Some people find it disgusting to be licked by animals. I am not one of them. I am a disgusting person who loves it when cute animals give me big wet kisses. Like most folks around town, I had never heard of a fish pedicure (or any other piscine spa treatment) before noticing Fish Spa Iceland on the corner of Hverfisgata and Barónsstígur earlier this summer. Fish Spa’s owner, Hallgrímur Andri Ingvarsson, was first exposed to the treatment back in 2012, when he got a fish pedicure while on vacation, and it sparked an idea for enterprise.
“I’ve always been passionate about natural, healthy living,” says the 28-year-old business school graduate, who has previously worked in the dietary supplement and fitness fields. “Having these fish eat the skin off your feet is the most natural way possible to get a pedicure.” These would be Garra Rufa fish, also known as doctor fish, a very small breed of carp that originate from river basins in the Northern and Central Middle East. Garra Rufa are toothless but have incredible suction power to slough the algae off of rocks for sustenance.
A License To Nibble
As it turns out, dead skin cells are also tasty food for these cute little whiskered fish, something that river-bathers in the Garra rufa’s native region discovered around the late 19th Century. Those locals have enjoyed natural skin-smoothing treatments thanks to the fish since then. It was more recently discovered that as the fish give their little nibbly kisses, they leave an enzyme on the skin called Dithranol, which helps skin cell regeneration. The result is super smooth tootsies for days.
Since the first fish spas opened in the mid-naughties in Japan and Croatia, Turkey has enacted laws protecting Garra rufa from commercial exploitation, but spas and breeders continue to spring up all over Europe. (Fish Spa Iceland imported its own 1,000-fish school from the Netherlands.)
However, fish spas have been outright banned in many states and provinces across North America due to hygiene concerns. “Sanitation and hygiene is always important in every spa, and we take it very seriously,” Hallgrímur says, refuting claims that the practice is all-around unsanitary. He adds that the spa took two years to open its doors because the Public Health Board and the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority had to carve out new categories for quality assurance of their operation. “This was completely new to them, so it took a while for them to figure out how to fit us into their regulations,” he says.
Like vibrating pillows
It’s all turned out well though. The spa now proudly offers four pedicure tanks to sink your feet into. Each one contains 100 litres of water and approximately 200 Garra Rufa. The spa also plans to offer manicures soon enough, as many of Hallgrímur’s cross-fit training friends have corns all over the palms of their hands. The water is continuously sterilised by UV ray filtering and the tanks are separated to avoid any cross-contamination. What’s more, you can’t just hop in there fresh out of the sock.
As Hallgrímur led me into the main pedicure area of the spa—a beautiful calm space with high ceilings and flooded with natural light—the spa’s technician Gabríel followed carrying a pair of pristine white plastic slippers. He placed them next to a foot-rinsing station, where he directed me to scrub both my feet under clear water, then spray them with a sterilising gel, and then rinse my feet off again. I then stepped into the white slippers and shuffled over to the tank, climbed a little step, took a seat and dunked in my legs.
After the initial fifteen seconds that the extremely ticklish probably could not handle, the feeling settled into a soft vibration similar to having your foot right up against a hot tub jet. Looking away for a few minutes or closing my eyes, it was easy to forget that those were fish down there, foraging the skin between my toes, but one look down and I was awash with giddiness.
Twenty minutes later my feet were the smoothest they’ve felt in months and every step felt like I was walking on a vibrating pillow. I would go back in a heartbeat because hey, I’m a sucker for cute animals. Especially when the cute animals are toe suckers.