So you’ve finally made it to a yoga class and you're sweating out toxins and you're doing your deep belly breathing. You're detoxing, right? But somewhere between Warrior 1 and Down Dog, are you absorbing even more chemicals back in through your toxic yoga mat?
Chances are, that your yoga mat actually is made of toxic materials that are leaching harmful chemicals. The most common material for yoga mats is PVC (polyvinyl chloride) which if you're not already familiar with it, is a form of plastic that has been made pliable and soft through phthalates and other chemical plasticizers.
From pilates to physical therapy, plenty of people have a mat around the house that’s not used for yoga, but the toxic considerations remain the same. We’re huge fans of yoga (and exercise and movement in general) but it’s no secret how much we detest PVC. Vinyl (#3 recycling code) is commonly used as a nickname for PVC and it's everywhere in modern life, even in our exercise mats.
Why go to all the trouble to avoid toxic PVC (vinyl) plastic?
Lead. Phthalates. VOC's. Dioxin. Just for starters. It's nothing to mess around with, especially considering that these chemicals are well-established carcinogens and endocrine disruptors that wreak havoc on our bodies.
Keep an eye out for soft, flexible vinyl – the most problematic because of the stabilizers (like lead and other heavy metals) and plasticizers (like phthalates) required to make it more pliable.
- Due to its chlorinated makeup, the entire life cycle of vinyl is responsible for the formation of more dioxin than any other single product. Dioxin is a well-known carcinogen and can affect the reproductive, immune, endocrine and neurological systems.
- Chlorine production for PVC results in the release of over 200,000 pounds of mercury to air, water and land each year.
- To make vinyl products flexible, controversial plasticizers known as phthalates are used, accounting for nearly 90 percent of total phthalate consumption. This translates into more than five million tons used for vinyl every year.
- Lead is often added to vinyl construction products as a stabilizer to extend its life. It is estimated that 45,000 tons of lead each year are released into the environment during its disposal by incineration.
You'll need to assume that the term “vinyl” means PVC unless you've been able to verify the details with manufacturer.
But what about phthalate-free vinyl (PVC #3)? That's safe, right?
While it's a step in the right direction, we're still left to worry about with many other harmful chemicals common to PVC. Even phthalate-free PVC still isn’t a safe plastic because of the other harmful chemicals often used during production. The Center for Health Environment and Justice names the following possible concerns with PVC:
- May contain dioxin (a known carcinogen)
- May contain volatile organic compounds (VOC’s)
- May contain organotins
- May contain lead, cadmium and other metals
- Heat and humidity can increase the release of these chemicals
Have you ever purchased a new yoga mat and then unrolled for the first time and been unpleasantly surprise by a chemically “new yoga mat” smell? Does that mean it’s off-gassing toxins? If it’s made from PVC, probably. If it’s made from natural rubber, no. Natural rubber products (which we'll discuss later on this article) have a strong smell for the first several weeks until they air out, but they aren't off-gassing toxins.
What about TPE?
Thermoplastic elastomers (TPE) is being sold as an eco-friendly alternative to PVC and most new-to-market yoga mats are made with it and being marketed as “safe” or “safer”. It's a more stable compound that is manufactured with closed cell technology (so sweat, germs, and microbes don't penetrate the surface) but it's too new to say how it interacts with our bodies. And while TPE is free of Bisphenol-A (BPA), PVC, Lead, Phthalates, and Dioxins, there are still concerns about its long term safety. It's definitely cheaper and more durable than all natural materials, but we're sticking with recommendations for sustainable, all natural yoga mats.
But as we always say: this is a journey. The idea is to start by making one lifestyle change at a time.
Non-Toxic Yoga Mat Materials
So where does that leave us when we want a truly non-toxic (and eco-friendly) yoga mat or exercise mat?
We used to focus on frugal choices because like dad used to say, money doesn’t grow on trees. . . but fortunately, sustainable cork and natural rubber do grow on trees! So now we focus on quality over cost, as much as possible.
Non-toxic yoga mats tend to be made from all natural materials which are also biodegradable. Being biodegradable, they will start to break down over time which is both a pro and a con since sometimes they start breaking down while we're still using them. All natural mats are also more expensive and heavier than the cheap $15 PVC mats. That’s okay by us though, we’re willing to sacrifice convenience for our health!
Options for non-toxic and sustainable yoga mats include:
- Cork (cork is made from cork trees in Portugal – which are not cut down in the harvesting process – and is naturally antimicrobial and maintains its grip even under sweaty conditions)
- All natural rubber
- Hemp and organic cotton (for yoga rugs/towels, but not for a true cushioned and grippy mat)
Natural rubber products may also have a strong ‘natural rubber’ smell until they full air out over a few weeks. If you are allergic to latex, use caution with natural rubber although many manufacturers do state that their natural rubber is still safe for latex allergies.
Non-Toxic Yoga Mat Recommendations
This list isn't comprehensive of every non-toxic choice available on the market, but these have been the highest rated that meet our criteria. And…they're stylin' too. 😍 Read the reviews before you buy to see feedback on how it worked for different uses such as thickness for knee cushioning, stability, and portability (some all natural rubber mats can be very heavy).
- Manduka eKO Lite Yoga and Pilates Mat is made of natural tree rubber
- Original Eco Yoga Mat by Barefoot Yoga is an eco-friendly and non-toxic blend of jute and natural rubber
- Scoria Botanical Cork Yoga Mat is made of natural cork and tree rubber
- Basically Perfect is made of natural cork and tree rubber
DIY Yoga Mat Cleaner Recipe
Okay, so now that you’ve invested in a safe yoga mat (or at least you're planning on it), you’ll want an all natural cleaning spray to keep it clean!
Fortunately, Tea Tree Oil (Melaleuca alternifolia) is inexpensive and readily available. It's naturally antiseptic, anti-microbial, and effective but still gentle enough to be used on the skin. And clinical Research is now supporting what we've seen for years.
“A wealth of in vitro data now supports the long-held beliefs that TTO has antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties.”
Essential Oil Yoga Mat Cleaner
This is the fun part where you get to play essential oil alchemist. The following cleaning base recipe can be tweaked and customized with whatever essential scents are most appealing to you. (Check out our post on the differences between absolute and essential oils)
Essential Oil Yoga Mat Spray
- 1 2 oz or 4 oz spray bottles (we like sturdy glass bottles like these ones)
- Approximately 3/4 cup of water
- 1/4 cup Witch Hazel (white vinegar can also be used)
- 5 drops tea tree oil
- 2 drops eucalyptus oil (optional)
- 2-3 drops of lavender, lemongrass, or lemon essential oil (optional)
Mix together in a bowl or a measuring cup (a pyrex measuring cup works well) and pour into your glass or stainless steel spray bottle. Spray over mat and wipe down with a clean cloth and let air dry.
NOTE: Lavender essential oil is toxic to cats (although fresh lavender is not), and full strength (100% undiluted) tea tree oil is toxic to both cats and dogs, so be safe and use this disinfectant spray out of their reach.
Before we sign off, here's one more handy tip for keeping those floor germs off your hands and face when you're practicing yoga or pilates.
When you've finished your practice, instead of starting at the end of your mat and rolling it up, instead, fold the practicing surface of your yoga mat in half and THEN roll it up. That way the surface that touches your face and hands never comes in contact with the surface that touches the ground.
Do you have another favorite non-toxic mat that we didn't list? Let us know your favorites in the comments below!