There’s something disgusting in your shower. You wouldn’t know by looking at it, but that seemingly innocent sea sponge, loofah, pouf or mitt dangling from the shower caddy is teeming with bacteria, mold, yeast and fungus.

“Loofahs and poufs are prime breeding grounds for bacteria,” explains Manhattan-based cosmetic and plastic surgeon Matthew Schulman, MD. “Your dead skin cells get trapped in the nooks and crannies of these fibrous body washing tools, where they become food for bacteria, allowing it to multiply and intensify.”

Lab tests on loofahs have found organisms known to cause conjunctivitis (pink eye), boils, rashes and infections, including one around the mouth called perleche that causes cracks in the corners. You can also easily get folliculitis, which causes red bumps and pustules at the hair follicles, according to Schulman. Studies have shown that a bacterium called P. aeruginosa, which causes numerous infections, can grow rapidly on a loofah within just 24 hours. And more rarely, a germy loofah could impart impetigo (with its blisters, oozing and crusting), warts, strep, the herpes virus and even staph. Yowza!

Related: Quiz: How Safe is Your Bathroom?

Before you swear off the scrubber, consider that when used correctly, a loofah or other body slougher is a great way to exfoliate the skin. “It leads to healthy skin renewal and the glow we often see after microdermabrasion, but at a fraction of the cost,” says dermatologist David Goldberg, MD, director of Skin Laser and Surgery Specialists of New York and New Jersey.

Follow these doctor-recommended tips to banish bugs from your loofah so you can keep your skin healthy, soft — and safe.

Clean your loofah regularly. “Any time you reuse a loofah without properly cleaning it, you are washing with soap and yesterday’s germs,” says Stafford Broumand, MD, associate clinical professor of plastic surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. He recommends soaking your loofah weekly in a 50/50 mixture of water and vinegar or immersing it in a pure essential oil blend for a few hours to kill off the bacteria. You can also wash it thoroughly with hot water and antibacterial soap. Either way, expect to replace your loofah every three to four weeks.

Take it out of the hot, steamy bathroom. A wet loofah is a dangerous loofah. “Bacteria love warm and moist places, and bathrooms are very humid, warm and moist, which is why bacteria breed there excessively to begin with,” Schulman says. A key prevention strategy is to make sure your loofah dries completely between uses. Try shaking it out and moving it to a well-ventilated spot outside the shower to allow it to dry, which will make bacteria less likely to multiply.

Be selfish. “Don’t share a loofah with anyone, especially at the gym,” says dermatologist Elizabeth Tanzi, MD, founder and director of Capital Laser & Skin Care and clinical professor of dermatology at the George Washington Medical Center. “Different people harbor different bacteria, yeast and fungus on their skin,” and what’s normal for your friend — or even a relative — may cause problems for you, especially if it sneaks into your system via a nick, cut or mucous membrane.”

Related: How to Stay Germ-Free at the Gym

Go au naturel. Synthetic sponges are made with antimicrobial ingredients to discourage nasty germs, which sounds good — but the key chemical they use is triclosan, which some studies suggest may be a danger to human health, Schulman says. He recommends opting for all-natural versions of sponges and loofahs, especially if you have sensitive skin or suffer from any type of skin rash, since synthetic materials could aggravate it.

Save the scouring for your bathtub. “You don’t need to press extremely hard or your skin will get red and irritated and even break, creating openings for infection,” says Broumand. “And if you’re extremely aggressive with the loofah, you are pushing bacteria further into your pores and any open wounds or scabs you have on your body.” Instead, Broumand advises, rub gently in a circular motion, and do it only about two to three times a week or less if your skin is sensitive.

Slough strategically. Never loofah your privates or your face. Not only does the body’s more delicate tissue not need exfoliation, but you don’t want to drag fluids from one region (like your bottom) to another (like your mouth). You’ll also want to sidestep any broken skin. “If you have open wounds such as cuts, bug bites, even a minor nick from shaving, completely steer clear of using a loofah there,” Schulman says, “as this can wear down and break open these wounds even more, leading to infection and possibly scarring.”

You could always use a washcloth, which does pretty much the same thing and can go right into the laundry. Just saying. 

Related: The Top Places Mold Hides in Your Home