Penn dermatology professor Elizabeth Grice, whose research focuses on skin-bacteria microbes, says that while there are no specific studies involving yoga mats, it’s likely that bacteria from your skin could get on your mat, colonize (ew), and cause infection. Since bacteria thrive in warm, dark, moist environments, rolling up your yoga mat while it’s still wet, from sweat or cleaning, is the worst thing you can do.
Grice explains that there are many bacteria that live on the skin and generally do not affect the individual. However, if some of these microorganisms, like staphylococcus epidermidis, were to have some time to propagate and colonize your mat, they could make their way back into the skin and reinfect. While they don’t normally harm individuals if they’re left alone, these guys can cause staph infections if they’re left to fester.
There are other potentially-harmful microorganisms living on your skin, waiting for their chance to flourish elsewhere. Propionibacteria acnes are ones linked with acne and other skin conditions. Different streptococcus species can cause “flesh-eating” strep infections, meningitis, and other skin predicaments. There are also fungi like trichophyton that can cause athlete’s foot, ringworm and jock itch. And while you may not contract anything quite that nasty, skin bacterias can cause rashes, too.
“Even within the timeframe of a yoga class, you’re providing the perfect environment for bacteria to colonize,” Grice says. Depending on the type, bacteria can double in 30 to 60 minutes when left to its own devices.
Skin is constantly regenerating itself, so you’re always shedding skin cells. These cells are also left on your mat and they provide nutrients for the different types of skin bacteria. Essentially, you’re not only leaving these bacteria behind when you don’t clean you mat, you’re feeding them, too.
Another point Grice raises: “gut” bacteria–those living in your intestines, like E. coli—are everywhere since many people are not properly washing their hands after going to the bathroom. So make sure you’re keeping your mitts in the sink long enough to hum the alphabet a few times. This helps keep gut bacteria as well as cold and flu viruses from hosting a meetup on your mat—or any surface for that matter.
The worst-case scenario, Grice says, would be contracting methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, from your yoga mat. MRSA was in the news a few years ago for plaguing high school wrestling teams. The outbreaks were linked to wrestlers using the same mats.
“I’d advise never sharing your yoga mat, ever,” Grice says. If you use a mat provided by the gym, you may be putting yourself more at risk. Although cases are rare, the most extreme consequence of contracting MRSA is limb loss and even possible death. That’s definitely not what you signed up for when you decided to take a yoga class.
And not to discourage anyone from the practice, but hot yoga makes a particularly enticing environment for bacteria. Because you sweat so much during a session, you flush out your pores. And what’s hanging out in your pores? Bacteria and fungi.
Just for fun I called about a dozen gyms in Philly and asked how often they clean their yoga mats. I got responses from six of them (one gym didn’t have yoga and a few of the others were unable to put me in touch with someone who knew). While they all said that many people bring their own mats (good idea), it seems that many gyms ask their yoga instructors to double as mat cleaners, or have a gym policy that requires gym-goers to clean mats after use. Can you think of a time you’ve noticed anyone wiping down gym-issue mats? One gym told me that the mats probably only get cleaned twice a month, though they shoot for once a week. Icky, yes, but I appreciated the honesty.
Don’t go burning your yoga mat just yet. Grice says you don’t need anything too fancy to clean them. A diluted vinegar-and-dish-soap solution will do the trick. The vinegar will acidify the surface so things won’t keep growing on it and the dish soap will wash the bacteria away. Just remember to let the mat dry before you store it.