“Do you do yoga?” That is the first question Long Island College Hospital podiatrist Greg E. Cohen asks women who come to him with embarrassing, persistent foot infections. In two years’ time, Dr. Cohen told the NY Times he had seen a 50% spike in patients with athlete’s foot and plantar warts — primarily due to dirty exercise mats. While there aren’t any known studies linking viruses, fungus and bacteria to shared gym equipment, many foot care professionals are making their own unofficial connections. Most people know enough to wear flip-flops in public showers and locker rooms, but they don’t even think twice about putting bare feet down onto communal yoga mats.
How Disgusting Are Yoga Mats?
“Yoga mats are a hotbed of contamination, literally and figuratively,” says Dr. Robert Lahita, chairman of medicine and vice president of the Newark Beth Israel Medical Center. “It’s a big issue…. Skin is loaded with organisms. A lot of the organisms come off when you sweat, [and they're] very comfortable living in sweat, especially the fungi.”
Doctors say yoga practitioners — oily bodies close to their mats — are vulnerable to picking up:
- Herpes infections
- Plantar warts
- Cold & flu viruses
- Staph infections (MRSA, impetigo)
- Streptococcus “flesh eating” bacteria
- Coryne bacteria (acne)
- Athlete’s foot, ringworm, jock itch
- Toenail fungus
These microbes can double or triple their colonies during the time it takes a person to wrap up a typical yoga session. With the exception of viruses, most pathogens can also survive and thrive on yoga mats for days or even weeks.
Fungus Farms: Do Yoga Centers Clean Their Mats?
Journalists have heard many different stories from gyms and yoga centers about their standards for yoga mat care. Philly Mag called a dozen gyms in the area. They all recommended that people “bring their own mats” and many insisted that they expect their instructors to wipe down all the mats after class. (But have you ever actually seen an instructor do that??) One gym said the mats get cleaned “twice a month,” though they “shoot for once a week.”
Bringing your own yoga mat may protect you from most germs, although the mats do still come into contact with the floor. On top of that, “If you had an infection, then cured the infection and proceeded to get back on your yoga mat … you could probably get that same staph back into your skin,” Dr. Lahita warns. Therefore, you should always clean your mat before a session.
Tips For A More Sanitary Yoga Session
- Skip “all natural” cleaners for yoga mats that only spread germs around. You need something with chlorine!
- Buy your own mat, rather than risking it with community-shared mats at the studio.
- Consider Neem supplementation if you know you’re particularly prone to fungal infections.
- Keep your skin moisturized and healthy, keeping a vigilant eye for blisters, cracked heels or damaged cuticles.
- For less than $20, you could pick up Gaiam’s Grippy Yoga Glove & Sock Set to limit direct mat contact.
In case you did inadvertently pick something up on your feet from a yoga mat, be sure to wash your feet off as soon as you get home, throw your socks in the wash, and put your shoes through a cycle with the SteriShoe UV shoe sanitizer to eradicate any hitchhiking pathogens.