School of fish swarm woman during fish spa in Malaysia
Fish pedicures are believed to have originated in Turkey, Croatia, and other parts of the Middle East, before making their way to the U.S. The idea: Stick your feet in a tank filled with so-called "doctor fish" (Garra ruffa), let them suck off dead skin, and walk away feeling smooth and callus-free.
In the past I'd enjoyed regular pedicures, so I hoped that adding fish to the mix would only add to the feeling of pampering—or at least make for a good story. I booked an appointment at a high-end spa in Los Angeles and was looking forward to my adventure.
The entire experience was shorter and stranger than I could have imagined. Upon entering the salon, I was instructed to roll up my jeans to my knees and wash my feet in a basin filled with room-temperature water from a nearby faucet. I had expected to take a little soapy foot shower (for cleanliness), but it was just plain water.
Relieved that I made it up the steps and into the chair without falling or kicking over the tank, I lifted my feet over the tank and was about to put them in one by one. The technician stopped me and instructed me to put my feet together and lower them as one unit into the tank. I looked down. My feet were an inch away from submersion, and the fish were already starting to flock together as if they intended to engulf my feet upon contact.
Garra rufa fish, the animals most commonly used in fish pedicures, don’t want to eat your dead skin. They do it because they’re so severely starved that they’ll try to eat human skin for sustenance.
These fish are found mainly in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. The Turkish government was forced to introduce legal protections for the country’s Garra rufa in an attempt to combat overfishing and exploitation.
When pedicure tubs are full of fish, they can’t be sufficiently disinfected between customers, and there’s no way to sanitize the animals themselves. Sufferers of contagious conditions such as nail fungus and athlete’s foot often seek out fish pedicures.
If you want a nice, smooth, even exfoliation, you need a pumice stone. Fish aren’t nail technicians—they have no way of knowing what areas you would prefer for them to focus on. People who’ve purchased these pedicures have reported bumpy, uneven skin and areas that were bitten deep enough to draw blood.