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PVC Yoga Mats: Safe or Toxic?

Written by Irina Webb

Do you practice yoga or Pilates?  Both practices have become a vital part of my health maintenance routine.  If I skip a few days, my body lets me know right away.  So, since I must exercise regularly, I need a good, and, most importantly, safe yoga mat.   Unfortunately, if you are not careful you may expose yourself to potentially toxic chemicals in your exercise mat.  Obviously, inhaling and skin absorption are the two major routes for letting potentially harmful chemicals into your body.  Lately, PVC yoga mats have been in the limelight because of their alleged toxicity.  But are they really that bad?  Join me in my research to draw your own conclusion about the safety of your polyvinyl chloride yoga mat.

Are there safe PVC yoga mats? A picture of a polyvinyl chloride yoga mat.

It is crucial to use credible sources in evaluating PVC yoga mats.

For starters, I have been in the product safety research business since 2012.  Both my MBA degree and financial analyst experience have been of great help in the field of research.  Nowadays, due to my expertise in this area, manufacturers and online retailers hire me as their product research and development consultant.  I was also in a documentary that you can learn more about on my About Us page.

Using credible sources is crucial in evaluating product information, so I do not rely on marketing claims.  Instead, I read Cosmetic Ingredient Reports and PubMed publications.  Additionally, I go to the European Chemicals Agency and the Scientific Committees on Consumer Safety databases, to name a few.  The EWG is a useful tool, too, but you must learn to use the Skin Deep Database the right way

Several years ago, when I did my first research on PVC yoga mats, I concluded that I should avoid PVC products.  I was definitely glad that I did not own a polyvinyl chloride yoga mat.  However, when I revisited the subject, I discovered articles by the chemical industry extolling the virtues of PVC.  After reading them, it is easy to conclude that PVC is one of the best materials created by humankind.  From every angle – environmental, production, safety, application – they described vinyl as an ideal material for every area of our lives.  But to formulate my opinion about product safety, I look at independent sources to get a well-rounded view. 

A polyvinyl chloride mat is not a non-toxic yoga mat.

To lay the foundation, let us look at the essence of PVC.

Polyvinyl chloride, commonly called PVC or vinyl, belongs to the group of chloropolymers.  They produce chloropolymers from alkenes by replacing one or more hydrogen atoms with chlorine.  Polyvinyl chloride is the third largest-selling commodity thermoplastic after polyethylene and polypropylene.  Imagine that more than 40 million tons of PVC are produced worldwide every year (source).

Further, the raw materials for PVC come from salt and petroleum.  First, they produce chlorine by electrolysis of saltwater.  Then, they combine chlorine with ethylene obtained from petroleum to form vinyl chloride monomer (VCM).  Next, they polymerize VCM molecules to form PVC resin.  Finally, they compound PVC resin into PVC compound.  During this process, they combine PVC with additives which determine the properties of the products, e.g., color, clarity, and flexibility.

All PVC materials use functional additives which include heat stabilizers and lubricants.  Additionally, they use plasticizers to make your polyvinyl chloride yoga mat flexible (source).  Potentially, PVC yoga mats have all these additives, so let us talk about them.

Heat stabilizers prevent PVC decomposition by heat.

To begin, stabilizers in plastics prevent environmental effects of heat or UV light and mechanical degradation during processing and use.  The available heat stabilizers for PVC are organotin compounds, antimony, organochlorines, lead compounds, and cadmium (1).

First, the organotin compounds in PVC are mainly mono-butyltin (MBT), dibutyltin (DBT), and tributyltin (TBT).  This study evaluates their toxic effects on in vitro human cells.  All three had a negative impact on human cells.  DBT and TBT revealed the most toxic effects even at low concentrations.

Second, antimony enhances the flame-retardant effect of chlorine in PVC.  In 1990, the state of California added antimony oxide to the list of carcinogenic chemicals (source).  This review provides an overview of what scientists know about the toxic effects of antimony.  In sum, they attribute the numerous negative health effects to occupational exposure (i.e., large exposures to workers).  Interestingly, despite indications that antimony trioxide could interfere with embryonic and fetal development, the outcome of pregnancy in women treated with antimony compounds for leishmaniasis has not been studied (source).  Additionally, according to the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), antimony may damage fertility or the unborn child.  Also, it may cause cancer, harm breastfed children, and damage organs through prolonged or repeated exposure.

Third, organochlorines are synthetic pollutants to humans.  Thus, many organochlorines are linked to endocrine disruption or cancer in experimental assays (source).  They also raise concern about their adverse reproductive effects in humans (source).  Like antimony, organochlorines enhance the flame retardancy characteristics and the impact strength characteristics in PVC.

Heavy metals in PVC yoga mats

These substances in your polyvinyl chloride yoga mat can enter your body through skin contact and inhalation.  In addition, they may contaminate your body via ingestion of the dust containing heavy metals. 

I do my best to minimize exposure to heavy metals because of their cumulative effects.  Lead can cause neurological, cardiovascular, renal, gastrointestinal, hematological, and reproductive effects (source).  The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified them as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

And cadmium is linked to reduced mineral density in bones, preterm labor, kidney disease and damage (source).   Also, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified it as “carcinogenic to humans.”

Unfortunately, heavy metals are transferred by maternal blood to the fetus via the placenta, and later through breast milk (source).  

Also, you can learn more on the subject from my posts about Heavy Metals in Makeup and Lead in Lipstick

In sum, it does not seem that they add heat stabilizers to PVC to benefit human health.  What about lubricants and plasticizers?

Lubricants in plastics reduce friction during processing.

Apparently, there are external lubricants and internal lubricants.  While the former reduces friction between the PVC and the processing equipment, the latter work on the PVC granules (source).  It looks like there is no way for PVC yoga mats to work around these either.

“With PVC, typical external lubricants are stearic acid and its calcium, lead, cadmium, and barium salts, myristic acid, hydrocarbons such as paraffin wax, and low molecular weight polythene and certain esters such as ethyl palmitate… Amongst internal lubricants used for PVC are amine waxes, montan wax ester derivatives, glyceryl esters such as glyceryl monostearate, and long-chain esters such as cetyl palmitate.” (2) 

Among these, my concern lies with lead and cadmium salts for the reasons I stated in the heavy metal section. 

Plasticizers make a polyvinyl chloride yoga mat flexible.

First of all, a plasticizer makes plastic flexible, resilient, and easier to handle.  Therefore, a plasticizer is crucial in PVC yoga mats. 

While the most common plasticizers are phthalates, many products boast that they are “phthalate-free.”  This is because phthalates have a bad reputation as endocrine disruptors (source).  Moreover, some phthalates are so toxic that in 2012 the US government enacted a law to restrict their use in children’s toys and other children’s items (source).  In addition, they have been linked to birth defects, asthma, neurodevelopmental problems in newborns, fertility issues, obesity, and cancer (source).

So, is a phthalate-free polyvinyl chloride yoga mat safe? 

Well, I encourage you to always ask what the manufacturer uses instead of phthalates.  For example, other plasticizers are adipates, glutarates, sebacates, phosphates, polymerics, trimellitates, and epoxy compounds. (3)  The good news is that none of these seems to be as toxic as phthalates.  However, they may have limited safety data, meaning that they do not know enough about their safety yet.  And most of the time manufacturers do not tell us what they use instead of phthalates.  So “phthalate-free” may sound good, but it may not mean safer.

The life cycle of PVC yoga mats produces dangerous byproducts.

According to the European Chemicals Agency, vinyl chloride – the main ingredient in PVC – is a human carcinogen.   Thus, the first report of liver cancer induced by vinyl chloride was in 1974 (source).  Since then, new research has demonstrated the carcinogenicity of VC to other organs and at lower concentrations.  I have no scientific evidence that one can get cancer from regular yoga sessions on a polyvinyl chloride yoga mat.

Additionally, one of the concerns with PVC is the generation of carcinogenic dioxins, byproducts of the manufacturing and disposal processes.  Thus, the EWG rates dioxins 10 out of 10 (with 1 as the least toxic) due to high cancer concerns.   

Because PVC is not biodegradable, the only way to get rid of it is to burn it.  When burning, chlorine produces dioxins that end up in soil, fish, animals, water, air, and, ultimately, in humans.  Dioxins are persistent (they do not break down easily in the environment) and bioaccumulative (they build up in our bodies).  As a result, they may cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, and interfere with hormones. 

Therefore, US Environmental Protection Agency regards dioxins as highly toxic persistent organic pollutants.  And the Stockholm Convention on persistent organic pollutants emphasizes the importance of limiting the processes that produce dioxins.

I think those are good reasons to avoid PVC yoga mats.  Clearly, we cannot get rid of all plastics, but let us do what we can by making informed decisions.  So, what yoga mat do I use?

I recommend a cork yoga mat instead of a polyvinyl chloride yoga mat.

Some manufacturers have caught on to the idea that consumers are concerned about exposure to toxic chemicals.  Consequently, they get very crafty with their product descriptions.  You might have seen claims like phthalate-free, lead-free, BPA-free etc.  It does not mean, however, that the mat is free of PVC.  So, always ask the manufacturer by email whether the yoga mat you want to buy is free of PVC.

Other popular mats nowadays are TPE yoga mats and eco-friendly yoga mats.  I have tried them and described my experience in my Eco-Friendly Yoga Mats: Safe or Toxic? post.  You will also learn what TPE material is.

So, after trying several yoga mats, I ended up with a sustainable cork yoga mat by Scoria.  What I like about this biodegradable non-toxic yoga mat is that it is thick, not bulky, and not slippery.  In fact, it has rubber backing against sliding.  I also like the unique design of this non-PVC yoga mat, which contributes to my general feeling of ease.   Read my review of the Scoria yoga mat to learn more about it.

Summary about PVC yoga mats

In conclusion, most yoga mats are made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC).  This plastic is toxic during manufacturing and exposure.  It is unclear whether you can actually get sick from using your mat.  However, there is enough evidence to be concerned about increased risks. As consumers, we are exposed to PVC through inhalation, dermal absorption, and ingestion. 

Personally, I stay away from any PVC yoga mats for my yoga or Pilates sessions.  If you already own a polyvinyl chloride yoga mat and want to be on the safe side, you might consider replacing it with a safer option.  For example, this Scoria mat is a combination of cork and natural rubber.  I have used it for years and love it!

As always, I invite you to visit my shop with options of non-toxic products for home, skin, and wardrobe.  Also, you can book a consultation with me and join the Savvy Consumer Circle to learn how to live healthy and have fun.

  • (1) Akovali, in Toxicity of Building Materials, 2012. (source)
  • (2) A. Brydson, in Plastics Materials (Seventh Edition), 1999. (source)
  • (3) L. Wadey, in Encyclopedia of Physical Science and Technology (Third Edition), 2003. (source)

24 thoughts on “PVC Yoga Mats: Safe or Toxic?”

  1. Thank you for this article. As a new mother I find I’m thinking even more about what products are made of and how my use or consumption of various products affect this new life I’ve created. I requested that no one give the baby plastic toys and have chosen glass bottles for those times when I can’t nurse because as I tell my friends and family: BPA isn’t the only harmful ingredient in plastic. I’m looking forward to your article on environmentally sound yoga mats.

    1. Hi Hannah, you are right about the fact that BPA is not the only toxin in plastic. As a matter of fact, there is evidence that BPA-free plastic is as toxic as its BPA-containing relatives. Read more, here.

  2. Hi Irina,

    I absolutely love reading your write ups and after reading this one, I have started doubting whether the playmats my husband bought recently for our 8 month old son are safe. There are 2 kinds I found in shops – one type comes in different pieces which one needs to put together like a jigsaw puzzle and each piece/square has a different color, number or letter on it. The other type is a single large piece with some animated characters made on it. I think both these types are made of EVA foam though I’m not very sure. Do you think the kids playmats available in the market are safe or is there some toxic element in them. Apart from sitting and crawling on the playmats, I’ve seen my baby lick the mats sometimes too. If these are toxic, then what would you suggest would be a safe substitute. Thanks for being there for worried moms like me!

    1. Hi Pallavi, EVA is a safer alternative to PVC. However, it may still contain toxic chemicals such as formamide, a reproductive and developmental toxin. Since you already got them, you might want to call the manufacturer to find out how they are made and tested for toxins. And yes, natural yoga mat is good alternative for your situation. Stay tuned for my research results and let me know what you find out.

  3. Hello Irina,
    Today I purchased a yoga mat without knowing what PVC was and how harmful it is. However, after reading this article I am worried about what to do with my mat. I do not feel comfortable using it knowing it contains toxins, but I would also feel guilty about throwing it away since I know it’s bad for the environment. I don’t know what to do, it’s very frustrating. I would love to hear any comments or advice you may have.

    1. Hi Janet,

      Thank you for asking the question. Unfortunately, there is no ideal solution to this. We face this problem as individuals and as the humankind – what to do with toxic chemicals we have created and now know that they are toxic. I was glad to learn that there are emerging recycling facilities for PVC (vinyl). They process PVC to make it less toxic. It is not ideal but better than putting vinyl in landfill or burning it releasing dioxins in the area. Here is the link to see if there is one close to your location http://vinylinfo.org/recycling/directory/

  4. That’s a very interesting conversation. And I’d like to broaden a little bit the scope: toxicity should be evaluated on the complete life cycle of the product, and it’s then not only about the product, but also the logistic of moving the product from Asia to let say the USA. Then my concern: while PVC mats are more toxic than others, they are also more durable. And the toxicity cost of moving a mat from Asia to the USA is the same. So, are we better overall with a PVC mat that will lat 5 years, or eco friendly mats that need to be replaced every 6 or 12 months, and therefore will generate 5 to 10 times more ecological footprint with their logistic?

    1. And yes, I take into the considering transportation toxicity. I am still hoping that we do not have to make that choice. I do not think I would make a choice toward PVC as everything is so toxic about it from manufacture to disposal. From my experience natural rubber lasts longer than 1 year as long as you do not expose it to direct light too much.

  5. Hi Irina,

    First, this is really weird, as I was just looking for a Yoga Kit
    with mat, blocks, etc. and I saw some that supposedly were
    Non-toxic….some even said Non-toxic PVC. Also, how about
    the blocks? What are they made of?

    Anyway, what did “they” make their mats out of, hundreds of
    years ago when there wasn’t any plastic or PVC?

    I’m really interested to find out…..maybe “they” didn’t use
    anything but what they had, like hand-woven blankets, etc.,
    or just did their Yoga on grass.

    Just thought I’d take a shot and ask, thinking you might
    know or would be interested in finding out.

    I want to Thank You for what you do, supplying “us” with
    non-toxic information (little play on words there, HA!) and
    I look forward to detoxing my home!

    All My Best,
    Carla

  6. Pingback: Considering the Hidden Dangers of Baby Products - Orgasmic BirthOrgasmic Birth

  7. Thank you! I splurged on a yeti yoga mat because it was advertised as “pthalate free”, and because it’s from a small company out of Portland I trusted I’m getting something good. After 3 uses and feeling nauseous from the toxic smell, and sliding around on it due to it’s strange oily surface texture, I’m just upset and feel duped. Unfortunately, I purchased another before I tried this one out, only because I like the patterns and I wanted one as a gift for my husband. I’m so disappointed and tired of false advertisement. Upon looking into the composition, it’s made of PVC. I’m finding that even small companies that you expect better from are misleading consumers and you always have to question everything.

  8. Hi there! What was the outcome for suggestions for least toxic yoga mat? its so difficult to figure out with all the horrible false advertising out there. It’s horrific that these companies get away with this. Thanks so much for any feedback!!

    1. Hi, Shawn:

      please see my finding here. Unfortunately, my fav mat sold by Yoga Accessories has been discontinued. I still use it and have no idea what I am going to replace it with down the road. ~Irina

  9. There is a yoga mat company in Colorado called Sweet-Mat and they are marketing their scent infused mats as safe, latex and rubber free. I was told that the owner of the company has conned and stolen money from many people through his failed companies in Iowa and Kansas. He appears to be in it for the money and from the comments from many previous customers of his, he doesn’t seem to have a conscience. So BEWARE! Who know what chemicals his mats, made in China, contain. Google: “Sunroom design by Ron”, “The amazing patio cover”, “Sunroom escapes ron williams”, and “FUNDRAISING SCAM: Family of Child With Cancer Conned – WHOtv”.

  10. Hi!!
    So I myself have done tons of research on which mat is in fact the SAFEST. My conclusion is that the Barefoot original eco mat may be the most natural and non-toxic. I was originally looking into the Manduka mats, but after much research I learned they may in fact contain some of that “non metal” PVC.
    Thoughts???

    1. Hi Annie: yes – I think the Barefoot Original Eco mat is the safest. Unfortunately, with time it sheds. I also found a mat made with natural rubber and jute by Yoga Accessories. And I am so happy with it. Unfortunately, it is not longer sold. Read more, here. ~Irina

  11. Carter | yoga person

    Hi,
    I bought a yoga mat from amazon it is natural tree rubber yoga mat, as a new yoga person, I don’t know what type of yoga mat is the best. Also, I don’t know what’s different PVC VS Rubber.

    Thank you for this nice article.

  12. Well I read through your article.. And I have couple of points to make. If your investing in the most appropriately made PVC mat, you need not dispose it off! Such mats are neither allergic nor release toxic materials for they are free of all the toxins. In fact, they are so durable that you need not replace them at all. So indirectly you are helping not to release toxins in environment through its disposal. But having used the rubber mat, blanket n cotton mat, I still found PVC mat to be the best in terms of #grip and #anti-skid texture!

    All said, there is no replacement to the most naturally available ‘grass’ mat of course.

  13. Hi Irina, thanks so much for this blog! I already have this baby-friendly mat and am thinking of buying another but am more conscious now about PVC and vinyl. The mat is made of 100% PVC but company says that the PVC they use is “eco friendly” which has undergone and met rigorous EU and US standards for safety. Would you still trust this product? You can see there are over 2,000 reviews and everyone seems to love it. https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0058K5IIQ/ref=ask_ql_qh_dp_hza

    1. Hi, Jenny:
      The reason it says eco PVC is that this is a type of PVC made without phthalates, which is a huge step forwards. However, we are not informed what they use instead and whether the substitutes have been tested for health safety. Also, formamide can present in some EVA foam. With this said, since they claim that the mat is tested to EN71 and not made in China, it should be okay. However, it is best to contact the manufacturer directly to confirm that because I find that some Amazon product descriptions are not always accurate. Please let me know what you think and what you find out. I know that the mat looks really good. ~Irina

  14. Hi Irina,
    Thanks for the informative blog, recently I start looking into sustainable yoga mat products after reading about PVC, TPE, etc. Have you tried jute yoga mat? I hesitate to try cork mats before because of its weight but since covid, I been working from home so I gave it a try. There are some cork yoga mat with TPE backing and more lightweight but I went with a rubber backing mat and pretty like it.

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