How to Clean Your Yoga Mat the Right Way

Disinfecting and cleaning your yoga mat regularly can prevent viruses, bacteria, and other germs from lingering, and it may help you avoid skin infections. Follow our pro tips to stay safe and healthy.

Cleaning your yoga mat

Picture your last yoga class: the gentle music, the stretching and strengthening of your muscles, and that beautiful zen feeling. Oh, and don’t forget the drops of sweat running down your body, the large exhale of microbe-laden breath, all the skin cells you’re shedding during Savasana, and your bare feet gripping the mat.

It’s not something you like to think about while trying to meditate but it’s easy to see how yoga mats can quickly become germ factories, says Maria Striemer, RN, a nurse who’s seen plenty of community-acquired infections and the senior scientific communications manager at P&G Home Care.

(Do you know these everyday items that have more germs than a toilet seat?)

Contracting cellulitis from a yoga mat

“I got cellulitis on my hand from a yoga mat,” says Jess P., 36, of Denver. She had a small cut on her finger that she’d forgotten to cover with a bandage before attending her regular hot yoga class. She used a yoga mat provided by the studio, placing her bare hands and feet on it.

Soon after class, she noticed that the spot had become painful and swollen. She had washed it with soap and water, but within hours it was throbbing. By bedtime, the redness had moved up past her knuckle and onto her hand; by morning, it was up to her wrist. She called her doctor, who told her to go to urgent care immediately.

“The pain was almost unbearable by that point, and I couldn’t close my hand at all,” she says. “I couldn’t believe it had escalated so quickly.”

She was diagnosed with cellulitis, a serious bacterial infection, likely from bacteria on the studio yoga mat getting into the cut on her finger. It took two different antibiotics and nearly a month before the infection had cleared up. If the second antibiotic hadn’t worked, she says she was told she would need surgery to remove the infected area.

The only surprising thing about Jess’s story is that we don’t hear about this type of thing more often. And that’s just one of the many infections you can catch at the gym.

Yoga mats: the perfect breeding ground for germs

The combination of bare feet and the moisture from your sweat and the studio create the perfect environment for fungi, viruses, and bacteria to thrive. These are the same bacteria that can cause skin conditions like rashes, plantar warts, ringworm, impetigo, and athlete’s foot among others, says Striemer.

It’s bad enough getting up close and personal with your own germs. If you’re using a mat provided by a gym or yoga studio, multiply all that sweat, breath molecules, dead skin, and foot germs by dozens of people. It’s a recipe for ick.

You’re c0ntending with more than just warts, red rashes, or itchy toes. Yoga mats can also be breeding grounds for more dangerous germs, including pathogenic bacteria, Striemer adds.

What the science says

There may not be much research linking yoga mats to bacteria, fungi, and viruses, but one thing is clear: Gym equipment is covered in germs.

For a study published in 2014 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, researchers swabbed a variety of surfaces, including floor mats, at four different 24-hour gyms in the United States. Gym surfaces and equipment were covered in bacteria: Salmonella, Staphylococcus, Klebsiella, and Micrococcus bacteria, with Staphylococcus being the most prevalent. These aren’t bugs you want to mess around with; a staph infection at the very least is unsightly and annoying and in some cases can even be deadly.

Beyond germs, you need to also worry about environmental contaminants, like dirt, dust, pet hair, and even fecal matter tracked in on shoes or unwashed hands, says Natalie Barrett, a cleaning expert and quality supervisor for Nifty Cleaning Services, which specializes in cleaning specialty fabrics like upholstery, leather, rugs, fitness flooring, and yoga mats. Not only can they mess up your cute yoga pants but they can carry germs or cause allergic reactions in some people.

Yoga has a lot of health benefits—it’s even been shown to provide a natural boost to your immune system—yet the equipment you use may increase your risk of illness. There is a simple solution: Always use your own personal yoga mat and clean and sanitize it regularly.

(Also, beware of this gym equipment bacteria.)

Types of yoga mats

To know how to properly clean your yoga mat, first, you have to figure out what type you have, says Diana Rodriguez-Zaba, cleaning specialist certified by the Institute of Inspection, Cleaning, and Restoration and president of deep-cleaning company ServiceMaster Restoration by Zaba. Here are the most common materials used to make yoga mats and how susceptible they are to microbes.

PVC

The most common material used for yoga mats is PVC, a synthetic plastic. It’s spongy and slightly sticky, allowing you to grip the mat with your skin. However, these mats are not environmentally friendly. They also welcome germs with open arms because they are “open-celled.” That is, they’re porous and absorb sweat, as opposed to closed-celled mats that have slicker surfaces but resist water and are therefore easier to clean.

Rubber

Natural rubber is a top choice for serious yogis because it’s eco-friendly and has a good cushion and grip. These mats can be quite expensive, but germs stay mainly on the surface so they’re a little easier to clean than PVC. Be sure to check out the best eco-friendly yoga mats for your practice.

Thermoplastic elastomer (TPE)

This blend of rubber and plastic offers the best of both worlds, allowing them to be long-lasting and comfortable but also recyclable. But perhaps the best part is they can be made antimicrobial, repelling germs and making them very easy to clean.

Cotton

Cotton or other natural fibers make soft, comfortable yoga mats, but on their own, they may slide around and provide less grip. They’re also the most likely to grow germs because they absorb sweat and other fluids, and they may harbor germs and dirt, particularly if your mat isn’t allowed to dry completely between uses.

Woman rolling up yoga mat with sanitizer nearby.VisualCommunications/Getty Images

A two-step process to a safe, clean yoga mat

Think about the last time you cleaned your yoga mat. Was it just a quick pass with a spray or cleaning wipe? Can you even remember the last time?

(While you’re pondering, try this 10-minute yoga workout you can do anywhere.)

When it comes to caring for your mat, you need to both disinfect it (to kill bacteria, viruses, and fungi) and clean it (to remove dirt, debris, fluids, hair, and stains). “You need to do both to fully sanitize your mat,” Striemer says.

And don’t trust your gym or studio to do this properly. In the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health study, researchers pointed to a lack of cleanliness on the part of gyms as one reason so many surfaces were covered in bacteria.

It’s always better to clean your mat before and after you use it, just to be safe. This is just one of the secrets that yoga instructors wish you knew.

Before doing anything to your own mat, start by checking the manufacturer’s website or package insert for the specific instructions for your mat as mats made from special material or with particular finishes require specialized care, says Striemer.

Disinfecting your yoga mat

You should be disinfecting your yoga mat after each use, says Rodriquez-Zaba.

As soon as the class is over, spray both sides down with a disinfectant yoga mat spray. Wait 10 minutes to allow the spray to work, then wipe both sides with a clean microfiber cloth.

The type of disinfecting spray you need will depend on the type of yoga mat you have. PVC and elastomer can stand up to harsh chemical disinfectants like bleach, but with rubber mats you’ll need to use a vinegar-based cleaner so you don’t ruin the surface. Cotton mats just absorb liquids, so sprays aren’t as effective.

Many yoga mat companies sell disinfecting spray designed to work with their mats, but you can also make your own, says Barrett. Combine equal parts vinegar and water, and add several drops of tea tree oil, a natural antibacterial, in a spray bottle.

For extra protection, you can finish by spraying the mat with an antimicrobial spray—Striemer recommends Microban 24.

Note: People who do yoga in a gym or studio should follow any Covid-19 disinfecting procedures, as most places have their own protocols for public safety.

Cleaning your yoga mat

Depending on how often you use your mat, you should be cleaning it one to four times a month, says Barrett.

A simple dish-soap-and-water solution works for cleaning every type of mat. You can use a spray bottle to lightly coat both sides. For a more thorough clean, put it in a bathtub partially filled with soapy water. Lightly scrub any obvious spots or marks with a gentle cloth. Rinse with clean water and hang to dry.

Never use a bristled brush or any tool that may tear the mat, and be careful to not scrub so hard that you eliminate the sticky finish, adds Striemer.

Some cotton mats can be cleaned and disinfected in a washing machine; check the care instructions for your mat. Mats should not be dried in a tumble drier. The process can alter the size and shape, and cause mats to wear out sooner.

(Here are the little things everyone forgets to clean.)

Pro tips for keeping your yoga mat clean

There are a few other things you can do to keep your mat clean between washings and reduce the risk of germs, according to our experts.

  • Use a yoga towel, a large piece of fabric specifically designed to cover a mat without slipping. It’s especially helpful during hot, sweaty classes and can be washed in hot water after every use.

  • Let it air out. Don’t roll your mat up immediately after cleaning. Damp sweat and even residual cleaning spray can provide a breeding ground for bacteria, so let your mat hang in your home or in a shady spot outdoors.

  • Keep it out of direct sunlight. Prolonged exposure to heat or the sun can damage your mat, and damaged mats are more likely to breed germs and gather dirt.

  • Fold it in half before rolling. Bring the bottom of your mat up to the top, so the yoga surface is only touching itself, then roll the folded mat from the bottom up. This way the floor side is never in contact with the yoga side.

  • Use a carrying bag. Store and carry your yoga mat in a breathable tote rather than using a strap or your hands.

A clean yogi is a happy yogi

Yoga has a host of amazing health benefits so don’t let a fear of germs or dirt keep you from practicing it, either at home or in a gym or studio. You can’t eliminate all yucky stuff, but do your best to keep your mat clean and sanitized. Then let it go.

“The art of practicing yoga can help provide peace to your mind, body, and soul,” says Striemer. “Don’t let worries about a dirty yoga mat distract you from that.”

Next, here are some yoga quotes to inspire your inner yogi.

Sources
  • International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health: "Diversity of Bacterial Communities of Fitness Center Surfaces in a U.S. Metropolitan Area"
  • Journal of Behavioral Medicine: "Yoga and immune system functioning: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials"
  • Diana Rodriguez-Zaba, cleaning specialist certified by the Institute of Inspection, Cleaning and Restoration and president of ServiceMaster Restoration by Zaba
  • Natalie Barrett, cleaning expert and quality supervisor for Nifty Cleaning Services, a cleaning service that specializes in cleaning specialty fabrics like upholstery, leather, and rugs, and yoga mats
  • Maria Striemer, RN, nurse and senior scientific communications manager at P&G Home Care

Charlotte Hilton Andersen
Charlotte Hilton Andersen has been covering health and fitness for many major outlets, both in print and online, for 13 years. She's the author of two books, co-host of the Self Help Obsession podcast, and does freelance editing and ghostwriting. She teaches fitness classes in her spare time. She lives in Denver with her husband, four children, and three pets.