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The Unpleasant Truth About Communal Yoga Mats

After one too many classes that started with a mat still dripping with sweat from whoever used it last, we couldn't help but wonder what might be living on it.

Risk #1: Athlete's Foot
What the experts say: "Fungus is the number one issue when it comes to what you could catch from a yoga mat," says Jane Andersen, DPM, board-certified foot surgeon in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

What you should know: It's not that tough to clear it up when it's on your skin, but it becomes a whole lot harder to treat if it makes its way to your toenails. (Topical treatments usually take at least four months to work, since you need to wait for a new, healthy nail to grow in.)

Risk #2: Staph Infections
What the experts say: "Bacteria that cause these types of infections love moist, humid, warm environments, so hot yoga studios are the worst," says Marie Jhin, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in San Francisco. "They'll live on the mat for weeks if it doesn't get disinfected."

What you should know: Catching staph is unlikely, says Andersen, who's never seen a serious bacterial infection that could be traced to a yoga mat. A study in the American Journal of Infection Control found no sign of MRSA (a drug-resistant form of staph) on equipment or floor mats at three gyms tested for traces. And though being immune-compromised puts you at a slightly higher risk if you do come in contact with the bug, the average person's immune system is generally strong enough to fight off these infections.

Risk #3: Warts
What the experts say: The virus that leads to warts also thrives in moist, sweaty places, says Andersen.

What you should know: There's (borderline) good news: Even if you're doing floor work during class and your torso or thigh comes in contact with a virus on your mat, you're unlikely to start sprouting warts there. "Warts are usually specific to the bottom of the foot," says Andersen, and the same goes for fungus -- precisely because those areas provide an environment where bacteria can thrive.

Risk #4: A Nasty Case of Diarrhea
What the experts say: Catching something like this is rare, but bacteria that can make your stomach beg for mercy could get tracked into the studio via a fellow yogi's shoes, says Jhin.

What you should know: A small 2014 study found that shoe bottoms were even more likely to carry clostridium difficile (a diarrhea-inducing bacteria that the CDC has classified as an urgent threat for antibiotic resistance) than bathroom surfaces, with 39.7 percent of sneaks testing positive for it. The odds that you'll use a mat that touched a contaminated spot on the floor, then forget to wash your hands before you eat (one way you could get the bacteria inside your body) are very low, but if you want to be extra safe, consider avoiding studios that allow shoes in the room where you get your downward dog on. In another study (funded by a footwear company and conducted by a researcher at the University of Arizona), 27 percent of sneaker bottoms contained E. coli, which can also cause diarrhea, abdominal cramping and vomiting.

How to Avoid These Problems
If you can't bring your own mat, a few simple steps can help make sure you don't catch something during your next class.

- Wear yoga socks (which typically have a rubbery material on the bottom to grip the mat so you don't slip) to protect your feet.
- Keep hands and feet well moisturized. Infections, fungus and viruses make their way into your body through cracks both big and small, says Jhin, so those with very dry skin are more susceptible.
- Ask the studio how they clean their mats. Alcohol-based or other antibacterial cleaners are best, and make sure they let their mats dry completely before they roll them back up, says Andersen. "That damp environment is where these organisms like to live, so if you spray the mat down and it's still moist when you roll it up, the moisture issue could just get worse."

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