The scientist: Quinton Yeldell, Doctor of Podiatric Medicine and Co-Founder of Brooklyn-based Southern Hospitality Foot Care
The answer: Yes, but it’s actually not the worst thing you can contract from a dirty yoga mat or any other surface you walk on at the gym. (More on that later.)
Athlete’s foot is a fungal infection that makes feet dry, red and extremely itchy. You get it when your feet come into contact with dead skin cells infested with the fungi. And, like all bacteria, these infection-causing cells thrive in warm, damp environments — AKA, pretty much every corner of your gym or fitness studio.
The biggest cause for concern — other than walking barefoot in a locker room or shower — is when you’re using a mat that the gym provides and other people have walked and sweated on. It’s less likely you’ll get an infection from your own yoga mat, but you can get it from the ground that your mat is laying on top of. After class, you roll up your mat (sweat, ground bacteria, the whole shebang) and next class, you roll that mat back out and start doing Warrior pose on a potential hotbed of fungus.
While athlete’s foot remains solely (wink, wink) on the skin’s surface, a staph infection like MRSA can enter your body through any opening in the skin and cause a serious infection throughout your body. MRSA can be contracted the same way athlete’s foot is, in any damp place where other people have walked before you.
The good news is that both of these infections are easily preventable. Most gyms have sanitation wipes readily available and encourage members to wipe down their equipment after each use. Not sure if you can trust your gym mates? To make sure you’re in the clear, always wipe down a communal mat before you use it, and be courteous by wiping down it when you’re done, too. Another great alternative is to carry a yoga mat disinfecting spray, which can nix the germs in a less toxic way, since most have natural antiseptic ingredients. And always remember to follow basic foot hygeine, like never rewearing socks and always washing feet in the shower, to prevent unwelcome guests from setting up camp on your feet.