Few things can rival the sense of accomplishment that comes after a good workout at the gym. However, the work doesn't end there. (And no, we're not talking about whipping up a protein smoothie.) Skipping out on crucial post-gym hygiene habits isn't just, well, a bit icky: It can actually be a threat to your health.
Video of the Day
From the one thing you should always do after yoga, to the reason you should never get too comfy in the locker room, here are the hygiene habits you never want to forget after a workout.
1. Always Have Flip-Flops Handy
No matter how at home you feel in your gym, treating the locker room like your personal master bath is just a bad idea. The reason? Bacteria — and lots of it.
"Most of the fungi and bacteria found in locker rooms are the types we encounter every day: Staph, strep, E. coli, as well as cold and flu viruses," says Eliza Chakravarty, MD, of the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation. "But the germs gym-goers bring in on their feet can be spread easily and lead to conditions like athlete's foot or other skin infections, so it's never advisable to go barefoot."
And if you're skipping the gym shower in favor of squeezing in a few errands followed by a wash-up at home, you still may want to change your socks and shoes since warm, damp environments are exactly what the athlete's foot (and ringworm and jock itch) fungus lives for — literally.
2. Wash (Really Wash) Your Hands
While "wipe down your equipment" signs might be plastered all over your gym, Dr. Chakravarty recommends operating under the assumption that not everyone is heeding that request. "In any public place, and especially in the gym, hand-washing is a key to good hygiene," she says.
"In most cases, your immune system will protect you from germs, but open cuts and scratches put you at higher risk for infection, as does touching mucous membranes like your eyes or nose after using gym equipment."
In other words, treat the gym like you would a public restroom and always wash your hands with soap and water before leaving. Also — need we even say it? — as a courtesy to others and to prevent the spreading of germs, wipe down equipment with a disinfectant when you're through.
3. Clean Your Yoga Mat
You may be feeling more zen than ever after a power hour of yoga, but your mat is at its worst during Savasana, thanks to your germs and sweat. It's not shocking that yoga mats, which contain small holes, are breeding grounds for fungi and bacteria (yes, they can cause athlete's foot, too).
Your best bet for a fungus-free mat is to use a non-slip yoga towel (and throw it in the wash after every session, of course) or to clean your yoga mat after practicing. This way, the germs won't nama-stay there.
4. Change Out of Your Clothes (and Undies)
While athleisure may be all the rage, yeast infections are not — which is exactly why you should slip into something more comfortable (and dry) post-workout. "The vaginal pH is fairly sensitive and can get altered based on various situations (i.e. intercourse, lubricants, the use of tampons or pads), but it often rebalances itself," says Sheila Loanzon MD, a gynecologist-obstetrician in San Jose, California and author of Yes, I Have Herpes: A Gynecologist's Perspective In and Out of the Stirrups.
"When a woman works out and stays in sweaty clothes longer than necessary, the breathability of the vaginal area is limited due to bottoms that trap in sweat and moisture," Dr. Loanzon says. That moisture can cause the pH to change, which can cause an overgrowth of yeast and/or bacteria, she adds.
If you can't take a shower right after your workout, at least change into a pair of breathable cotton bottoms, Dr. Loanzon advises.
Read more: How to Find the Best Workout Clothes for You
5. Wash Your Face
Even if you can't swing a post-workout shower, you should make time for a quick face wash in order to keep acne at bay. "When you exercise, sweat and the skin oils which occur naturally will clog the pores and cause overgrowth of bacteria," says Debra Jaliman, MD, a New York City dermatologist and author of Skin Rules.
"Our sweat pores open when we work out, and anything that is sitting on the surface, such as makeup, will clog them and cause breakouts." (Taking off makeup before working out is definitely a good idea.)
"It's important to wash your face before and after you exercise since cleansing your skin before can help minimize the grime and bacteria that enters the pores, and washing up afterwards can remove sweat and any makeup that's been left behind," Dr. Jaliman adds.
6. Use Saunas and Steam Rooms With Caution
A long sit in a sauna or steam room is the ultimate, hard-earned treat after a grueling workout, but practicing good personal hygiene in such spaces is crucial. "Saunas and steam rooms are dark, moist, warm environments in which mold, bacteria and viruses thrive," says Sara Gottfried, MD, author of the Hormone Cure, Younger and Brain Body Diet.
"After a sauna, make sure to dry off your genital area completely to lower the risk of a vaginal yeast infection developing. If you are using public saunas or steam rooms, it is essential that they are sanitized regularly, as they are a breeding ground for infections," Dr. Gottfried says. She also recommends skipping the steam if you have a cold sore or an active herpes outbreak to minimize the chances of spreading the disease — and to be mindful of the fact that not everyone is so considerate.
"Herpes is very hardy and can last for days on the surface of these spaces. Consider sanitizing your area before sitting, and always sit on a towel," she says. It's also worth noting that, if you have time, you might want to grab a shower after using a sauna to fight other viruses.
7. Wash Your Hair
Sweat can mean greasy hair, and greasy hair may cause acne. "There is a definite connection between dirty hair and acne," Dr. Jaliman says. "If your hair is oily and unwashed, you may want to keep it back and away from your face, particularly when you sleep. Oil builds up on unwashed hair and it can come into contact with parts of your face and clog pores and cause acne."
And if you happen to hit the sack after a workout without washing your hair, Dr. Jaliman highly recommends changing your pillowcase the next time you use it, since the oil from your hair likely built up on your pillow.