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June 13, 2009

Fish Pedicure — Episode 4: Banned in 14 states and fighting for its life


Shock and awe greeted the advent of this practice last year in the U.S., the first known use of a live animal to exfoliate feet in this country.

Episode 1 back on December 16, 2006 introduced the technique, at the time confined to Japan.

Episode 2 on May 15, 2007 examined the Chinese iteration (below).


Episode 3 explored the origins of the "Doctor Fish of Kangal" in central Turkey.

Alas, it was too good to be true — or least safe, in the eyes of legislators around the country.

Here's Philip Shishkin's March 23, 2009 Wall Street Journal front page story with the details.


Ban on Feet-Nibbling Fish Leaves Nail Salons on the Hook

Mr. Ho's Import From China Caught On, But Some State Pedicure Inspectors Object

There's more than one way to skin a foot.

In his beauty salon wedged between a pizza parlor and a taco shop in a strip mall here, John Ho is letting small fish eat dead skin off his customers' feet.

"Feels like a bunch of ants running across your feet," said Bill Piatt, a Marine gunnery sergeant from nearby Fort Belvoir, after dipping his feet in a Plexiglas tank for 15 minutes of a fish-assisted pedicure. His wife, Leah, reclining on an adjacent chair, said the nibbling tickled -- "a very odd feeling."

Until Mr. Ho brought his skin-eating fish here from China last year, no salon in the U.S. had been publicly known to employ a live animal in the exfoliation of feet. The novelty factor was such that Mr. Ho became a minor celebrity. On "Good Morning America" in July, Diane Sawyer placed her feet in a tank supplied by Mr. Ho and compared the fish nibbles to "tiny little delicate kisses."

Since then, cosmetology regulators have taken a less flattering view, insisting fish pedicures are unsanitary. At least 14 states, including Texas and Florida, have outlawed them. Virginia doesn't see a problem. Ohio permitted fish pedicures after a review, and other states haven't yet made up their minds. The world of foot care, meanwhile, has been plunged into a piscine uproar. Salon owners who bought fish and tanks before the bans were imposed in their states are fuming.

The issue: cosmetology regulations generally mandate that tools need to be discarded or sanitized after each use. But epidermis-eating fish are too expensive to throw away. "And there's no way to sanitize them unless you bake them for 20 minutes at 350 degrees," says Lynda Elliott, an official with the New Hampshire Board of Barbering, Cosmetology and Esthetics. The board outlawed fish pedicures in November.

In Ohio, ophthalmologist Marilyn Huheey, who sits on the Ohio State Board of Cosmetology, decided to try it out for herself in a Columbus salon last fall. After watching the fish lazily munch on her skin, she recommended approval to the board. "It seemed to me it was very sanitary, not sterile of course," Dr. Huheey says. "Sanitation is what we've got to live with in this world, not sterility."

Mr. Ho, a wiry 39-year-old, hopes the bans will lure pedicure tourists from fish-hostile states to the two Virginia locations of Yvonne Hair & Nails, which he owns with his wife, Yvonne Le. The salons charge customers $35 to have their feet nibbled by fish for 15 minutes.

When Mr. Ho was 5, his father put the family on a fishing boat, and like many others fleeing Communist Vietnam, floated out into the high seas, hoping to find a ship to rescue them. The Hos succeeded, and eventually settled in Virginia. Mr. Ho married his high-school sweetheart and the couple opened the Alexandria salon in 1997, while Mr. Ho continued to run a home-building business.

By 2007, they were looking for an alternative to pedicure razors, which are banned in many states as too prone to making dangerous cuts. Ms. Le heard from a customer about skin-eating fish in Asia, and Mr. Ho started doing research.

What he discovered, among other things, was an old Turkish legend about a shepherd who injured his foot and stuck it into a hot spring teeming with small fish. The foot healed. Word spread. A treatment center for skin ailments grew around the springs near the Turkish town of Kangal. From Turkey, the practice spread throughout Asia, employing garra rufa, toe-size carp that live in warm water, have no teeth and, according to those in the business, like to suck off dead skin. Another fish sometimes used to treat feet, called chin chin, is bigger in size and grows tiny teeth.

Last year, Mr. Ho and his wife traveled to a spa in Chengdu, China, had a full-body fish treatment and liked it. After returning, Mr. Ho wired the Chengdu dealer $40,000 for 10,000 fish.

At the back of the salon, he set up a communal fish tub for customers' feet. The Fairfax County Health Department deemed the tub to be a public swimming pool and ordered it closed on health grounds.

Mr. Ho then designed individual Plexiglas tanks where water is changed after every use and fish can't swim from one pair of feet to another. Since nobody is sharing the water, the county's public-pool ordinance no longer applied. Virginia's Board of Cosmetology has no jurisdiction over skin, unless it's a face. So Mr. Ho was in the clear.

In Derry, N.H., salon owner Kim Ong heard about Mr. Ho on television, and traveled to his spa undercover, posing as a pedicure customer. She liked what she saw and bought 500 chin chin from a dealer in Washington state for about $6,000.

To New Hampshire regulators, Ms. Ong's proposal to use fish for pedicures was nearly as unusual as an inquiry they once had about using snakes for massages. The answer, to both, was no, says Ms. Elliott of the cosmetology board.

Ms. Ong's fish now swim in a decorative fish tank and eat regular fish food -- or each other if they get too hungry. Ms. Ong says she plans to fight the pedicure ban.

State bans have disrupted Mr. Ho's plans to build a nationwide franchise network. Currently, he has four active franchises, in Virginia, Delaware, Maryland and Missouri. But others have terminated franchise agreements. In Calhoun, Ga., Tran Lam, owner of Sky Nails, says she paid Mr. Ho $17,500 in exchange for fish and custom-made pedicure tanks. A few weeks later, in October, the Georgia Board of Cosmetology deemed fish pedicures illegal. "I'm very mad," says Ms. Lam. "I lost a lot of money and the economy is so bad."

In Kent, Wash., Bamboo Nails, another franchisee of Mr. Ho, is stuck with thousands of dollars of idle fish and equipment following a state ban last fall. The ban stemmed from a spot check of another salon where state inspector Susan Colard says she watched the owner -- demonstrating the technique -- stick her foot in a tank with so many fish droppings it was murky.

Proponents say fish pedicures are safe if the water is kept clean. "It is so out of the ordinary that the first reaction is to say 'no,' " says Kevin Miller, executive director of the Ohio Board of Cosmetology.

In Nevada last month, state Assemblyman Tick Segerblom introduced a bill that would allow fish pedicures. Mr. Segerblom, who represents downtown Las Vegas, says he is acting upon the request of a Chinese constituent with a foot-massage business.


He made no prediction about the bill's chances. But with everyone in the legislature obsessed with depressing things like deficits and the recession, Mr. Segerblom says, "It's the most popular bill in the building."

June 13, 2009 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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Curious what it's like to do this? "My First Forbidden Fish Pedicure" http://darrengarnick.wordpress.com/2008/11/20/fishpedicurex/

Posted by: jazzbar5000 | Aug 12, 2009 12:14:48 AM

You're just fishing for another eternally commented on post again, arn't you Joe?

Anything to get the slow googlers to bite huh?

Me, I take a callused approach to such matters.

Don't take this the wrong way... I'm not trying to make Joe take it on the chin or anything, I'm just sayin.

(I'll boo myself... Boooooo)

Posted by: Rocketboy | Jun 14, 2009 5:22:48 PM

Wonder how well they would do on diabetic ulcers?

Posted by: jim` | Jun 13, 2009 10:33:43 PM

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