Your yoga mat is like your water bottle — you know you should clean it every now and then, but you probably rarely do.
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However, if you examined your mat under a microscope, what you'd find lurking about might change your mind (and give you the heebie-jeebies). Yep, an unwashed mat is a breeding ground for all kinds of creepy crawlies including bacteria, fungi and viruses. Which makes it an especially fertile incubator for many infections (more on this later).
We spoke to Kelly Reynolds, PhD, director of the Environment, Exposure Science and Risk Assessment Center at the University of Arizona, to find out what happens if you let your mat accumulate muck, plus tips on how to clean a yoga mat
3 Reasons to Clean Your Yoga Mat Regularly
1. It Can Cause a Skin Infection
Your yoga mat may be harboring harmful germs — including viruses, bacteria and fungi — which can produce nasty skin infections.
"These microbes can live on surfaces for days to months and spread from person to person via surfaces like exercise mats," Reynolds says. Common pathogens that can be transmitted by a dirty yoga mat include:
- Fungi that cause athlete's foot and other types of ringworm: These pathogens multiply in warm, moist environments (like gym showers or around swimming pools). They are especially well adapted to thrive for long periods of time on yoga mats, Reynolds says, which is why fungal infections flourish so easily.
- Staphylococcus or staph bacteria: It's a pathogen commonly found on the skin that's usually harmless but can cause infection when it gets into a cut. Staph infections can cause red, swollen and painful skin infections that look like pimples or boils, and can even leak pus or become crusty, according to the National Library of Medicine. They can also lead to bone infections, which can cause flu-like symptoms such as fever and chills.
- Human papillomavirus (HPV): Some strains of HPV can cause warts on the skin. Plantar warts are warts on the bottom of the feet.
And while bringing your own yoga mat to the gym (versus borrowing a rarely cleaned communal mat) can help mitigate your risk of infection, it doesn't eliminate it completely. You can still become infected by someone simply stepping on your mat on their way to the water fountain. Or you could pick up germs from the gym floor and transfer them to your mat.
"Either way, add sweat and a warm environment, like a hot yoga studio, and you may have your own fungal colony established," Reynolds says.
2. It Can Make You Break Out
Your filthy yoga mat might be bringing on bouts of breakouts. Excess oil, dirt, dead skin cells and bacteria –— which can block your pores and produce pimples — can easily spread from an unclean exercise mat and promote acne, Reynolds says.
To make matters worse, acne typically appears on areas of your body that boast the most oil glands such as your chest, upper back and shoulders, per the Mayo Clinic. And these oilier body parts are often the ones exposed to your yoga mat.
3. It Can Make You Sick
A dirty yoga mat can also ramp up your risk for catching the common cold, a respiratory infection or the stomach flu. This happens when cold and flu viruses are released into the air through a sick person's coughs or sneezes, Reynolds says.
And someone doesn't have to be particularly close for their germs to reach you. The spray from a sneeze or cough can travel up to 6 feet, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In fact, an April 2014 study in the Journal of Fluid Mechanics found that smaller droplets can cover even longer distances (as far as 2.5 meters or more than 8 feet).
These meddling microbes rapidly settle on surfaces — like your yoga mat — where they can survive for days and spread to others, Reynolds says. Usually, an infection occurs when you touch your germy mat and unknowingly transfer the virus to your eyes, nose or mouth from your hand.
And while the common cold or flu may be a temporary inconvenience (read: mostly harmless) for healthy individuals, those with compromised immune systems may become sicker.
For instance, people with certain medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes and heart disease, and older adults and pregnant people all have a higher risk for serious flu complications, per the CDC.
How to Clean a Yoga Mat
So, how often do you need to clean your yoga mat? More often than you think.
"Given that exercise mats are placed on dirty floors, often shared among users and come into direct skin and face contact, I recommend cleaning and disinfecting them before every use," Reynolds says. "Cleaning alone will not kill most of the germs, but it will reduce dirt, sweat and oils that bacteria and fungi feed on."
If you're sticking to solo at-home workouts (i.e., you're the only one coming into contact with the mat), you have a little more leeway. In this case, cleaning and disinfecting it once a week should suffice. That said, if you sweat profusely, or you're prone to acne, you might want to wipe down your mat more often.
Here are Reynold's tips for how to clean a yoga mat and keep it microbe-free.
If Your Mat Is Machine Washable
Toss it in the wash (by itself) and follow the manufacturer's instructions. To properly disinfect your mat, also use a laundry sanitizer, Reynolds says. A product like Lysol Laundry Sanitizer will kill bacteria and viruses that a regular detergent might miss.
If Your Mat Isn’t Machine Washable
First, scrub it with soap and water to remove any dirt, then use a disinfecting spray or wipe, which is your best defense against germs. "Alcohol-based wipes are safe for use with most surfaces," says Reynolds, who recommends throwing a travel pack in your gym bag.
After you clean and disinfect your mat, pat it down to dry it thoroughly. "Be sure your mat is fully dry before rolling it up to store as trapped moisture can promote more germ growth," Reynolds says.
So, How Bad Is It Really to Never Clean Your Yoga Mat?
Doing downward dog on a dirty mat may impact each of us differently — for some it's NBD, but for others, it can be potentially harmful.
If you have a weakened immune system and are more susceptible to infection, a clean yoga mat is more important, especially if you lug it to the gym or a hot yoga studio where germs love to gestate.
But a group class isn't the only place where you can pick up pathogens. At home, your roommate or your partner can also pass on infections if they use your mat or inadvertently cough or sneeze on it.
So if your immune system isn't robust and you live with someone, stick to separate mats and stow yours away (out of reach of random sneeze sprays) when you're not using it.
If you're a generally healthy person who lives alone and only uses your mat at home (i.e., never shares it with another soul or carries it to the gym), you're probably in the clear even if you don't clean it as often. But if you're noticing recurring body acne or an unexplained skin infection, you may want to scrub and disinfect your mat more often.
To extend the time between washings, you can even lay a towel on top to keep sweat and body oils off the surface of your mat. Keep in mind: This strategy only works if you launder the towel with each use.
- Mayo Clinic: “Acne”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “How Infections Spread.”
- Journal of Fluid Mechanics: “Violent Expiratory Events: On Coughing and Sneezing”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Common Colds: Protect Yourself and Others”
- Medline Plus: "Staphylococcal Infections"