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Liquid Chalk May Kill Viruses in Gyms, Study Suggests

Woman lifting weights

Key Takeaways

  • Commonly used in gyms to improve grip, liquid chalk may have an unexpected benefit as a virus killer for surfaces.
  • The product did not kill norovirus, which means you should continue to wash hands with soap and water to minimize that risk.
  • If you’re ready to start working out in shared spaces again, there are other useful strategies as well to make you feel protected.

Although liquid chalk is a niche product that is used to assist with better grip, it could get wider adoption thanks to a study in mSphere that suggests it can kill viruses related to COVID-19 and influenza.

The research was prompted by a conversation between Jason Mackenzie, PhD, a laboratory head at the Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity at the University of Melbourne, and his daughter, Oceana Mackenzie, a rock climber who will be competing in the Tokyo Olympics.

Not only did her father build an indoor climbing wall in the garage to help her train, but he also decided to research ways to keep her virus exposure lower during the games.

Liquid chalk is comprised of magnesium carbonate and a considerable amount of alcohol—similar to the level in hand sanitizer—so Mackenzie and his fellow researchers tested four different types of chalk to see if it could defeat three of the most dangerous viruses that have been associated with surface contact:

  • SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19
  • Influenza A
  • Norovirus, which can cause gastroenteritis

Chalk was applied before or after virus exposure, to mimic use inside a gym or on a climbing wall.

Three of the chalk types proved highly effective at killing the first two on the list but norovirus proved resistant. The fourth wasn’t as effective but still made a considerable impact.

“The takeaway from this is that in communal gym settings, liquid chalk can reduce the reach of respiratory viruses, and this supports the use of liquid chalk in major sporting events,” says Mackenzie. It may also provide some comfort to those returning to gyms and approaching shared equipment, he adds.

Facing Down Norovirus

The recent study’s other compelling finding was the lack of effectiveness against norovirus. That means occasional use of hand sanitizer at the gym could be of limited use against this highly contagious virus as well. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that ”you should not use hand sanitizer as a substitute for washing your hands with soap and water.”

Although norovirus is often discussed most whenever there is a cruise ship outbreak, the CDC reports that it can get passed around anywhere, and is most active from November to April. The virus spreads easily and quickly through contaminated foods and surfaces and brings symptoms like:

  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Stomach pain
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Body aches

It’s often called the “stomach flu,” but is unrelated to influenza, the CDC notes. You usually develop symptoms 12 to 48 hours after exposure, and most people feel better within three days. However, it can lead to severe dehydration and complications as a result, so minimizing risk is essential.

For that, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water, especially before eating or preparing food, and after using the toilet.

Back to the Gym

In addition to upping your hand hygiene and considering the use of liquid chalk if you’re strength training—or hand sanitizer for other shared equipment—there are also other precautions that can make you feel safer when going back to working out, suggests Ramsey Bergeron, CPT, a personal trainer and life coach.

Those can include:

  • Bring your own towel and mat
  • Use gym-supplied cleaning stations
  • Avoid using your phone or setting it on shared surfaces, especially in a locker room or bathroom
  • Clean equipment before and after use
  • Wear a mask when distancing is not an option
  • Wash your hands before and after your workout
  • Stay home if you’re sick
  • Exercise in outdoor gym spaces when possible

If you feel nervous about returning to these spaces, consider going at a non-busy time like very early in the morning or the middle of the afternoon.

“Many gym members will be hesitant to return until they feel comfortable doing so,” he says. “Gyms should be proactive right now and making sure everyone, from members to trainers and front desk staff, know what's expected.”

He suggests that if you feel hesitant about returning, talk to the gym owner or manager to ask about what safety measures are in place.

What This Means For You

When returning to the gym, you may want to consider bringing a product like liquid chalk or hand sanitizer to get an extra level of protection when using shared equipment.

 

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  1. McAuley JL, Deerain JM, Hammersla W, Aktepe TE, Purcell DFJ, Mackenzie JM. Liquid chalk is an antiseptic against SARS-CoV-2 and influenza A respiratory viruses. mSphere. 2021;6(3). doi:10.1128/mSphere.00313-21