlet of its kind in the UK, it is necessary to remove the sock fluff and general toe grime by taking a quick foot spa which also softens calluses in preparation for a good nibbling.

After a few minutes you are ready to move on to the tanks. The initial reaction as fish swarm around your proffered limb is to pull it sharply out. But after a few reassuring words from the shop’s founder, Christina Wright, one feels ready to entrust the task to the fish. The important thing, Wright points out, is that the Garra rufa, or doctor fish, is a type of toothless carp that cannot bite.

They scythe away at the thickened patches of skin through a tickly, double-action process of licking and striking. It feels like being gently nibbled at, and is capable of removing several grams of tissue. Fans say the beasts can munch through unsightly build-ups on the heel and sole, eliminating the need to resort to pumice stones, ointments or lotions. At £5 for five minutes, or £10 for 15 minutes, it is an affordable, if unusual, way to pamper oneself.

“Some people can be a reluctant to have a go, because it’s not something they have ever done before and they don’t like fish. But these never grow to more than 10cm, so they can’t hurt you,” says Wright. “Your feet feel lovely and smooth afterwards. The fish also excrete a substance called dithranol, which is a skin-regenerating product,” she adds.

Wright cites a study of 67 psoriasis sufferers, 65 of whom reported an improvement in their condition after treatment – though she admits that there is not a huge body of scientific work devoted to the benefits of fish therapy. “It is very relaxing and gives you a slight reflexology treatment on the soles of your feet. You’ll also have the best night’s sleep ever afterwards,” she promises.

Wright first encountered the pedicure last autumn, during a cruise to Japan. She has had a long career as a head hunter, but believed there was a mass market in the UK for the treatment. She opened her first store this month and plans to roll the business out as a franchise in shopping centres across the country. She has had to satisfy UK environmental health and animal welfare officials that the procedure is safe and clean and that the fish, which are imported from Asia, are not being harmed. In the US, concerns over health standards prompted 15 state regulators to ban the practice, though this was because of the use of a cheaper fish called the Chin chin, a type of tilapia, which develops teeth when older.

Tracey Nixon, 41, was tempted into taking the plunge. “It’s lovely. I love it,” she said. “I think it’s a really good idea for men, too, because they normally have really disgusting feet and won’t look after them. There is no way they would go into a beauty parlour.”

Yvette Smith, 68, was also planning to come back. “I found it weird – I’ve had nothing like this before. It was really very restful and I feel a lot better now,” she said.

Once the initial disquiet is overcome and the fish are doing their thing, the effect feels like fizzy bubbles bursting around you and is not unpleasant. Yet it did not feel entirely natural to have a flotilla of tiny beasts chowing down on your most unappetising parts and squeezing between your toes. My feet were undeniably smooth at the end of the 30-minute session, though there was plenty more work to be done and that promised good night’s sleep failed to materialise.

But in the end I couldn’t help feeling a little bit sorry for the fish. “No need,” says Wright. “People say, “Isn’t it cruel?” But the fish are only doing what comes naturally because they would eat anything that is decaying on the bottom of the river.”

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