You’re probably already a pro at wiping down the handlebars on the treadmill or sopping up sweat on the bench. But how about the gym mat you just unrolled—can there be gross stuff lurking on that, too?
According to a recent blog post by surgeon David A. Greuner, M.D., FACS, FICS, gym mats can be grosser than you think. In fact, he claims that coming in contact with a dirty gym mat can raise your risk of skin infections and acne—and even transfer herpes to susceptible individuals.
That’s right: He’s saying you can get herpes from your gym mat. But is it really true?
Well, while there is some disagreement on how likely it is to occur, it’s not exactly outside the realm of possibility that it’s theoretically possible.
“It is rare, but can occur, especially if the mat is not cleaned after use,” says dermatologist Lauren Eckert Ploch, M.D., of the Georgia Dermatology and Skin Cancer Centre.
First of all, we don’t know exactly what kind of herpes Dr. Gruener is referring to in his post. There are two kinds: Herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) usually causes the cold sores that you get on your lips. (There’s also a specific type of HSV-1 called Herpes gladiatorum, which is referred to as “mat herpes,” and is often spread among athletes.) Herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2) is usually responsible for the sexually-transmitted below-the-belt blisters. Still, oral sex can spread HSV-1 to the genital area, and vice versa.
In order for that gym mat to be considered a vector of disease, someone needs to transfer their virus to it in the first place. It would make more sense that the herpes virus that causes cold sores would be a greater risk from your gym mat than the one that causes genital sores. It’s generally frowned upon to stick your hands down your pants in a public place, whereas people put their hands in their mouths pretty often.
“The virus can spread from one area to another (i.e. from the lips to the fingers) and it can also spread to inanimate objects, called fomites,” says Dr. Ploch. “If objects are not clean or dry, the virus can survive for a few hours.”
The possibility—even if it’s rare—of picking up herpes from your gym mat sounds more than a little out there, so we checked in with Men’s Health dermatology advisor, Adnan Nasir, M.D., for his thoughts, too.
“I agree that it is possible,” he said, and pointed us to a review in BMC Infectious Diseases, which said that HSV-1 and HSV-2 can survive on inanimate surfaces for a few hours up to seven days.
Related: 4 STDs You Might Already Have
But what about actually contracting the virus, once it’s on the mat?
“The most likely scenario is [the virus] coming into contact with skin on the hands and then touching your lips or your genitals,” says Dr. Ploch. “That could spread the virus to that area if there was broken skin.”
Still, the chances of the virus drying out or dying is way more common once it makes its way to a mat than it is when it’s on someone’s lip skin, says Dr. Nasir.
“The likelihood of transmission is much higher in person-to-person contact rather than person to fomite (gym mat) contact,” he explains. The most common way you can contract herpes is through direct contact—skin on skin contact, like kissing for oral herpes, or sex for genital herpes. However, it’s also possible through droplet exposure in you mucous membranes like in the eyes, nose, or mouth.
So even though the risk of herpes from your gym mat may be low, it’s not exactly nonexistent. That means it’s still smart to clean your mat before you use it.
According to a study published in the Journal of Microbiology, disinfectants like Lysol or bleach easily take care of the herpes virus in 5 to 10 minutes. So bringing a travel size packet of wipes to the gym—or using your gym’s cleaner, if it’s bleach-based—can put your worries at rest.
“Wipe it with a bleach wipe before and after activity,” says Dr. Ploch. “Allow the mat to dry thoroughly after cleaning.”
By Emily Shiffer