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Bathing with flesh-eating fish

July 28, 2008

by Ivan Raconteur

I was employed for several years as a purchasing manager in the professional beauty industry. Because of this experience, very little surprises me when it comes to things people will endure to improve their appearance, or when it comes to bizarre ingredients that are used in beauty products.

In spite of this, a recent headline did pique my interest.

The story described a new fad that has been sweeping the Washington, DC area.

For the past several months, a spa in northern Virginia has been offering fish pedicures. Thousands of people have taken advantage of the service.

The question that naturally springs to mind is, “What exactly is a fish pedicure?”

The way it works is this: customers stick their feet in tanks of water, and sit back and relax while fish, called garra rufa (commonly known as doctor fish) nibble away their dry and dead skin.

That’s just nasty.

The owner claims that his is the only spa in the country to offer this type of treatment.

Customers fork over $35 per 15-minute session (or $50 for a 30-minute session) for the opportunity to have a bunch of fish eat their skin.

This sounds like a pretty good deal for the owner. People pay him for the use of his fish, and he doesn’t even incur any cost to feed his little finned friends.

The character who owns the joint has more than 1,000 fish at his disposal.

About 100 fish can be found in each pedicure tank at any given time.

This system is a big improvement over the spa’s first attempt in the business. This involved a communal approach where a bunch of people all used one larger tank at the same time.

Apparently, apart from annoying the health department, this approach had a shortcoming in that the fish would all congregate around the person with the nastiest, scaliest feet. This was apt to cause embarrassment for the recipient, and left other customers with a dearth of fish to service their needs.

The owner of the spa stumbled upon the fish therapy treatment while he was looking for an alternative to using razors to scrape off dead skin for his pedicure customers (which doesn’t sound like much of a picnic either).

The Virginia spa is by no means the first to use fish therapy.

It turns out, the fish have been used in other spas around the world. The treatment originated in Turkey, and has spread to other countries, including Japan, Croatia, China, South Korea, and Malaysia.

Some customers rave about the service, and say it is the best pedicure they have ever had.

Evidently, the toothless fish nibble off only the dry or flaky skin, and leave behind smooth, healthy skin.

Those who have had the treatment describe the experience as creating a tingling sensation, as if one’s foot was asleep.

In some spas, the treatment is not limited to feet, but has been used to remove dead skin from all areas of the body, and to treat conditions such as psoriasis.

Supporters say it is a natural way to remove dead skin cells. I say it is a bit disturbing.

I don’t doubt that it is an effective way of doing some routine maintenance on the old epidermis.

What I really want to know, though, is who in the Sam Hill came up with this idea in the first place?

Imagine the scene: a guy notices that this particular kind of fish seems to have a taste for human flesh. The guy says to himself, “Well, maybe I’ll just sit down in this pool of hot, skanky water and let these fish nibble on my flesh for a while. Maybe it will turn out to be the next great advance in personal hygiene.”

It must have taken a bit of a leap of faith to assume that the fish knew the difference between the unwanted dry skin, and the wanted healthy skin.

One wonders if anyone ever made the mistake of trying this experiment with piranha fish? I suppose we will never know, because that guy wouldn’t have lasted very long.

There is a thin line between genius and excruciatingly painful death.

We can’t forget the marketing side of this, either.

It must take a pretty fast-talking salesman to convince people not only to sit in a tub of water while small fish eat their skin, but to pay for the privilege.

Marketing professionals take note: there is absolutely nothing in this world you can’t sell if you approach the thing with a positive attitude and put the right spin on it.

You can even make flesh-eating fish sound appealing, and get mugs lining up to hand their money over just to experience what it is like to be fish food.