Fishy business: the spa fad hitting high streets

Is 'Garra rufa' therapy safe? Luke Blackall steps into the controversy
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The Independent Online

On display in a Kensington beauty store, my feet are getting more attention than they're used to. Not simply from the amused shoppers watching me have a pedicure, but also from the scores of tiny fish actually doing the procedure. These aren't just any fish. They are Garra rufa, which thrive on nibbling the dead skin off humans. They are also the latest, controversial craze in beauty treatments.

While it's not one for those with ichthyophobia (fear of fish), the procedure is hugely popular across Asia, where tanks can be found in both exclusive spas and on the streets of backpacker towns. In Britain, fish pedicures were once the preserve of smart salons, but it has now hit the high street. Superdrug opened its first fish pedicure spa in Kensington last week, with two more planned in stores later this month.

Fans include the groomed ranks of Premier League footballers. Manchester City player Vincent Kompany has had the treatment on television, while Newcastle's Danny Simpson told the press last week that the procedure has "helped toughen my feet".

Not everyone is happy, however. The Health Protection Agency said last week that it had received inquiries about the procedure. While there have been no known cases of infections in Britain for which the treatment is responsible, the HPA is investigating whether there are any risks.

The Public Health Agency in Northern Ireland has gone one step further and advised "that people avoid having fish pedicures, as it is not guaranteed that there is no risk of infection." Abroad, it remains banned in 14 US states, and some Canadian provinces.

Despite the recent furore, the treatment has a long history. In Turkey, where Garra rufa fish originate, their healing powers have been known for over 200 years. Those suffering from skin conditions are encouraged to immerse themselves with the fish, which are naturally attracted to dead skin. Rather than bite, these toothless creatures, which belong to the carp family, nibble or suck the dead skin off.

So, risking life and foot, I headed to Superdrug on High Street Kensington, where a 20-minute session costs £15. It also serves as a retail theatre, where customers stop to watch others having the treatment. "Fish nibbling your feet may sound strange, but it's a mainstream treatment in Japan and really does make a noticeable difference," says the store's business development manager, Anish Sabherwal. "In our mission to offer everyday accessible beauty on the high street, we're looking at all kinds of treatment, however strange, that our customers may like to try."

Unlike other beauty tools, the Garra rufa can be neither washed nor thrown away after use, which has raised questions over how sanitary they are. Therapists from Orba Originals at Superdrug pointed to a triple filtration system, which involves UV lighting, filtering and regularly changing the water, which is also tested for contamination. Spas should be avoided if the water smells, appears cloudy, or if the fish are inactive.

The staff also inspect all customers' feet closely. Before I could go near the tanks, my feet had to be checked for open cuts, verruccas and signs of fungal infections. However, those with conditions such as eczema and psoriasis are encouraged as the treatment is said to alleviate symptoms.

After a lot of foot gazing, mine were given a clean bill of health and after a quick wash, were allowed into the tank.

No sooner are my feet in the water than the fish are swarming all over them. They even manage to work their way between my toes. They have high metabolisms, so they can eat dead skin all day, although the spa does feed them other nutrients each day.

Perhaps unsurprisingl,y the most ticklish of customers find it hard not to laugh, while others shout out at the perceived weirdness of it all, but for me it is not at all uncomfortable. It is just like a series of tiny vibrations all over my feet, giving me the gentlest of massages for 20 minutes in pleasantly warm water. Afterwards, my feet are as smooth as I can remember.