A lot of planning goes into a perfect gym bag unzip moment—you know, when you get into the locker room, open your bag, and discover that you actually packed everything you need to work out. Honestly, you deserve a medal for those days, because you’ve probably managed to grab a padlock, your water bottle, a change of clothes, your toiletries, and hopefully your shower shoes. Yes, you need flip-flops or some other protection when you’re wandering around the locker room or showering at your gym. I didn’t make the rules. Don’t @ me.
If your gym is anything like mine, there are usually a bunch of people merrily skipping toward the shower without flip-flops. I always wondered if I was being unreasonably squeamish about viewing shower shoes as a non-negotiable part of rinsing off at the gym, so I talked to experts. Unreasonably squeamish I am not.
Gym locker rooms are germ factories.
When we use the word “germs,” what we’re really talking about are fungi, bacteria, and viruses, John Zampella, M.D. assistant professor of dermatology at New York University Langone Health, tells SELF. Not all of the germs you encounter out and about in the world—even in a place like a gym locker room—will actually make you sick. But some certainly can, and we call those pathogens.
As a general rule, germs love warm, moist environments and hard surfaces, Dr. Zampella says. Translation: A place like a gym locker room is basically heaven for germs. Without shower shoes or some other kind of foot shield, these germs can stick to the bottom of your feet and potentially cause infections if they enter your system, Dr. Zampella says. This is especially true if you have any cuts or scratches that could act as an entry point for pathogens.
Trichophyton, one of the more typical locker room pathogens, belongs to a type of fungi known as dermatophytes. In order to grow, dermatophytes get nutrients from keratin, a protein in the outer layer of your skin, hair, and nails, according to the Merck Manual. An overgrowth of dermatophytes like trichophyton can cause issues like athlete’s foot, an infection that begins as an itchy, red, and scaly rash that starts between the toes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). You can pick up this kind of fungi in damp areas or when skin cells containing the infection come into contact with your skin.
Having damp feet can also create a breeding ground for athlete’s foot, as can long nails, which can house (and spread) the fungi in question. This means that, even if you do wear flip-flops in the shower, you should dry your toes thoroughly any time your feet get wet, Priya Parthasarathy, D.P.M, spokesperson for the American Podiatric Medical Association and Chief of Podiatry at Medstar Montgomery Medical Center, tells SELF. And if you forgo a shower altogether at the gym, remember that your feet and socks might still be damp from your workout. Do your feet a solid and change into fresh socks, Dr. Parthasarathy says. The Mayo Clinic also suggests alternating between a few pairs of your favorite sneakers to give your shoes time to dry between workouts and making sure any sneakers you use are well-ventilated.
Luckily, if you do wind up with athlete’s foot, it’s pretty easily treatable. There are various over-the-counter anti-fungal treatments available, the Mayo Clinic explains. But if you haven’t had a diagnosed case of athlete’s foot before and you’re not sure that’s what you’re dealing with, it makes sense to see a doctor for a diagnosis before treatment if you can. Seeing a doctor can also equip you with strategies for not spreading athlete’s foot to other areas of your body, like your groin. (Put on your socks before your underwear so you’re not giving that fungus a free ride to a spot where you definitely don’t want it, Dr. Zampella says.)
Another common pathogen that can lurk in gym locker rooms is human papillomavirus (HPV), which can cause plantar warts when it infects your un-flip-flopped feet. While you’re barefoot and holding back the urge to belt Beyoncé because you’re technically in public, the virus can enter your system through any cuts or weakened skin. The result? You might sprout a few small, painful growths on the bottoms of your feet, usually in the areas that get the most weight (like the base of your toes), according to the Mayo Clinic. Sometimes you’ll see black pinpoints in the middle of the warts, which are actually tiny clotted blood vessels, the Mayo Clinic explains.
Like many virus symptoms, plantar warts may go away on their own, the Mayo Clinic says. You can try over-the-counter plantar wart treatments if yours really hurt or are spreading. Definitely consider seeing your doctor if the wart is bleeding, super painful, changes color, or if you have a weakened immune system for any reason.
If learning about athlete’s foot and plantar warts hasn’t made you want to staple flip-flops to your feet (sorry for that image, but seriously), it’s time for us to talk about staph infections. Staphylococcus aureus bacteria naturally live on the skin of around 20 percent of healthy people, according to the Merck Manual. It’s possible to have this kind of bacteria on your skin without any ill effects. But it’s also possible to get a skin infection from Staphylococcus bacteria—in fact, that’s the most common way a staph infection presents, according to the Merck Manual.
Skin-based staph infections can manifest as a number of conditions, like folliculitis (an infected hair follicle), cellulitis (a painful infection of the skin and underlying tissue), and abscesses (warm, pus-filled pockets). It’s also theoretically possible to get methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), which is basically a staph infection that’s resistant to antibiotics, the CDC explains. People often freak out a bit about MRSA, so let’s put this into the right context: MRSA most commonly occurs in health care settings like hospitals, not gym locker rooms, the Merck Manual says. In fact, when researchers in a small 2012 American Journal of Infection Control study took 99 samples from various surfaces within a large university fitness center, none of the 10 staph-containing samples were the resistant kind. With that said, MRSA can technically show up in communal areas like pools and athletic facilities, according to the CDC. Like other dermatological infections, you’re most at risk if you have some sort of break in your skin.
MRSA skin infections can lead to skin boils that are tender, warm to the touch, filled with pus, and sometimes accompanied by a fever, the CDC says. It’s hugely important to note that you cannot tell if you have a staph (or any other kind of) infection simply by looking at a sore. If you have a cut or boil that seems infected, visit a doctor.
To avoid getting MRSA, the CDC recommends maintaining excellent hygiene (particularly after exercise), keeping any breaks in your skin clean and protected until they heal, not sharing personal objects like towels and razors, and seeing a doctor ASAP if you think you have MRSA. And, though the CDC doesn’t explicitly cite wearing flip-flops as a MRSA prevention method, it’s a really simple way to keep your feet away from whatever germs—MRSA or otherwise—might be hanging out on the gym bathroom floor.
OMG what if you haven’t been wearing shower shoes?
You’re not doomed, though we wouldn’t blame you if you’re thoroughly grossed out. Here’s the thing: Our bodies have natural defenses (hello, immune system) that help to keep us healthy, Philip Tierno, Ph.D., clinical professor of microbiology and pathology at NYU Langone Health and author of the book The Secret Life of Germs, tells SELF. So, if you’ve been going barefoot around your gym for a while now and nothing bad has happened, that’s awesome, but it doesn’t mean you should keep doing it.
As Dr. Zampella points out, “Lots of people walk around barefoot all the time in the gym and don’t catch those things, right?” It does mean you’re assuming a certain level of risk, but a lot of this also comes down to luck, he says.
You gotta clean the shower shoes, though.
After reading about all the grossness you might encounter in a gym locker room, you might wish you could actually trade your flip-flops for a pair of galoshes (even though that would make the whole foot-washing thing a little hard). Wearing flip-flops really does count as doing your due diligence here, Dr. Zampella says…as long as you clean them somewhat regularly.
Tierno recommends using cheap flip-flops that you can completely submerge in a diluted bleach solution of around one part bleach and nine parts water for about 10 minutes after every use. If that feels a little too ambitious on top of, you know, actually working out, Tierno suggests spraying your flip-flops down with a disinfectant spray post-use. You can also periodically sprinkle your flip-flops with antifungal shoe or foot powder to be extra-cautious, Dr. Zampella says.
And if you forget your flip-flops and have to take a quick shower? Make sure to clean and dry your feet thoroughly afterward so that you minimize the opportunity for any type of infection to take root. “The easy answer is to just take your bag and shower at home” if you can, Dr. Zampella says. “But … if you’re willing to take the risk, then it’s probably fine to shower at the gym every once in a while without your flip-flops.”