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Feet first

LIKE most women, I've done some bizarre things in the name of vanity -- bikini waxes, eyebrow threadings and even seaweed wraps -- but nothing tops submerging my feet into a tank full of flesh-eating fish.

When I first heard of the fish pedicure, I assumed that it must be a joke, fish eating the dead skin off your feet? Pull the other one. But after learning that it was a bona fide beauty treatment, my next thought was of piranhas. Big ones.

The fish pedicure, popular in Asia, has now reached Irish shores by way of Margarita's Beauty Salon in Sutton, run by Ukrainian couple Margarita and Alexander Ciudac. Known as 'doctor fish', the Garra Rufa are freshwater fish that feed on dead skin. They were found in the pools of a hot spring near Kangal, in Turkey, where the mineral content and warmth of the water creates a scarcity of food. It's a symbiotic relationship -- the fish are nourished and human's skin ailments are treated. But it's also undeniably weird.

The procedure has been around since the early 1800s. People flock to the spa waters where the fish have cured all manner of ills, from skin diseases to muscle disorders.

"We have one client who comes to us each week with psoriasis on her feet. She says the sessions calm the psoriasis for the whole week whereas before she found it difficult to sleep because the area was so itchy," says Margarita.

More recently, the treatment has become popular in the US and Europe. Fans of the hit US comedy Ugly Betty may remember the episode in which Wilhelmina Slater (Vanessa Williams) had a pedicure that involved dipping her feet into a fish tank. After seeing a documentary on the health benefits of the fish, Margarita and Alexander saw an opportunity for bringing it to Ireland.

"We launched the treatment in December of last year. We are getting a lot of calls about it now, because we're the only salon offering the service."

So what of the treatment itself? Before I take the, ahem, plunge, my feet are immersed in warm water and cleaned while I relax with coffee and chocolates. There's also a DVD library available, with Finding Nemo the most popular title.

While I'm relaxing and trying not to think of what's coming, Alexander scoops all 200 or so fish out of the tank and places them in a mobile mini tank of water.

The fish are tiny but it was the thought of them eating my skin which made me feel queasy. After several deep breaths, along with words of encouragement from Margarita, I dipped the very edge of my toe in.

When I eventually opened my eyes, I saw that dozens of hungry little fish were nibbling away at my toe. Mother of God, they were everywhere! Next I submerged my feet, one at a time, as hundreds of the tiny fish zig-zagged around them. At first it felt ticklish but after the initial giddiness subsided, it began to feel strangely relaxing. "Even people who are initially frightened about the experience are pretty okay with it after a few seconds," says Margarita.

I wanted to relax and enjoy the experience but I couldn't peel my eyes away from what was going on under the water and the feeling itself was bizarre -- like being lightly nibbled although Margarita assured me that the fish don't, in fact, have teeth. Instead, they use their suction-cup mouths to gently remove dead skin, bacteria and calluses.


Remarkably, the fish only consume affected and dead areas of the skin, getting rid of scaly skin and leaving the healthy skin to grow. They are also believed to release an enzyme, which softens the skin. Clients are advised not to apply fake tan or fragrant body lotions beforehand, as the chemicals can repel the fish making the treatment less effective.

Feet are also inspected before the treatment, as the fish can't be exposed to infections such as verrucas. Questions about the safety of the pedicure have arisen but advocates claim that it is safer than using razors and pumice stones.

After about 15 minutes, I removed my newly softened feet from the water and Margarita got to work on removing the remaining hard skin. The fish could do this job but it would require a lengthier stint underwater.

"We leave the feet in for at least 20 minutes, and the whole process is very sanitary as clean water is used in the portable tanks every time," says Margarita.

A massage, cuticle inspection and a lick of nail polish followed. Leaving, my feet felt thoroughly rejuvenated and the skin was as soft as a baby's bottom. Would I get it done again? Definitely. But I'd probably hold off having fish fingers the night before.

The fish pedicure is from €60 and lasts one hour. The Margarita Beauty Salon, Sutton Cross, Dublin 13; call 01 839 9299 www.margaritabeautysalon.com