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Fish 'N' Nips

THAILAND | Saturday, 8 May 2010 | Views [849]

There's something fishy going on in the beauty business across Asia.

Traditionally, a pedicure involves a beauty therapist clipping toenails and filing away dead skin to reveal tidy-looking, smooth feet. But recently, this role has been adopted by fish. That's right...fish.

Garra rufa, or "doctor fish" as they are more commonly known, are toothless, freshwater fish being used by beauty spas to treat skin conditions, such as psoriasis, dermatitis and eczema.

By sucking and tearing at the affected or dead skin (softened by the warm water the fish inhabit), such treatment reveals healthy, soft skin that remains untouched by the fish with feet fetishes.

Ichthyotherapy (literally "fish therapy") is not a cure for skin ailments, rather a temporary alleviation of the symptoms - such as scaly, itchy, inflamed or flaky skin.

Although such behaviour is natural to the Garra rufa species, spa owners ensure they eat the feet placed in their tanks by keeping their food supply scarce.

The history of such treatment in traditional or modern healing is hardly documented. However, communities in the Northern and Middle East (mainly Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran) that bathe in the rivers and basins where the Garra rufa originate from, may have accessed this alternative therapy for years.

On the wider scale (no pun intended), the fish spa business made a splash (oops, did it again!) in 2006, when "doctor fish" beauty spas opened in Japan, were hugely popular and branched out from there.

Whether their popularity is due to novelty or beneficial factors, fish spas are now a lucrative industry across Asia - in China, South Korea, Singapore, India, Malaysia, Thailand and Hong Kong - as well as some European countries - namely Belgium, The Netherlands and Hungary.

My first (and likely only) experience of paying for fish to suck on my toes was on Koh Tao, a small island located in the Gulf Coast of Thailand. My curiousity simply wouldn't let me walk past without giving it a go.

Upon entering, a staff member removed my footwear and washed my feet with soap. This wasn't due to my feet being filthy, but rather an preventative measure again water-borne infections.

I was then led to one of the four large tanks the room featured and took a seat on the wooden bench that ran alongside the tank.

Apprehensively, I plunged my feet into the water that contained hundreds of tiny silver fish, flashing like liquid mercury.

Instantly, the fish darted to my feet, attaching themselves to my soles, toes and heels. The felt like lots of tiny fingers tickling at my tootsies - not uncomfortable, but not overly enjoyable either.

The spa had cleverly designed their shop front to feature glass walls where the tanks were located, in a canny effort to pique the interest of passing tourists. Many a incredulous passer-by stopped to stare or photograph me giggling my head off as the fish went to work on my feet!

After the experience was over, my feet did feel both smoother and cleaner, and I could appreciate that anyone with a skin condition would find it even more beneficial, but having satisfied my curiousity, I would be reluctant to visit again.

Tags: fish, skin condition, spa, therapy

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