The gym locker room is a place to catch your breath, scrub up, and congratulate yourself after crushing a tough workout. But it’s also a breeding ground for bacteria.
“The warm and moist environment in the locker room allows for germs and bacteria to be found everywhere,” says Jack Foley, ATC, director of sports medicine and head athletic trainer at Lehigh University. “It’s often the things you can’t see that harm you the most.”
Unfortunately, you can’t avoid stripping down and showering—unless your cubicle mates are cool with working next to a sweaty beast. Instead, steer clear of these common locker-room blunders to emerge from the gym germ-free.
1. Foregoing Flip Flops
Sure, it’s easier to kick off your sneakers and hit the shower right away, but touching your bare feet to the floor in a public place is a terrible idea. Mold, algae, and fungi grow easily in damp shower environments and mix with sweat, skin cells, and even urine. (Yep: Peeing in the gym shower happens more often than you think.) “Fungi need heat and moisture to thrive,” says Foley. “Walking in bare feet makes you the perfect target for a fungal attack.”
Tinea pedis, better known as athlete’s foot, is one of the most common and catchable infections caused by walking around barefoot. Even if you’re clear of open sores or cuts, athlete’s foot can easily jump from its original host, to the shower floor, and on to your unprotected foot.
2. Stuffing Sweaty Clothes in Your Gym Bag
Bags are made to carry your workout gear, but cramming your wet tees, shorts, and socks into your duffel and then forgetting about them for the rest of the day—or worse, the week—is like giving bacteria an open-ended invitation to come and play. “If you’re tossing warm, damp gear in your gym bag after working out, you’re allowing germs to have a free ride home in a perfect petrie dish,” says Foley.
Bring a plastic bag to contain your dirty clothes and wash them as soon as you can. And don’t forget to clean your gym bag once a week: If it’s machine-washable, throw it in with the rest of your workout gear. Or you can carry disinfectant wipes and wipe both the inside and outside to kill leftover germs.
3. Drinking From the Water Fountain
According to commercial cleaning business Coverall, a water fountain can have 2.7 million bacteria per square inch on the spigot. That means you’re likely getting a mouthful of foulness when you bend down to drink or fill your water bottle. To avoid contamination, bring your own bottle from home or purchase a disposable one from the gym vending machines.
4. Not Washing Your Face or Hands
Even if you decide to wait until you get home to hop in the shower, failing to clean these two spots directly after a workout could result in unwelcome consequences. Leaving sweat and grime on your face for an extended period of time may trap dirt and oil in your pores and cause acne breakouts.
And don’t even think about touching your face without washing your hands first. “Infrequent hand washing is largely responsible for transferring infectious organisms from one surface to another,” says Foley. Those dumbbells were gripped by lots of other guys with unknown hygiene practices before you used them. Washing your hands will help prevent the spread of germs and viruses that may be lurking on communal machines and equipment.
5. Toweling Down
Those white, fluffy towels stacked neatly by the showers have the appearance of being fresh and clean, but they might be teaming with E. coli or MRSA. Sometimes gyms use the same transport containers for dirty and “clean” towels, which often pass through multiple employees’ hands before landing in the locker room.
Your best bet is to bring two antimicrobial towels from home: one for wiping down sweat while you workout—never use the side that touches the machinery—and the other for drying off post-shower.