There’s nothing worse than rolling out your sticky mat before you practice and noticing a layer of grime or sniffing a subtle hint of days-old sweat. Yet it happens to the best of us, because keeping a yoga mat clean is often an afterthought.
However, think about this for a moment: Yoga mats absorb all the sweat, oil, and grime that they’re exposed to, which means they can become dirty, smelly, and even contaminated with germs quickly. To keep all that gunk off your mat, establishing a consistent cleaning routine is crucial. Craig Stiff, the director of hardgoods at Manduka, recommends “cleaning your mat after every practice or use.”
“You’re entering a sacred space when you practice, so the way you keep that space has an effect on what you get out of your practice” says Heather Lilleston, one of the founders of Yoga For Bad People. She continues, “the whole idea of the dirty hippie yogi should be thrown out the window. A huge part of practice is cleanliness.” If you can’t remember the last time you thoroughly scrubbed down your mat, it’s probably time to give it a wash.
So, Just How Dirty Is Your Yoga Mat?
In an article for ABC-13, Melanie Rech, the Laboratory Director at EMSL Analytical, examined swabs taken from personal and communal yoga mats. Mats from the local yoga studio “came back the cleanest with 3 million counts of normal environmental bacteria”, writes KTRK Houston. This isn’t the most surprising, since yoga studios are supposed to regularly wash their communal mats (whether they do or not is a different story). The results from a local woman’s personal mat who admittedly “doesn’t clean her mat often” were the most shocking, testing “positive for 12 million counts of bacteria”, writes KTRK Houston.
The fungi and bacteria that are responsible for athlete’s foot, plantar warts, staph infections, and ringworm, among others, are commonly found on yoga mats since they thrive in warm, dark, moist environments.
So, not cleaning your mat can be pretty gross.
It’s important to keep in mind that if you’re cleaning your yoga mat—but not disinfecting it—you might not be doing enough to actually get rid of these germs. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, while cleaning removes germs, disinfecting kills germs—and although each method individually works, you need to do both to fully sanitize your mat.
The Best Way to Clean and Disinfect Your Mat
You’re likely going to find spray bottles and hand towels in every yoga studio, and even more people waiting in line to use them after class. But what exactly are in those spray bottles?
A common organic disinfectant used by yogis everywhere is a mixture of equal parts distilled water and white vinegar, with a splash of tea tree oil. Tea tree oil is a tried-and-true antimicrobial that effectively kills the nasty bacteria and fungi lingering on your mat. Combine that with the antibacterial properties in white vinegar and you’ve got yourself a tool that does double-duty to disinfect your mat.
To disinfect your mat: Spritz the solution over both sides of your yoga mat and use a towel to wipe the solution off. This should kill the pathogens lingering on your mat’s surface and freshen up its smell. “Both sides of the mat should be cleaned as microbes can migrate from the dirty side to the clean when conventionally rolled”, says Stiff. When you roll your mat up, the side that touches the floor will be resting on top of the area where you regularly place your feet, hands, chest, back, and face, so spraying all of your mat’s surfaces is essential for keeping unwanted grime and bacteria off your body.
This method is quick and easy, so it should be done after every use of your mat.
If you don’t want to wait in line for the tea tree oil spray after every class and don’t trust your mixing abilities when it comes to making your own, consider purchasing pre-made cleaning solutions. (The same spray and scrub method applies.)
See also 5 Mat Cleaners We Love
The disinfectant method is not only useful for fending off ailments like athlete’s foot, plantar warts, staph infections, and ringworm; it can also help clean dirt and oil off the surface of your mat. That’s a good thing, considering that all of these things can cause skin conditions, including acne.
See also Ayurvedic Skin Care Tips
But the disinfecting method alone won’t get your mat squeaky-clean. When your mat’s pungent odor and grimey surface start to become a real problem, nothing beats scrubbing it down with soap and water. Dish washing soap is specifically beneficial for cleaning yoga mats because of the common chemicals in it, such as chlorine. Dr. Philip Tierno, a Clinical Professor in N.Y.U Langone Health’s Department of Pathology told the New York Times in an interview, “[i]n order for a mat wipe to work, the liquid needs to have alcohol or quat-based disinfectants that are commonly used in detergents.”
Just be sure to only use a few drops of the dish soap. Too much can leave a slippery film on your mat’s surface. Using a microfiber cloth to scrub your yoga mat clean will be the easiest on its materials, but the soft side of a sponge or an old cotton tee-shirt will work as well.
To clean your mat: Add warm water and a few drops of dish soap into a spray bottle. Spritz your mat with the solution then scrub it firmly with a microfiber cloth. Don’t be too vigorous with your scrubbing though, since you want to keep the naturally sticky nature of your mat intact. Be sure to spray and scrub both of its sides. To finish, rinse off your mat with warm water and allow it to air dry.
Wash your mat with soap and water at least once per month. Lilleston typically washes her mats once per month, but she’ll do it more frequently if she takes a few hot yoga classes. Although the mat’s odor is a good indicator of when it needs a wash, by the time it starts to reek it has already absorbed a lot of sweat and dirt that coats your body with every use, so sticking to cleaning it once per month will ensure that your mat never gets too bad.
Can You Put Your Mat in the Washing Machine?
This is a hotly debated topic, but the answer depends on the mat that you have. Lilleston tosses her Yoga For Bad People Travel Mat into the washing machine with cold water on the delicate cycle using environmentally friendly detergent when it’s in need of a deep-clean, and hangs it to dry afterwards. “I wouldn’t recommend putting the mat into the dryer, but that depends on what your mat is made of of course – safer to air dry”, says Lilleston. Stiff, however, encourages yogis to hand-wash their mats instead of risking it with the washing machine. “We do not recommend washing your mat in the washing machine. In most cases, this will damage both the mat and washing machine leaving you with a very expensive bill to replace both”, he says. Unless your mat has clear instructions that say you can put it in a washing machine, it’s safest to forego it and stick with hand washing.
Can Using a Yoga Towel Help You Avoid Cleaning Your Yoga Mat?
Sometimes, the best way to minimize a problem is to prevent it from happening in the first place. Yoga towels lie directly over top of your mat, allowing them to absorb most of the sweat and dirt instead of the mat itself. Plus, they’re slide-resistant, helping you avoid slipping while you’re practicing. Lilleston is a proponent, saying “It’s smart to have a mat towel” and that “we really encourage our students to bring their own mats with a cover.” Yoga towels are especially useful when practicing hot yoga, but you’ll feel the benefits in any class that makes you sweat.
Keep On Practicing!
Having a dirty yoga mat means it’s being used, which is a great dilemma to have. Lilleston says you’re, “putting your energy into your mat” when you practice, so your mat getting some wear and tear along with dirt and sweat should be seen as a badge of honor. Spraying down your mat after every use and giving it a hearty scrub at least once per month will keep your body healthy and your practice respected.