A new rash
of concern for yogis: don't use communal mats! You never
know how well-cleaned they are, and it seems that there's
a dramatic yoga-related increase in cases of athlete's
foot, jock itch, plantar warts and staph infections.
This is legitimate
cause for concern, and should result in a spike in yoga
mat sales to individuals (not to mention those fancy carrying
Mats: Beware of Germs
By ABBY ELLIN
Published: July 27, 2006
GREG E. COHEN,
a podiatrist at Long Island College Hospital, hears the
same story a lot: women complaining about a flaky red
bump or a persistent itchy patch on a foot. By the time
he sees them, they’re embarrassed and horrified.
A few years ago, Dr. Cohen, who also has a private practice
in Brooklyn Heights, didn’t know what to make of
it, but these days he doesn’t blink an eye.
first thing I ask is, ‘Do you do yoga?’ ”
he said. As often as not, the answer is a resounding “yes.”
In the last
two years, Dr. Cohen said, he has seen a 50 percent spike
in patients with athlete’s foot and plantar warts.
The likely culprit? Unclean exercise mats, he said.
Gyms have long
been hothouses for unwanted viruses, fungi and bacteria,
a result of shared equipment, excessive sweat and moisture
in locker rooms. Many facilities provide disinfectant
so clients can wipe down machinery, but they are often
less diligent when it comes to exercise mats. It’s
common to see staff members clean a stationary bike. It’s
rare to see them disinfect a mat.
This is starting
to worry many yoga practitioners who go barefoot on high-traffic
mats. Half a dozen kinds of yoga-mat wipes are now sold
nationwide, and new products like hand and foot mitts,
to protect serial mat borrowers, have hit the market.
is more popular than ever, it could well be a coincidence
that health-care professionals like Dr. Cohen are seeing
more infections. In 2005, 16.5 million people practiced
yoga nationwide, up 43 percent from 2002, according to
not confirmed the link between unclean yoga mats and fungal,
bacterial and viral infections better known as jock itch,
plantar warts and staph infections. Nor can dermatologists
and podiatrists conclusively trace these ailments to dirty
are making unofficial connections. A handful of dermatologists
and podiatrists say that in the last two years or so they
have noticed a rise in the number of skin infections in
their patients who practice yoga and use public mats.
people know to wear flip-flops in the shower and locker
rooms but they don’t think about it on a yoga mat,”
said Noreen Oswell, the chairwoman of podiatric surgery
at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. In the
last two years, Dr. Oswell said there has been an uptick
of fungal infections among her patients who use mats that
aren’t properly cleaned.
Dr. Ellen Marmur, who runs the division of dermatologic
surgery at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in Manhattan,
said she has seen more bacterial infections in the last
year and a half in “young women who mentioned they
did yoga and Pilates,’’ and for whom she had
ruled out other risk factors for dermatitis or dry, itchy
skin. Dirty exercise mats were most likely to blame, Dr.
of mats regularly can be laborious and costly, which is
why Jen Lobo, an owner of Bikram Yoga NYC, raised her
rental price to $5 a mat from $2.
night we clean the mats with an antibacterial yoga spray”
and hang them to dry, Ms. Lobo said. “Weekends,
we put them in the washing machines with Dr. Bronner’s
Soap. It’s a lot of manual labor.”
encourage practitioners to buy their own mat or put the
onus on members to clean them. For instance, Sports Club/LA
gyms provide wipes outside classrooms for patrons. Most
Gold’s Gyms offer antiseptic solutions for yogis.
at most of the 10 gyms and studios that a reporter called
nationwide said that they aim to clean mats thoroughly
once a week.
like Crunch Fitness had more ambitious policies, but little
oversight. “The goal is to wash mats once a day,”
said Amy Strathern, a spokeswoman. Does that happen? “I
don’t know,” she admitted. “It’s
up to the general manager of each gym to make sure it’s
compliance sometimes varies from club to club. Carol Espel,
the national director of group fitness for Equinox Fitness,
said that mats are wiped with a citrus-based disinfectant
every other day and machine-washed twice a month.
But a group
fitness manager at a branch of Equinox Fitness in Manhattan,
who was granted anonymity because he feared losing his
job, said that mats were machine-washed only “every
two months” and wiped down in between. On the other
hand, George Smith, maintenance manager at the Greenwich
Avenue outpost, followed Equinox’s policy more closely.
Mr. Smith said mats were disinfected in a machine weekly
and wiped down three times a week.
that hygiene isn’t always a priority at some gyms
and studios. Heather Stephenson, a Brooklyn yoga teacher
who has worked for two gyms and has worked out in more
than 25 worldwide, said: “In my experience it is
not an incredibly regular practice to clean them.”
Ms. Stephenson, who is a founder of Idealbite.com, an
eco-living Web site, added that blankets, which are used
for headstands, “aren’t often cleaned, either.”
also worry that the cleaning solutions are not as effective
as they could be. In order for a mat wipe to work, the
liquid needs to have alcohol or quat-based disinfectants
that are commonly used in detergents, said Dr. Philip
Tierno, the director of clinical microbiology at N.Y.U.
Medical Center. The wipe also needs to be moist enough
to wet the entire surface. Soap and water won’t
kill bacteria, but chlorine will, added Dr. Tierno, the
author of the book “The Secret Life of Germs.”
of yoga tend to buy their own mats and don’t lend
them to anyone because they consider them an intimate
part of their practice. It’s what Robert Butera,
editor in chief of Yoga Living magazine, calls yoga hygiene.
Cleaning one’s mat is about “being self-reliant
and improving your health any way you can,” he said.
relative newcomers who use communal mats take the biggest
risks. Robin Parkinson, a marketing executive in Los Angeles,
began doing yoga at Equinox in Westwood about six months
ago. She used the mats provided because she never saw
a need to buy her own. “I don’t have a horse,
either, and I ride,” Ms. Parkinson said.
One day she
noticed a scaly red patch of skin on her right arm. It
began to itch. And when her left leg and inner thighs
also started itching, she went to four doctors because
no one seemed to know what was wrong. At last, one gave
her cortisone cream and told her to stop borrowing yoga
mats. “I haven’t gone onto a public mat since,”
For two years,
Darby Friedlis used loaner mats from Bikram Yoga East
in Midtown Manhattan, where she practiced hot yoga. Then
she got a nasty surprise when she went for her monthly
pedicure. “The manicurist took one look at my foot,
which was itchy and a little flaky, and cried, ‘You
have athlete’s foot!’ ” said Ms. Friedlis,
a 25-year-old publicist in Manhattan. Her father, a doctor
who specializes in pain treatment in Fairfax, Va., was
the one to suggest that unclean yoga mats might be the
source of her problem.
While a wart
or fungus between their toes may dismay yogis, such ailments
won’t kill them. “Athlete’s foot is
not exactly a life-threatening disease,” said Dr.
Timothy McCall, the medical editor for Yoga Journal. “And
plantar warts and athlete’s foot are so common.
You could make yourself crazy with this stuff.”
stopped entrepreneurial yogis from rolling out products
to combat the hygiene problem. Judy Alley from Scottsdale,
Ariz., created hand and foot mitts called Yoga Grip Gloves,
after an especially unpleasant class four years ago. “The
first time I got down on the mat I was disgusted,”
Ms. Alley said. “I wanted to wear my shoes but they
said ‘No.’ ”
Before starting a cleaning-products line six months ago,
Selena Stirlen visited 20 yoga studios nationwide and
asked about cleaning practices. Their response disgusted
her. “A lot of studios can’t afford a cleansing
product, and they only do a major wash in the machine
twice a year,” said Ms. Stirlen, who now sells wipes
for on-the-go hygiene as well as a spray and machine detergent.
is impressed. Heather Schlegel, who has practiced Bikram
yoga for three years, once bought a Jo-Sha Wipe, another
moist towelette made for mat cleaning. “I tried
wiping down my mat, but the unfolded square was too small
and kept getting scrunched up as I rubbed it across,”
she said of the 75-cent wipe. “It didn’t look
particularly cleaner when I was finished.”