Maybe Clean Your Gym Bag and Yoga Mat Every Now and Again?


Jolie Kerr is a cleaning expert and advice columnist. She’ll be here every other week helping to answer your filthiest questions. Are you dirty? Email her.

Okay, so I’m not sure if you ever covered this before: How do I clean a gym bag? It doesn’t get dirty per se, but it carries my gym clothes. And it spends at least an hour at a time locked in a stuffy locker room, and I don’t know if the lockers get washed out very often. The more I think about it, the grosser it is.
I have two gym bags. One of them is just your standard canvas zip-up type bag, and I figure I can throw that one in the washing machine, right? The other one is a combination of mystery fabrics and has a lining and kind of a structure to it (either really thick piping or cardboard or both.) What should I do to clean it?

‘Tis the season to hit the gym and since folks are still feeling relatively resolution-y, this is as good a time as any to talk to you about cleaning your gym bags from time to time.

Remember last year (of course you do, it was, like, two weeks ago) when the hot hot hot story was how your handbag is germier than a toilet? The same thing applies to gym bags—and then some. Gyms are wonderful places, but they’re also festering germ motels, so every time you set your bag down, whether in a locker, on the floor, on a changing bench, wherever, it’s going to pick up bacteria. The interior of the bag isn’t immune, because we toss in our dirty workout gear, our sneaks, maybe a wet towel … all those things that create a tremendously hospitable environment in which bacteria can thrive.

The problem with bacteria is that it breeds smells, sure, but also that bacteria buildup can, in some cases, lead to infections like staph. And no one wants a staph infection! So both for the sake of your nose and for the sake of not getting a staph infection it’s not a terrible idea to clean your gym bag from time to time. I’m gonna level with you and tell you that other cleaning experts, you know, the ones who don’t live in our reality, suggest cleaning your gym bag once a week. If you want to do that, great, you’ve made me a very happy Clean Person. But I’m willing to guess that most of you aren’t going to clean your gym bag every week. And you know? That’s also fine. You’ve survived this long without cleaning it, what’s a little more time gonna do? But I do feel like I should tell you what the other experts say, so now I’ve said it and we can move on.

In terms of the canvas bag that our LW mentioned, yes that can go in the washing machine. Use minimal detergent and cold water only. The cold water part is really important because canvas will shrink right up if you wash it in hot water and then your favorite dollie will have a lovely new tote. After washing, reshape the bag as best you can while it’s still damp and allow it to air dry. The canvas may be a bit less stiff after washing, so be prepared for that. Also if it looks a bit wrinkly after you’ve reshaped it, that’s okay—as it dries those wrinkles and divots will work themselves out.

When it comes to other kinds of gym bags, check the care tag to find out if it’s machine washable and follow whatever other instructions are provided as to water temperature and such. If the care tag has gone missing, you can always look on the manufacturer’s website to see if care instructions are available there. When in doubt, skip the machine and give the bag a quick sponge bath using a mild liquid detergent. To do that, just wipe the interior and exterior of the bag down with a damp sponge and a small amount (and I do mean small—about a teaspoon will do it) of detergent. Then rinse the sponge well and go back over the bag a few times to remove the soap residue and allow the bag to air dry.

Disinfecting wipes are also a good way to quickly relieve a gym bag of its bacterial buildup; they’re also convenient in that you can get an envelope of them and stash it right in the bag.

I got a second-hand yoga mat from my boyfriend. It doesn’t smell spectacular and it’s got some dark scuffy marks. Yoga mats are pretty porous so I don’t really know where to start with this … probably white vinegar?

“Probably white vinegar?” is going to be the name of my memoir. (I’m not actually ever going to write a memoir.)

So yes, white vinegar is certainly one way to go when it comes to disinfecting a yoga mat. Of course it is. But it’s not the only way!

Before we get into things that are not white vinegar that can be used to clean yoga mats, a quick primer on yoga mat cleaning methods: There are two primary ways to go about cleaning your mat—using a disinfecting spray or wipe and deep cleaning the mat. Both are important, and in the case of a hand-me-down or heavily soiled mat, you should start with a deep cleaning. Sprays and wipes are for regular use, and are more or less a labor-free endeavor; just a little spritz spritz will do. There are other things you can do, such as simply airing the mat out, but most of what we’ll talk about today are the spritzes and the deep cleans.

Since they’re the easier of the two, we’ll start with spritzes. This is what you’ll use for day-to-day sanitizing; it’s really just as simple as giving the mat a light spraying. Light is a key word there—because yoga mats are so porous, you don’t want to saturate the mat with your cleaner.

There are as many options for your yoga mat spray as there are yoga poses themselves, so if you’ve got a favorite “recipe” that you’d like to share please do so in the comments. Some popular ingredients for DIY yoga mat spray are essential oils with antibacterial properties like tea tree, lavender or grapefruit seed oil; witch hazel; lemon juice & baking soda; mild soaps/detergents like castile (Dr. Bronner’s is one brand to look for; Caldrea also makes nice castile soaps); and of course our old pal white vinegar. These ingredients can be mixed and matched, with the exception of baking soda and vinegar because you don’t want a volcano, diluted with water and stored in a spray bottle. You may want to have two bottles, one large and one small, so you can leave the larger one at home and toss the smaller bottle in your gear bag.

There are also a number of commercial yoga mat sprays and wipes available if you’re not up for making your own—also, some people swear by Mrs. Meyer’s all-purpose cleaner when it comes to keeping your mat fresh. Mrs. Meyer’s is fine, because it’s made with mild natural ingredients, but don’t swap in, like, 409 for Mrs. Meyer’s. Mostly because you don’t want the chemicals used in 409 and other harsher all-purpose sprays getting all over your skin while you’re perfecting your bakasana.

If you’ve inherited a mat from someone else, or just have never washed your mat, it’s a good idea to give it a deeper cleaning than what spraying will provide. Generally speaking, you should bathe your mat on a semi-regular basis anyway. It’s tricky to give you a rule about how often washing should happen because it depends more on how often you use the mat, but maybe every one to three months? Again, it really depends on usage. If you do hot yoga, you should wash your mat as often as possible. The caveat is that yoga mats tend to take some time to dry completely, so you’ll want to schedule washing day for a time in which you know you’re going to take a break from your practice for at least a day or two.

The best way to deep clean your mat is to do so by hand, though many people use their washing machine (cold water, small amount of mild detergent—you all know the drill by now). If you have a front-loader, great, go with goddess. If you’ve got a top-loader with a center agitator, machine washing won’t be ideal, as the agitator can damage the mat by leaving nicks in the material.

In terms of hand washing, the bathtub is really the best way to go because you can unfurl the mat and wash it flat. This is a pretty easy process: fill the tub with cold or lukewarm water, add a small amount of mild detergent and submerge the mat. Allow it to soak a bit and then go in and give it a scrub, using either a sponge or something like a washcloth. If the mat is really heavily soiled, allow it to soak for longer—the wash water will turn a frightening and oddly satisfying color as the mat’s buildup leeches out.

Once you’re satisfied with the mat’s cleanliness, drain the wash water, refill the tub with clean water and press down on the mat while submerged to release any soap it’s absorbed. You may need to repeat this process two or three times to get the mat fully rinsed; this is another reason why you’ll only want to use a small amount of detergent when washing the mat. Too much detergent and you’ll be rinsing for ages.

Once the mat is rinsed, drain the tub again and press down on the mat to release as much water as you can. To dry it, you can either simply hang it and let it air dry or, to speed things along, place a clean towel on top of the mat and roll the mat up before air drying.


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Jolie Kerr is the author of the upcoming book My Boyfriend Barfed In My Handbag … And Other Things You Can’t Ask Martha (Plume, February 25, 2014); more cleaning-obsessed natterings can be found on Twitter, Kinja, and Tumblr. Squalor appears on Jezebel and Deadspin on alternating weeks.

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