What Coronavirus cleaning protocols mean for your equipment

With the Coronavirus dominating our news feeds, many Pilates studio owners are wondering how to prevent the spread of the virus in their studio.  I’ve seen countless articles on cleaning protocols and discussions on how to (and whether to) keep the doors open when clients might be avoiding crowded spaces.

With this heightened emphasis on disinfecting surfaces, I’ve received several questions from concerned studio owners about how to balance disinfecting with not ruining expensive Pilates equipment.  So, I decided to write a blog post about it.

One note before I begin: I’m an engineer who cares deeply about Pilates and Pilates equipment.  I’m not a chemist or a doctor or a public health specialist, though I try to listen to their advice. You should, too!

First of all, if you use good cleaning practices on the regular, then you should continue doing what you’re doing and be okay.  There are many other germs that can spread in your studio besides the Coronavirus, and we should always be mindful of keeping as clean a space as possible.  The same good cleaning practices that prevent those germs from spreading also prevents the Coronavirus from spreading.

However, as a Pilates instructor who keeps a casual eye on clients’ cleaning habits after class, I know most students (and studios) can stand to step up their regular efforts to meet the bare minimum requirements I recommend all the time.

What to use

When cleaning, your regular soap and water mixture is appropriate.  I mix 1 teaspoon of regular dish soap with 16oz of water in a spray bottle.  This is typically the only solution approved by the vinyl manufacturers for regular use.  

Just like we are telling people to wash their hands with soap for 20 seconds, you need to apply appropriate mechanical effort to clean a surface.  Simply spraying soap and water on the surface isn’t enough- you or your clients must gently scrub.  Please use clean cloths or paper towels.

Solutions like alcohol, undiluted bleach, Lysol, and essential oils can cause the vinyl to break down early by changing color or drying out and cracking. These can also significantly and irreversibly dull wood finish.

Many of you will say, “I’ve been using XYZ for years with no problems!” and that’s okay.  I recognize this is sometimes a sensitive subject, and that every studio ages and wears differently than its neighbor. (Seriously.)

Where to use it

It’s important to remember, though, that the vinyl is not the only thing you need to be cleaning after each session, thus it shouldn’t be the only thing we check for compatibility with cleaning solutions.

It’s very important (and often overlooked) that when cleaning after each client EVERY surface they touched is gently scrubbed.  This means wood frames, footbars, jumpboards, boxes, kneeling pads, mats, squishy balls, boxes, foam rollers, ropes, and loops…. Wait, ropes and loops!?  How do you clean those after every session?

The short answer is, you don’t.  Not well, anyway. The fact is, one cleaner or disinfectant cannot work for all surfaces.  Porous surfaces like cloth, foam, and leather require different cleaning protocols than harder surfaces like vinyl, wood, and metal.  

I hate to burst your bubble but we as Pilates studios have never had good loop cleaning practices.

Don’t freak out, yet, though.  

The bottom line is it’s very likely that the simple act of washing your hands (or using hand sanitizer) and avoiding touching your face will do enough to keep you protected from all those unknown, scary microbes.  This is THE most important thing to remember.

Here’s a great (and short) video on handwashing from the CDC.

Disinfection comes with caveats

If you are still set on using a disinfectant like bleach or alcohol, here’s my note of caution:  

These strong disinfectants WILL shorten the life of your Pilates equipment from an aesthetic point of view. Remember, we’re not just talking about the vinyl, here.  I don’t know exactly how quickly (that depends on a lot of factors!) but using alcohol strong enough to disinfect or a diluted bleach solution will eventually make your vinyl and wood surfaces look like crap with use multiple times per day.  It will dry them out, dull or even strip wood finish, and cause discoloration. Plus, cloth loops or leather straps can leech dye onto other parts of the equipment. (Plus, who wants to workout with wet straps anyway!?)  Metal surfaces, however, are perfectly appropriate for most cleaners.

I can’t predict how quickly you’ll see changes, but eventually you will.  It’s possible that using a tough disinfectant for two weeks will be fine for some studios and not for others.

Instead, I propose a compromise.  Consider doing a thorough disinfecting at the end of each day to allow the disinfectant time to actually do its job and keep clients from smelling all those strong smells and feeling wet equipment.  Please closely follow the directions of the cleaners you use. Many of them require the solution to sit for some length of time to be effective, and/or they require that the person cleaning wear gloves and only use it in a well-ventilated area.  There are lots of ways to misuse household disinfectants, so make sure that if you’re going through the extra effort to use them, you’re using them properly.

What next?

There have been lots of great articles written with recommendations for studio owners.  In general, here is what they recommend:

  1. Let your clients know you are taking your cleaning responsibilities seriously, and remind them of good equipment cleaning practices they should follow after their sessions.
  2. Consider lifting your cancellation policy so there is NO financial incentive to come to class sick.  That’s a slightly confusing way of saying let your clients late-cancel if it means they keep their germs at home.
  3. Remind your clients and instructors that frequent hand washing is a must.  Wash before and after class with soap and water for 20 seconds.  Providing extra hand sanitizer might be a good idea (if your local store actually still has some).  Also, avoid touching your face.
  4. Suggest that concerned clients consider purchasing their own loops (if that’s what you use) and maybe even that handy Reformer towel from Salt + Honey.  
  5. Follow all your local government health department guidelines. This may mean reducing group class capacity to maintain a 6′ radius or cancelling group classes.

Now, I want to add my own equipment-specific advice here:

Good cleaning practices mean gently scrubbing every single hard, non-porous surface that a client touched between sessions. EVERY. SINGLE. ONE.  That includes:

  • All Vinyl (Carriage, mats, shoulder rests, headrest, standing platforms, jumpboards)
  • Any wood surfaces like the frame, handles, push-through bar, dowels, standing platform, etc.
  • Rubber balls
  • Dowels
  • Magic circles
  • Push-Through bars
  • Pedals
  • Roll-down bars
  • Springs

Bonus: Cleaning these surfaces keeps them looking pretty for a long time, too.  Say goodbye to black marks, dirt, and sticky gunk!

(Also, please don’t forget about regular cleaning of non-Pilates equipment like doorknobs, handles on sink faucets, countertops, and light switches.)

Final thoughts

Here are some articles and resources I found helpful:

If you’d like a tl;dr version to pass along, here it is:

  • Remind clients to wash their hands before and after class, and avoid touching their face.  This is the most effective practice you can promote.
  • Soap and water should clean surfaces just fine – remember to gently scrub and not just quickly wipe.
  • Clean EVERY surface a client touched after each class.
  • If you must use heavy disinfectants, read their directions carefully to maximize effectiveness and be aware they can damage your equipment.  How quickly this damage will appear varies greatly.

P.S. If you’re looking for some guidance on re-opening your studio after sheltering in-place, check out The COVID-19 Cleaning Guide for Pilates Studios. It includes 1 hour of video lecture, printable signs and handouts, and an email template to use to inform your clients of your new safety precautions.