Finding the Best Yoga Mat—for YOU
Many customers ask, what is the best yoga mat? It’s one of the top google queries, in fact, when it comes to yoga supplies and gear.
The thing is, “best” is a relative term. Subjective and totally dependent on what kind of practice you have, what your own sensitivities and lifestyle goals are, and if you are a studio owner providing mats for 100 students or just buying one for home.
The 5 Most Common Yoga Mats
Here’s a quickie breakdown of common mat options, and some major brands that carry each type of mat. For actual component definitions, see Recipe for A Mat, below.
PVC mats are good for those on a budget, or for studios or gyms buying many mats. It is long lasting and durable, and comes in all those nice colors—and you can print on it. Sticky, slip resistant, and cushy, PVC mats are a great alternative for a lot of yogis. Some PVC mats are “Oeko-tex” certified, meaning they have passed this third-party(1) criteria for certain environmental standards. Most PVC mats have a smell that takes a while to go away.
Bolder Mat, DragonFly, Gaiam, Wai Lana, Hugger Mugger, Manduka
TPE yoga mats are a good alternative if you are concerned about the chlorine in PVC. There is often less smell associated with TPE mats (although this varies), and it still provides a sticky non-slip surface. More recyclable than PVC mats, though not quite as long wearing.
DragonFly, prAna, Bolder Mat, Yoga Accessories, Hugger Mugger
Natural Rubber yoga mats are a more sustainable option in terms of ingredients, though the processing can be arguably toxic. Great non-slip on the floor and in poses, probably the best option for hot yoga. Obviously if there is a latex allergy this is not a solution. Mats do have an odor because of the heating in the rubber manufacturing process but this usually fades in time. Most rubber mats do contain chemical ingredients or residues, so don’t be misled.
Jade, Manduka, prAna, Hugger Mugger
Jute mats are a newer option, and with rubber mats, lead the “eco-mat” market. Jute naturally provides a non-slip surface on wood, and it is the most sustainable in terms of raw material. Yoga mats made with jute also typically use PER (polymer environmental resin), which softens the jute but also can make the mat less sticky during asana practice. Generally less smelly, but because PER is a chemical compound, this varies with manufacturer. Some yogis may find the jute fiber scratchy, and the mat is absorbent during hot practice, but more challenging to clean. Less durable than PVC.
Hugger Mugger, Barefoot Yoga, EcoYoga
Cotton mats offer durability, less allergen issues, and a relatively chemical free option
(depending on dyes). Most yogis find that they must use some type of under-mat on hardwood floors to keep from slipping, though the mats perform well during asanas such as downward dog. Cotton, unless organic, is a pesticide intensive crop, so there are still environmental considerations, but many yogis find cotton mats the best eco-mat solution. Generally there is no smell and mats are machine washable.
Bolder Mat, Yogasana, Hugger Mugger, Barefoot Yoga, Yoga Accessories
Recipe for a Mat
These days, we all like to know what’s in our food and water; what’s been added to our gasoline and what is lurking in our water bottles and our fitness equipment. As we should be—there’s a lot of gnarly chemicals out there that we’ve been ignorantly ingesting for many years.
So, since we breathe, sweat, and rub our skin all over our yoga mats, it makes sense to wonder what’s in them. The following are common ingredients in mat construction.
The first yoga mats were made with PolyVinyl Chloride (PVC), which is a widely produced plastic that is made more pliable with plasticizers—the most common of which are phthalates (see more below). Here is what pvc.org(2) says about the material:
PVC is a thermoplastic made of 57% chlorine (derived from industrial grade salt) and 43% carbon (derived predominantly from oil / gas via ethylene). It is less dependent than other polymers on crude oil or natural gas, which are nonrenewable, and hence can be regarded as a natural resource saving plastic, in contrast to plastics such as PE, PP, PET and PS, which are totally dependent on oil or gas. This chlorine gives to PVC excellent fire resistance.
Most inexpensive yoga mats are still made with PVC, though many now without phthalates. PVC resists deterioration and is relatively inexpensive. It is sticky, cushy, and flexible.
These are a group of chemicals used to soften plastics. Although many have been banned from consumer products like toys, they still are in use in some yoga mat construction.
The US National Library of Medicine(3) says that phthalates are possible endocrine disruptors, affecting our hormone function and production.
Thermoplastic elastomers (TPE)
Wikipedia(4) defines TPE as a class of copolymers or a physical mix of polymers (usually a plastic and a rubber) which consist of materials with both thermoplastic and elastomeric properties.
The science gets more geeky, but Wiki goes on to say that TPE is potentially recyclable, and many companies claim their TPE mats are biodegradable—something which is questionable.Though usually at least partly plastic, TPE doesn’t have chlorine like PVC, and does not need the plasticizers to soften it. Generally not as durable as PVC. Many manufacturers claim that TPE mats are toxin-free, but my research can’t support those claims one way or another.
I’m not a chemist, but I think that TPE is far from “natural,” in the sense that yogis concerned with eco-consciousness use the term.
Although often produced chemically, natural rubber is made from latex, a white substance that oozes from a variety of plants if you cut them (including dandelions!). Although rubber can technically be made from any latex, most natural rubber comes from the tree Hevea brasiliensis, or the rubber plant. It is a renewable resource, though making the rubber into a useful substance involves petrochemicals, heating, and the addition of sulfur. The processing of rubber may also create toxic waste water and is often quite hazardous to human health(5).
A natural fiber that is renewable, grows quickly, and needs little water or pest management to thrive. Primarily produced in developing countries, particularly India.
PER (polymer environmental resin)
This new-ish and slightly controversial substance is still chemically produced but is classified as “food grade” for skin safety. It is phthalate and heavy metal free. One chemistry website(6)describes it thus:
PER is essentially PVC which has been plasticized and stabilized with acetyl tributyl citrate, instead of the host of phthalate-based plasticizers such as bis-diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP) whose endocrine-disrupting properties give PVC its well-deserved bad reputation.
Mat manufacturers who make Jute and PER mats claim that the mats are biodegradable and eco-friendly. PER is new enough that there isn’t much research on the life cycle or the actual biodegradability.
Biodegradable and renewable, cotton is the only option that is chemical free in its use with mat construction—depending of course on dyes used. Cotton is a pesticide-heavy crop, unless organic, and even then is a matter of concern for some, because of the water and land usage. Mats made of cotton are long lasting and multi-purpose, and generally machine washable.
And so the “best” yoga mat is …
Again, it depends on you. A deeper look into any of the mat options available shows that no choice is 100% sustainable, non-toxic, or “eco-friendly.” Like most of the products we use every day, there is a trade-off between price, usability, and environmental impact.
We’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences with your mat!