At the gym, it’s common courtesy to wipe down equipment after you use it. How often that actually occurs and how well the cleaning is done is a whole other story. Fitness gear, whether dumbbells, ellipticals, yoga mats, sports bras, socks, or watches, all accumulates plenty of gunk while you’re active. Studies show because of its utility, gear can be a breeding ground for bacteria and viruses- some can lead to discomfort while other’s can be significantly harmful to your health. Today we’ll share why it’s so important to maintain all your gear and mind your hands while exercising.
Stinky, sweaty clothes is a foregone conclusion if you exercise. How dirty it gets depends on how much it is used, the amount of sweat, as well as the material, the humidity of the location, and how tight the garment is. For example, a test by a trained odor panel found polyester T-shirts smelled worse than cotton ones, according to the study in Applied and Environmental Microbiology.
Deanne Mraz Robinson, MD, president and cofounder of Modern Dermatology in Westport, Connecticut says ” Dirty, sweaty gym clothing is a breeding ground for pathogens such as bacteria and viruses, and their use increase risks for superficial skin infections.” Reusing gym clothes can cause a variety of issues:
- It’s likely you may smell. Your skin naturally has microorganisms, also called the skin’s microflora. This microflora also lends a hand to your natural odor. When you sweat, bacteria, oils, and the sweat can build up- reusing pre-worn clothing can mean you’re throwing on musty smelling gear. The more bacteria in your sweat, the greater the chances that you will stink. (Here’s how to get the sweat smell out of clothes.)
- You might develop a bacterial infection. Most of the microflora on your skin is harmless, even beneficial to the host (i.e. you), according to studies. Sources share that your skin also has germs all over which consume the sweat and multiplies. Most often this won’t cause any issues, but if you have any vulnerabilities in your skin- scratches, breaks, lesions, or rashes- the bacteria can lead to an infection.
- While this may seem like a low-level concern as we sweat every day and commonly encounter a variety of skin issues without any significant harm, not all bacteria are equal. In fact, studies show that some fitness equipment (e.g. watches) carry the bacteria staphylococcus aureus (staph), which can lead to infections, including one type, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). MRSA is an antibiotic-resistant germ that the World Health Organization and other health agencies are concerned about.
- You may break out. Even if it isn’t as serious as a staph infection, any case of skin troubles can be a pain. Back-ne (back acne), small breakouts along the hairline, and other acne may be caused by pores that are blocked by seat and dead skin cells. Michele S. Green, MD, a dermatologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City explains “When you sweat, your pores open up, which makes you susceptible to bacteria that can cause breakouts”.
- It may welcome a yeast infection. Yeast lives on our skin, especially in the groin, under the breasts, and in other areas with skin folds. It also thrives in moist, warm, humid environments. Re-wearing sweaty clothes can cause your skin to become irritated from exposure to yeast and bacteria within clothing, says Dr. Green. It does depend how sweaty the clothes became during your fitness session and how well it dried afterwards. However, don’t reuse leggings and underwear, and wash any bottom that you used while going commando after each wear. Washing after each sweat session can help decrease the risk of vaginal yeast or bacterial infections.
If you must reuse exercise clothes, hang it to dry in a non-humid place. If possible, hang them outside to dry in the sun until your next laundry day, as UV kills bacteria, and the growth will be slowed if the fabric is dry.
At the gym
Would you ever rub your hands all over a toilet seat without gloves? Would you then wipe away the sweat on your face with those hands, touch your water bottle- or maybe even rub your eyes? Probably not. Better think twice about how you mind your hands while you’re at the gym- a study has shown that every time you pick up weights at the gym you’re doing even worse than that!
The study tested a variety of gym equipment, with the most shocking finding being that free weights can have 362 times more bacteria than a toilet seat. Three types of gym equipment- treadmills, exercise bikes, and free weights were tested to determine the levels of colony-forming units (CFU) of viable bacteria cells. The results of the cultures showed that on average, the equipment has more than 1 million germs per square inch (each).
All three types of equipment yielded gram-positive cocci (a common cause of skin infections and other illnesses); gram-negative rods (which can prompt many types of infections and sometimes resist antibiotics), and gram-positive rods (which can – but don’t often – cause various types of infections). The exercise bikes and free weight samples also turned up Bacillus – a potential cause of various conditions, including ear, eye, and respiratory infections.
Fitbits, Apple and Garmin watches, and many more are common accessories used by those keeping active. While very helpful in tracking your progress and helping guide your outside adventures, researchers from Florida Atlantic University (FAU) found that 95% of wristbands on these devices were contaminated with dangerous bacteria.
The researchers tested plastic, rubber, cloth, leather and metal (gold and silver) wristbands in search of a correlation between the material of the wristband and bacteria build-up.
Specifically, 85% were found with Staphylococcus which causes staph infections-remember back to the danger of harmful bacteria if you have any skin abrasion? It’s no coincidence that the internet is full of people asking how long the rash under their watch will take to clear up, curious if it’s serious, and how to clear it up! The area under the contaminated watch becomes sweaty, friction naturally occurs with movement and together, it’s a perfect breeding ground for an infection.
In addition to staph, 60% of wristbands had E. coli bacteria and 30% carried potentially deadly Pseudomonas. These bacteria can lead to a wide variety of clinical maladies including pneumonia and blood infections.
To prevent any kind of infection and spread of harmful bacteria, frequently clean down your watch bands with antibacterial wipes and also take a break from wearing the devices. Even if the devices are clean, sweat is unavoidable and the frequent contact with your skin can still result in rashes or discomfort over time.
Take practical steps to protect your health as you work on your fitness. Wash your sweaty clothes regularly. Thoroughly clean your accessories. Use hand sanitizer at the gym and be aware of your hand hygiene, which is also especially important as we head into cold and flu (and RSV and COVID) season.