Everything You Need to Know Before Purchasing a Pilates or Yoga Mat for Home or Class!
Thick or Thin Mat – It Really Does Matter
A thin mat is often preferable in yoga to provide both cushion and grip. These are the least expensive and most readily available exercise mats.
A thicker mat is best for Pilates – at least 1/2” but 5/8″ or 3/4” is even better – because the less flexible back of a beginner is easily irritated by several Pilates exercises that involve rolling up and down the spine. Particularly susceptible to mild irritation are the tailbone and skin of the lower back. However, this is only temporary until the spine becomes more flexible and the core strengthens. Nonetheless, even advanced Pilates students prefer a thicker mat because it provides more cushioning for the many exercises on our side, back, belly and knees.
Interestingly, I’ve noticed that Pilates studios tend to provide mats for their students, while yoga studios generally expect students to bring their own. By the way, whether you bring your own or borrow a mat be sure to disinfect it, because exercise mats present some health risks. For all-natural disinfectants click here.
Caution! What’s in Your Exercise Mat?
The least expensive mats usually contain PVC foam. This substance contains phthalates and other compounds proven harmful to humans, pets, and the environment. Particularly keep these away from children. “Phthalate-free” and “PVC-free” mats are now available.
Strong odor from a vinyl or soft plastic product is most often the “off-gassing” of harmful chemicals. It is the same smell we are so fond of in a new car, and the unpleasant smell from a new plastic shower curtain – different smells similar terrible chemicals. It does not irritate the skin and the off-gassing stops ends a few days.
A further caution is that most cheap mats are made in China and some of their foam products have been found to contain additional toxic compounds such as lead and cadmium.
So what’s the problem with PVC? Poly vinyl chloride (PVC) is a hard plastic used for plumbing pipes and in medical devices. It is not poisonous or dangerous in a hard form. However, serious safety and health issues arise during its manufacture, and if it is burned, and in the use of compounds called phthalates that are added to make PVC soft and rubbery for such things as exercise mats. One phthalate in particular, diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP) is a hormone mimic and is being phased out. The manufacture or burning of PVC releases toxic chemicals such as dioxin and mercury, harmful to us and deadly to birds and other small creatures. PVC should not be burned, but it is recyclable. Sources: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polyvinyl_c…and http://www.knowswhy.com/why-is-pvc-bad
PVC is derived from petroleum and therefore is not a sustainable product. While the manufacture of PVC and the leaching of phthalates cause environmental harm, to provide perspective, it is not as harmful as the manufacture of paper and many metals.
The good news is that there are alternatives that are safe for us and the environment, and only cost a few dollars more. These options include mats made of rubber, and cotton. Have a look at the options.
TPE is a PVC alternative. There is TPE made of petroleum (and therefore not considered sustainable) and there is also TPE from plant sources. For the best explanation of TPE I’ve found go here. Mats made of TPE are typically less expensive than rubber or cotton which are all-natural and sustainable, but I’m not yet convinced that it’s entirely safe until the manufacturers make the ingredients known to the public.
Mat Sizes & Colors
Roll-up exercise mats are usually about six feet long, but they can be as short as 56’’ and as long as 86”. Widths vary from 21″ to 39″. Make sure that the mat is long enough and wide enough for your particular needs. I use the most common size which is 2′ x 6′ and this works fine. In general extra long or wide is not necessary and only makes it less convenient to carry. Mats also come in a wide variety of colors and prints.
Mats that roll up are more convenient than folding panel mats because they are lighter, easier to carry, a breeze to store, and less expensive. Straps are a convenient option but be cautious about straps – see more about straps below.
Natural Fiber Mats
I do not recommend mats made of the natural fibers of tatami, sisal, coir, hemp, cotton or jute because they absorb sweat, are difficult to clean, tend to slip, and do not offer significant cushioning. There are cotton mats as thick as 2″ which is excellent cushioning and come with covers which can be removed and cleaned. Click here for cotton mat options.
This kind of foam is the latest and best kind of mat because it is thicker, firmer, easier to clean, and more durable. Most mats are now closed-cell.
Choose Your Straps Wisely!
A mat that comes with straps is easier to carry and store, but Velcro straps can be annoying because they tend to stick to hair and clothing while you’re exercising. Best to get straps that you can remove from your mat altogether or a carrying bag. For several options click here.
A healthy, eco-friendly mat does NOT have to be expensive. Here are a number of healthy options that start at $21. They often include removable straps or a carrying case.
Here’s a trick to keep your mat free of dirt from the floor whenever you roll it up. Fold your mat completely over so that the ends meet. The clean top surface is now folded over on itself. Don’t crease the end of your mat. Rather keep the gradual curve in the folded end. Roll up the mat starting where the 2 ends meet. The result will be a slight bulge where the fold is, but you can still pop it into your bag. The entire working surface will remain clean.
See my articles on mat risks and all-natural mat disinfectants. In short don’t share a mat! And the best disinfectant is still bleach but it tends to destroy a mat over time and is harmful to our lungs. My favorite is a natural disinfectant – tee tree oil – a couple drops in a small spray bottle filled with water is all you need.
Now you’re ready to buy your exercise mat!