When a former coworker gave me her secondary yoga mat, I swiped at it with an antibacterial wipe before putting it to use. A series of questions plagued me as I rubbed down my new mat: How often should I be doing this? Is one antibacterial wipe enough to disinfect my entire mat? Am I even supposed to be using antibacterial wipes in the first place?
In case you have the same questions, I chatted up microbiology experts to find out how often you should clean your yoga mat and the (pretty gnarly) reasons why.
Here’s what can build up on your yoga mat.
Your skin plays host to microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, viruses, and even microscopic mites. This might sound gross, but it doesn’t necessarily mean anything bad for your health. These microorganisms are usually harmless, Elitza Theel, Ph.D., a microbiologist in the laboratory medicine and pathology department at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, tells SELF. They are, however, capable of transferring onto your yoga mat while you pretzel yourself into different poses.
Throughout the day, you also shed skin cells (typically between 30,000 and 40,000 daily), produce body oils, and secrete sweat, all of which can get onto your mat during your workout. Not to mention, if you share your mat or borrow a communal one from your gym, you’re now exposed to all that…stuff…from previous users.
The likelihood that microorganisms will develop and multiply increases with each day you don’t clean your yoga mat, Pratik Banerjee, Ph.D., an associate professor in the division of epidemiology, biostatistics, and environmental health at The University of Memphis who conducted a study on the microbiology of fitness center surfaces, tells SELF. Because microbes generally thrive off moisture, this is especially the case when your yoga mat is exposed to humid environments…like the kind in a steamy yoga studio or other workout class.
Can this buildup make you sick?
You might not experience any health blowback even if you never clean your yoga mat in your life. You could theoretically pick up something like a skin infection from an unclean yoga mat, but the circumstances would need to align pretty perfectly.
If you were to wind up with a health issue from a dirty yoga mat, Dr. Theel points to ringworm, plantar warts, and athlete’s foot as some of the most likely candidates, particularly if you use shared mats that may contain pathogens from other people. Ringworm and athlete’s foot are fungal infections—the latter can create an itchy, scaly rash that starts between your toes; the former can lead to an itchy, circular rash anywhere on your body. Plantar warts, which are virally transmitted, cause rough, fleshy, painful growths on the bottom of the feet. All of these conditions can pass from person to person via shared objects such as yoga mats.
These kinds of infections are often the result of organisms that creep into minor cuts in the skin, Dr. Theel says, so your odds of developing one are much higher if you have a skin abrasion (even one so small you don’t notice it). The chances of this type of infection can also be higher in individuals with compromised immune systems, like those undergoing chemotherapy, says Dr. Theel.
Again, these infections are technically possible from using an unclean yoga mat, especially a shared one. There’s no guarantee that anything bad will come to pass if cleaning a yoga mat is just not how you want to spend your time. But if you’re feeling cautious and want to stay on top of cleaning your yoga mat, we’ve got you covered.
How often should you clean your yoga mat?
The experts SELF consulted recommend cleaning your yoga mat after each use, but that’s a general baseline. How often to clean your yoga mat can vary by brand, the mat’s materials, and if you’re using it for something low-key like a gentle yoga class or more intense like hot yoga.
If you know the brand of your yoga mat, the company’s website may offer detailed instructions on how often to clean it and exactly how to do so based on the materials. For instance, some brands recommend cleaning your mat with a bit of warm, soapy water after every session. Others even sell yoga mat cleaners.
In the event that the company doesn’t give detailed instructions or you don’t know the brand (like with communal mats at a studio), you typically can’t go wrong with wiping the entire thing down with an antibacterial hand wipe after each class, says Dr. Theel. You might also consider cleaning your mat before each use, says Dr. Theel, especially if you’re grabbing a shared mat at a gym or studio.
If you decide to buy your own wipes, make sure they’re safe for skin and porous surfaces (as opposed to only hard materials like kitchen counters). You can also use wipes provided by your gym or studio. Your workout facility should have both your safety and your mat’s longevity in mind, so their wipes should be perfectly fine. (You can ask them what kind of wipes they stock, just in case.)
If you’re seriously grossed out—but also like to make a beeline out of class without wiping down your mat—you might want to consider looking into yoga mats that are labeled “antibacterial” or “antimicrobial” (meaning they’re designed to kill a wider variety of microbes than just bacteria). Some of these mats are manufactured with materials that appear to have some level of inherent anti-pathogen properties, like cork, while other brands claim to treat their mats with antimicrobial or antibacterial additives. Simply hearing those claims might be enough for you, or you might want to get in touch with the companies and/or do your own research to see just how antibacterial or antimicrobial their mats really are.
The way you store your mat matters, too.
Since microbes like bacteria and fungi thrive in warm, damp environments, ensure your mat is dry before you roll it up, says Dr. Theel. This can help prevent mold and mildew, prolonging the life of your mat. If you don’t have enough time for your mat to dry completely before you take it home, you can roll it up to transport it, then unroll it to dry as soon as you can.
Whenever possible, you should store your yoga mat in a dry and relatively clean environment, Dr. Banerjee says. If you’re using a communal mat and have no say over where it gets stored, that’s an extra reason to wipe yours down before your workout begins. Be sure to give the mat sufficient time to dry before getting up close and personal. Antibacterial wipes are great and everything, but getting a faceful of the stuff isn’t the most pleasant.