What You Need to Know Before You Buy a Yoga Mat

Over the last decade of yoga’s increasing popularity, many, many more mat products, materials, and characteristics have been released and it can be challenging to determine what options are best for you. For those of you looking for guidance, welcome to Type A Yoga‘s…

Yoga Mat Purchasing Guide

Material

Pros

Cons

Tip

Rubber

Natural. Nice density– not too hard, not too soft

Potential allergic reaction if sensitive to latex. Very heavy!

Of all the mat types I’ve had, this one takes longest to dry. I once left it out for 5 days and still felt dampness on my feet when I stepped on it!

TPE

(Thermal Plastic Elastomer)

Less environmentally harmful than TPE, possibly PER & EVA.

Open Celled TPE mats can dry out over time.

Pick a mat cleaner with an oil base, not alcohol or witch hazel, to maintain the surface.

PVC

(Poly-Vinyl Chloride)

Sticky surface

Not eco-friendly. Can’t be recylced or biodegraded. Releases toxic chemicals & carcinogens in manufacturing process, & if mat is burned or buried. (Don’t machine dry!)

If your mat was fairly inexpensive– think $10 Target special– it’s probably PVC.

PER

(Polymer Environmental Resin)

Similar to PVC but made without phthalates, a chemical softener associated with negative health effects in large quantities.

Has supposedly done well in biodegradability tests, but long-term effects may still be unknown.

EVA (Ethylene-Vinyl Acetate)

Considered less toxic than other materials, but some are still on the fence about that.

Foam used in exercise mats, pilates, etc. Sometimes too squishy, not dense enough.

Jute, Hemp

Eco-friendly and absorbent

Scratchy

Cotton rug

Eco-friendly and absorbent, can be left out as a “rug”

Fibers can be either slippery or resistant, making footing uncertain in transitions

This “mat” is especially associated with traditional Mysore & Ashtanga practices. Can be very slippery (think woven kitchen throw rugs.) Spritzing with a light mist of water helps surface to stick better. If using on hard surface, spray the bottom, then mist the top to provide some stickiness for feet & hands.

Combos

Some eco mats are made from a combination of the above, such as rubber & jute.

 

Note: Because yoga has become a billion dollar industry, the manufacturing processes of these materials is sometimes considered a “trade secret.” This means that the toxicity level, carcinogens released during manufacturing, sources & quality of materials, etc. are sometimes not really known, measured or verified.

More factors in mat purchasing:

Pros

Cons

Thickness:

Note: Many yoga mats are advertised as EITHER in inches or millimeters, so there may be some confusion in comparison.

The “average” or “standard” yoga mat is 1/8” or about 3mm

Extra thick mats (1/4, 6-7mm)

Provides shock absorption for those with sore joints.

May be too “squishy” & affect balance, depending on material density (see below)

Ultrathin Travel (1/16” 1.5-2mm)

Folds easily to fit in luggage, etc.

No padding for hands and knees poses. Nice for use on carpet though. At home I’ll double-up with a yoga rug for extra thickness.

Density:

“Pro” or “performance” mats (harder/firmer)

Higher density associated with improved stability & balance.

Hard surface may not shock absorb as much as softer surfaces for jumping, etc. If very thick, can’t feel floor as much as mat.

“Exercise” or “Pilates” mats (softer/squishier)

Lower density is associated with shock absorption and comfort in seated poses.

Can’t feel floor as well. Can make standing poses and balancing much more challenging.

 

Other considerations:

Size:

An average mat size is 24” x 72” (2 feet x 6 feet). Tall students may want a longer mat due to length of stance in plank pose, downdog, etc. I have actually loaned taller students my personal mat in class because the 6′ length had such a negative effect on their ability to have a safe alignment!

 Packages & Kits:

Mats are sometimes less expensive when purchased in a kit with a bag, props, strap, and other yoga accessories. Note that kit mats are usually PVC and may not be Phthalate free.

Texture/surface considerations:

  • Closed cell”: denser and somewhat waterproof. If used in a sweaty practice, may get very slippery.
  • Open cell”: more porous. Less slippery in sweaty practices, but potential for unsanitary conditions. May dry out. (see TPE above.)
  • Surface pattern: pattern may be designed to provide greater “grip”, may be scratchy, or may be too slippery under practice conditions.
  • Additional material: Are you going to use a yoga towel, gloves, or possibly double up your mat?

Slipping

How much you slip on your mat is dependent on a number of factors:

1. How much do you sweat in general and how sweaty is your particular practice?

Hot yoga & highly active vinyasa classes will need a mat able to handle those conditions, while classes associated with long holds or balancing poses may want to choose different materials

2. What are your personal values toward the environment and sustainability?

You may determine that the best material for your practice is one you simply can’t live with in the long run, and you would rather get a towel, special surface treatments, or double up using two types of mat.

3. How frequently do you intend to clean your mat and how?

Some mats need more “babysitting” than others, depending on how absorbent they are. Important consideration: Materials likely to absorb a lot of sweat and thus require more frequent cleanings are ALSO more likely to take several days to dry! Some materials, like TPE, may do better with frequent cleanings. (see section on Cleaning your Mat.)

4. What textures do you prefer?

A yoga mat texture might be made up of little grippy circles acting like suction cups, long, scratchy fibers, or little closed cell bubbles. Each of these textures has advantages and disadvantages, depending on how you practice. My values might say “jute” but my skin definitely disagrees.

Breaking your mat in

Most yoga mats are not “performance ready” straight out of the shrink wrap. In fact, most of them smell really, really gross, regardless of what material was used in construction. Plan on having at least 3 days to deep clean your mat (see below) before your first usage. You may not need them, but it’s worse to assume and find yourself choking on the gasses in your practice.

I have forgotten this lesson on two especially memorable occasions, which will hopefully prevent a third:

  • When I took my travel mat to a day long retreat and had to store it outside use a studio loaner the whole time.
  • When I took my rubber mat to a conference, tried to cover the smell with oils before the first day started, and couldn’t do savasana or meditation without triggering a coughing fit and making my eyes water for the entire weekend. Even after another deep cleaning, it took a while to correct this attempt to fix the problem.

Mat surfaces also change and adapt over time, so a mat that starts out as very slippery or weirdly sticky in the beginning will usually “mellow out” with age. How long this takes depends on the frequency of your practice, but with a 3-4x/week not too sweaty practice, I figure on about 2-3 months before I feel it’s “normalized”.

Mat cleaning:

Do I have to clean my mat every day?

Although we clean our studio mats after every use for hygiene, many yoga practitioners do not clean their mat every day. Some cleaner brands have offered “wipes” to use after very sweaty practices, but if your mat is open cell, these won’t make much of a dent on the potential for bacteria to grow.

What kind of cleaner should I use?

The mat cleaner you use depends on the type of material you have.

Our studio mats, like many, are a low cost closed-cell PVC, EVA, or PER material. When we first started cleaning them daily with an oil-based cleaner, the oils created a slippery build up. We switched to using Sarah’s Wicked Witch Hazel based cleaner for our after class cleanings. Sarah’s still has essential oils, but the base is lighter and doesn’t cause a film on closed-cell surfaces as much, IMO.

However, at the time my primary mat was an open cell TPE one. When I used the witch hazel cleaner, I found the TPE dried out more quickly. Cleansing it regularly with an oil-based cleaner like Vermont Soap’s Yoga & Exercise Mat Cleaner helped actually “treat” the TPE, much like regularly oiling a baseball glove.

What is the difference between a deep clean and a day-to-day cleaning?

For me, the difference is mainly “something I actually do”. Although we clean our studio mats after every use, I rarely clean my personal mat. When I used a TPE mat, I did treat it more frequently with oils, but in general I do a regular deep cleaning rather than a daily surface clean.

How do you deep clean your mat?

At first, I tried using a machine washer on gentle. In general, this actually wasn’t that bad right up until the moment it wasn’t good! The mat got stuck on a gentle agitation and got dark grease marks “burned” into its surface. (Later, I left this mat in the back of a hatchback on a photocopy and the toner letters transferred themselves onto its surface, never to come off again.) Obviously, due to sensitivity to heat, NEVER machine dry your mat! Even if you successfully roll the dice a few times, it will probably wind up “burning” you in the end.

Now I always wash in my bathtub and then air-dry on a rack. Sometimes I’ll use a mat cleaner and scrub the surface before putting in the tub in warm (not hot) water, but sometimes I’ll use just use a mild antibacterial cleaner like a dishwashing soap.

Be cautious with DIY mat care: Once I tried to put a light misting of Eucalyptus oils to balance out the initial outgassing of a mat, and it seeped so deeply into it I couldn’t put my face anywhere near the mat’s surface without my eyes watering. Savasana, seated poses, down-dog, and plank were all no goes for a two day conference!

For my PVC and TPE mats I’ll leave them to dry for for 2-3 days, checking daily, to dry. For my rubber mat, I’ll usually budget a week.

How do you know if your mat is dry after a deep cleaning?

You have to try using it. I have had MANY mats feel dry to the touch, only to find a small amount of moisture trapped deep inside the core, something I discovered after I started practicing and noticed my feet getting wet and slippery. NEVER assume your mat is dry and run straight off to class unless you are willing to risk this fate!

Now that you have a sense of what your options are, you can hopefully be an informed consumer and purchase a mat that will last you for years.

Please note: If you have any old mats, look into recycling them rather than throwing them away! We cut the more worn parts out and use the remnants as cushions for chair backs, anti-slip mats for props, or child-sized mats for kids classes. Reuse tips include donating them to local schools for floor activities, using them as a temporary weedblock to clear garden space, or homeless and animal shelters for padded sleeping areas.