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Garra Rufa Fish


When I first read about this therapy (also known as ichthyotherapy - literally fish therapy) it was at a spa in Hong Kong, and everyone I spoke to thought it was the weirdest thing they’d ever heard of.  So it was a bit of surprise to suddenly see fish spas springing up everywhere in London.

...and that’s when the negative press started.


The fact is that this therapy is currently quite controversial.  The philosophy goes that the young Garra Rufa Fish nibble away at the dry skin on your feet, and also secrete an enzyme that helps heal very poorly skin; even skin suffering from psoriasis or eczema, and is a very natural, traditional therapy that has been used ever since the fish were wild.  But the treatment has raised some serious health and safety concerns in the US which have caused many states to ban fish spas.  The main argument seems to be that as the fish cannot be sterilised between each treatment - as most “tools” are - that it’s not safe.


When I walked into Lagoon in Wimbledon it was really with the idea of just checking it out, but the vibe was so safe that I decided on the spur of the moment to give it a go.  First of all they washed my feet in the convenient little basin and then I just sat in the comfy chair and dipped my feet in, and instantly the fish started nibbling.


It felt a little bit tingly - they liken it to a jacuzzi, but I think it’s a tiny bit more “electrical”tingly than that.  I didn’t find it ticklish but some people apparently do.  Quite pleasant but not blissful.


I was surprised that instead of going for the thick hard skin on the bottom of my feet the fish actually went crazy for the dry skin around my heels, and even nibbled up my ankles.


Lagoon offer a 15 minute trial for £15 (as well as complimentary tea, coffee and magazines) and they’ll also let you know when that 15 minutes is up so that you can stay for half an hour if you prefer.


After 15 minutes the skin on my ankles was starting to feel a little bit tender so I decided that was enough for a start.  They also offer manicures and pedicures and, even if you don’t have any extra treatments, they’ll still rub some lovely foot lotion on for you.


I think this is really a treatment that needs to be done over the course of weeks if you have serious foot problems.  When the fish nibbled off the dry skin around my ankles they exposed some very fragile skin underneath - and my feeling is that this skin needed time to breathe and heal after being trapped under the dead skin (and be moisturised and treated properly).  A couple of days and I would say that that area is definitely looking and feeling better, maybe there is something to that enzyme thing?  I’m guessing that if I keep going regularly my feet would get healthier and healthier but obviously it’s something I’d have to experiment with - so watch this space!


With healing it sometimes feels as though there are two very differing schools of thought - the scientific, modern and then the weird and wonderful, often with roots in traditional ideas.  And then all of a sudden those schools can collide - for example with the use of leeches.  Once used for everything by doctors, then ridiculed, and now used at the very cutting edge of plastic surgery when modern science has not surpassed them as a tool.  My feeling is that the Garra Rufa Fish will become the new leeches, and that even if the health and safety concerns take fish spas out of the mainstream, we’ll suddenly see them popping up at the cutting edge of medicine for people with serious skin problems.


My advice to you, if you want to give this treatment a go, is to visit a spa with a good vibe - such as Lagoon in Wimbledon and ask any questions directly before you book in.


I think problems are most likely to occur in poorly managed spas where fish are not kept properly and basic cleanliness is questionable.  I have also read that there can be problems when spas keep fish too long - mature Garra Rufa Fish can cause damage - or if the fish are not the right species!  Go with your instincts, and don’t be afraid to dip your toe in gently - for example with a 15 minute taster session - and take your feet out if they feel uncomfortable.


The fish will not be sterilised between each treatment - it’s not possible - and it’s a bit like asking for the sea to be sterilised!  Sometimes it’s just nice to enjoy a natural feeling (along with a nice magazine and maybe a coffee!)


See also Pedicure.

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