Few things can rival the sense of accomplishment that comes after a good sweat session 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 and others.
From the one thing you should always do after yoga, to the crucial reason you should never get too comfy in the locker room, here are the hygiene habits you never want to do without after a workout.
1. Always Have Flip-Flops Handy
No matter how at-home you feel at 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, Chakravarty recommends operating under the assumption that not everyone is heeding the 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 (or other people's) germs and sweat. Numerous studies have proven that yoga mats, which contain small holes, are breeding grounds for fungi and bacteria (yes, they can cause athlete's foot, too). But research conducted for Elle.com in 2016 found just how gnarly yoga mats — communal yoga mats, specifically — can be.
After testing mats for bacteria and fungi, researchers found micrococcus luteus and empedobacter brevis, which both live in human mouths, noses, and respiratory tracts. Or to put it in layman's terms: not everyone is wiping down the mat after sneezing or coughing all over it.
Other potential yoga mat lurkers? Strep, flesh-eating strep (!), and varying forms of staph, including Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). 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 namaste there.
4. Change Out of Your Clothes (& Undies)
While athleisure may be all the rage these days, 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, CA and author of Yes, I Have Herpes: A Gyencologist's Perspective In and Out of the Stirrups.
"When a woman works out and stays in sweaty workout clothes longer than necessary, the breathability of the vaginal area is limited due to the spandex bottoms or underwear which trap in sweat and moisture." Loanzon notes that moisture can cause the pH to change, which can cause an overgrowth of yeast and/or bacteria. "If a shower is not imminent, decrease your risk of a yeast infection by changing out of your workout clothes into breathable cotton bottoms," she advises.
5. Wash Your Face
No time for a post-workout shower? You might still want to 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," notes 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."
Jaliman notes that when you work out with makeup, your skin doesn't get a chance to breathe as it should. So, taking off makeup before working out is definitely a good idea. "When you exercise, you are pushing impurities out of your skin and wearing makeup prevents that from happening," she says. "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."
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," notes Sara Gottfried, MD, author of the Hormone Cure, Younger, and the forthcoming 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." Gottfried 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 since it's an ideal breeding ground for staph, MRSA, strep, and 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," notes Jaliman. "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, Jaliman highly recommends changing your pillowcase the next time you use it, since the oil from your hair likely built up on your pillow.
8. Throw in a Load of Laundry — Quickly
Throwing in a load of laundry may be the last thing you feel like doing after pumping iron, but it's definitely for your own good, (and that of anyone with whom you live). A 2017 study found that some gym equipment is rife with more germs than — wait for it — a toilet seat! In the study, the treadmills, stationary bikes, and free-weights were the worst, with all three loaded with germs and bacteria (treadmills were found to have about 74 times more bacteria than public restrooms).
The best way to minimize your chances of coming into contact with something nasty? Always practice good hygiene habits at the gym. Researchers of the study advise wiping down gym equipment before and after use, wearing shoes or flip flops at all times, and, yep, tossing your clothes in the laundry as soon as you get home. Count us in.