This has to rank as one of the strangest things I’ve ever done …..
The Red Garra is a nondescript little minnow from the Middle East that has become a fad in the cosmetic industry—and produced something of a controversy.
The Cypriniformes are a family of fish that includes carp, minnows, and the ordinary goldfish. Several species inhabit river basins in Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq. The most common of these is the Red Garra, Garra rufa. Most of the time, the Red Garra is content to munch on algae, insect larvae, and various small aquatic invertebrates.
In the parts of its range that are fed by warm volcanic springs, however, it is difficult for these small food organisms to survive, so the Garra have to depend on an alternative source of lunch: other fish. But these tiny minnows don’t eat their neighbors–they clean them. In a routine similar to those of marine-reef “cleaner wrasses”, the Garras gather around larger fish and carefully pick off the parasites, loose scales, and dead skin flakes.
For at least 500 years, the warm springs in Turkey have been a destination for people who sought its presumed curative powers, and a number of spas and health resorts appeared. In many of them, the fish became an attraction, and patrons would soak their feet in the warm water as the toothless little Garras slurped off all the calluses and dead skin. It’s also supposed to stimulate your circulation. The spas dubbed it the “Doctor Fish” or “Nibble Fish”.
In 2006, a health spa in the warm-springs resort of Hakone, Japan, imported a supply of Garra fish and began offering “fish pedicures” to its visitors. From there, the practice spread from Asia to Europe and the US, where the first “Garra Spa” opened in Alexandria VA in 2008. Within ten years there were spas in Florida, Georgia, Ohio, and Nevada.
A fish spa also opened in Milwaukee, but state health officials there ordered it closed, sparking a controversy that persists to this day. The arguments center around sanitary practices as well as environmental concerns. Most cosmetics regulations require that all of the tools and instruments be either sterilized or discarded after each use—but of course the fish can’t be. While the risk of bacterial or fungal transmission seems to be very low, there have been scattered cases reported, leading to bans in some states. In 2011, officials in the UK confiscated a batch of imported Indonesian Garra fish that had become infected with Streptococcus bacteria. In another incident in 2018 that quickly became famous on the Internet, one woman lost all of her toenails after becoming infected during a pedicure.
Other state agencies are worried that the Garra fish, which is not native to North America, may inadvertently find its way to the wild and become established, upsetting the local ecosystems. In Turkey, they worry about the opposite problem, and have now begun regulating the export of Garra fish to insure that the local populations do not become depleted. China, meanwhile, has viewed the Garra spa fad as an economic opportunity, and has begun exporting the Chinchin Fish (a small Asian species of Tilapia) as an alternative. Not only does the Chinchin pose a much higher risk as an invasive, however, but its tiny sharp teeth (unlike the toothless Garra fish) present a higher risk of breaking the skin and potentially spreading infections.
The practice has also been opposed by animal rights organizations such as PETA in the US and the RSPCA in the UK. They argue that the spa owners keep the Garra fishes hungry all the time so they will “perform” on command.
So far, ten states in the US have banned the practice of “fish pedicures”. The UK, on the other hand, has concluded that the health risk is “very low”, and that the little fishes could likely not survive in the wild in Britain’s cool climate.
So, after I arrived in Augusta I was visiting the local mall and walked past the Garra Spa, with rows of fish tanks on the floor. A middle-aged couple from up north were giggling like kids as the fishies nibbled on their toes. Although I was tempted to give it a try just for the sheer weirdness of it, I saw “$75” on the price menu and thought I didn’t want to give that much dough to some crazy fad. But over the next few days as I kept walking by, my curiosity grew, and eventually I had to give in.
The Garra pedicure process has become mostly standardized to reduce the risk of infection or contamination as much as possible. Upon arrival, the attendant inspected my tootie-toes to insure that there were no open cuts or abrasions, and then wiped my feet with an antiseptic alcohol wipe.
The fishes are kept in tanks on the floor, each containing around 100 Garra. These are constantly filtered, and UV lights are used to eliminate fungus, bacteria, or algae. So I had a seat atop one of the tanks and inserted my feet. The water was surprisingly warm, which I guess shouldn’t have been a surprise since they live in thermal hot springs. The fishes then went to work, and within seconds my toes and heels were covered with a wiggling mass of fishies. The fish themselves are pretty ordinary-looking—they have little suckers instead of teeth and look sort of like the algae-eaters that are familiar to any aquarium-keeper. Most of the fish in the tank soon gathered round, though a few just remained resting on the bottom. I presume they weren’t hungry.
So, what does it feel like to have a few dozen fish eating you alive…? Hah! It felt sort of like “tickling”, but really the best way I could describe it would be to take a 2-liter bottle of Coke, dump it in a pan, and put your feet in it while it’s bubbly. Although the fishies concentrated on the areas of thick dead skin like the heel and the ball of the foot—and since I wear sandals all the time I had plenty of that–they eventually cover everything, including between the toes. (If I moved my feet I had to be careful I didn’t inadvertently squeeze some poor little fishie with my toes).
Since I wasn’t really interested in having fashionably smooth feet but only wanted to play with the fishies, I just got the “introductory” ten-minute session, which costs a bit over $15. A typical full session lasts for half an hour but can go up to two full hours, with the price going up accordingly. The full treatments also get you a foot massage afterwards.
Crazy weird, but fun. 🙂