Three pedicure customers soak their feet in their individual fish tanks at the salon in Alexandria, Va.
ALEXANDRIA, Va. - For spa afficionados, it's the latest: Dunking the tootsies in a tank of water and letting tiny carp nibble away.
Fish pedicures are creating something of a splash in the District of Columbia area, where a northern Virginia spa has been offering them for four months.
John Ho, who runs the business with his wife, Yvonne Le, said 5,000 people have taken the plunge so far.
"This is a good treatment for everyone who likes to have nice feet," Mr. Ho said.
He said he wanted to come up with something unique as a replacement for pedicures that use razors to scrape off dead skin. State regulators frown on the razors because of sanitation concerns.
Mr. Ho was skeptical about the fish, which are called garra rufa but typically are known as doctor fish. They were first used in Turkey and have become popular in some Asian countries.
A group of doctor fish go to work to soften a set of toes.
Mr. Ho doubted they would thrive in the warm water of a comfortable foot bath. And, he said, "I know people were a little intimidated at first, But I just said, 'Let's give it a shot.' "
Customers were quickly hooked.
Tracy Roberts, 33, of Rockville, Md., heard about the treatment on a local radio show. She said it was "the best pedicure" she ever had and has spread the word to friends and co-workers.
"I'd been an athlete all my life, so I've always had calluses on my feet. This was the first time somebody got rid of my calluses completely," she said.
First-time customer KaNin Reese, 32, of Washington, described the tingling sensation created by the toothless fish: "It kind of feels like your foot's asleep."
The fish don't do the job alone. After 15 to 30 minutes in the tank, customers get a standard pedicure, made easier by the soft skin the fish leave behind.
The treatment costs $35 for 15 minutes and $50 for 30 minutes. The spa has more than 1,000 fish, with about 100 in each individual pedicure tank at any given time.
Mr. Ho spent a year and about $40,000 getting the pedicures up and running, with a few hiccups along the way.
State regulations make no provision for regulating fish pedicures. But the county health department - which regulates pools - required the salon to switch from a shallow, tiled communal pool for as as many as eight pairs of feet to individual tanks in which the water is changed for each customer.
The communal pool also presented its own problem: At times the fish would flock to the feet of an individual with a surplus of dead skin, leaving others almost untreated.