Yoga Mats, Flame Retardants, and Fertility

Yoga Mat Chemicals May Mess With Your Fertility.”  A few months ago, this headline from Forbes popped up in my Google news feed.  As a woman who loves yoga and knows she wants kids in the future, this headline caught my attention.  This is what began my research into yoga mats & natural yoga mats, flame retardants, and fertility. 

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yoga may with title "yoga mats, flame retardants, and fertility"

The focus of the article

The article in Forbes referenced a study published in the Environmental Health Perspectives which explains a link found between exposure to organophosphate flame retardants (PFRs) and decreased fertility.  PFRs are typically applied to polyurethane foams to reduce flammability. 

Researchers studied women who were going to Massachusetts General Hospital Fertility Center for In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) treatment.  The study measured womens’ urine for levels of certain chemicals that are metabolized from PFRs (these chemicals, as a whole, are called “metabolites”).  Which means, when the body comes in contact with PFRs, they process the chemical and produce another chemical which can be detected in urine.  The study then evaluated how many women achieved various stages associated with the IVF treatment: fertilization, implantation, pregnancy, and live birth and compared with their levels of the PFR metabolites.  Trends showed higher PFR metabolite levels equating to lower instances of success with the various stages of the IVF treatment.  

My Takeaway

Correlation and causation are not the same

First, the study and Forbes articles imply that higher PFR levels in a woman’s body increase infertility.  But really, this is just a correlation, which is NOT the same as causation.  Maybe all the women with higher PFR levels were older.  There is also a correlation between a woman’s age and fertility (reference this study).  Or maybe the women with higher PFR levels also smoke – studies correlate that smoking negatively impacts fertility, too.  Additionally, this was a small study in one city.  More studies with a larger and more diverse population could show different correlations. 

PFRs are not used in yoga mats – synthetic or natural yoga mats

Second, the Forbes headline is misleading.  It makes it sound like yoga mats are the only source of the fertility-damaging chemical – the PFRs.  Later in the article, it states that PFRs “are commonly used in yoga mats, sofas, car seats, and other types of polyurethane foam.”  So it’s not just yoga mats (spoiler alert – it’s not in yoga mats at all!), but many other common items that most people in first world countries contact every day. 

I came across this article, which states that one of the authors of the study says that she is not aware of PFR use in yoga mats.  The study never mentioned yoga mats.  Not once. It was just included in the title of the news article.  According to the study, PFRs “have been used widely in the polyurethane foam of upholstered furniture…  [Unlike other flame retardants,] these chemicals [PFRs] are not chemically bonded to foam and have been shown to migrate into the air and dust of indoor environments.”  In more simple English, this means that the PFR type of fire retardant does not stay on the surface on which it was applied, therefore it can easily be inhaled or absorbed through contact with skin.  Being around items treated with PFRs is enough for the PFRs to get into your body. 

So, from the perspective of female fertility, yoga mats are probably fine.  But, be aware (be wary?) of flame retardants, especially PFRs!

yoga mat roll

Natural Yoga Mats

Phew, I am sighing in relief that my yoga mat (probably) isn’t one of the many things in this world negatively affecting my health.  After all, I picked up yoga to positively impact my health!  Yoga makes me feel great mentally and physically.  After the concern that the Forbes article gave me about synthetic chemicals in yoga mats, I decided that I needed to find a yoga mat that made me feel better about its environmental impact.

As I began researching, I found that a LOT of manufacturers claim that their yoga mats are eco friendly.  But most still contain synthetic chemicals – most in the form of some plastic.  One claims to be “free from PVC, phthalates, silicone, latex and other toxic materials.” Sure, I’ll believe all of that, but what is it really made from?  It’s made from TPE: thermoplastic elastomer.  While recyclable, TPE is still plastic – bioaccumulative, synthetic.  The EWG doesn’t specifically talk about TPE plastics, they warn that “the toxicity of plastics is not fully understood or adequately tested.”  That’s enough for for me keep staying away from plastics. 

The moral of this story is: don’t believe everything you read, and do your homework.  Just because the seller or manufacturer’s description says that the product is natural or eco friendly does not make it true.  I always research products before buying them.  Below I talk about three yoga mats that I have researched and believe to be made from safe ingredients. 

Natural yoga mats: natural cork and natural rubber

I found 2 main types of all natural yoga mats: natural rubber and natural cork.  Costs ranged from about $50 to upwards of $100. 

I decided to try one of the least expensive 100% natural yoga mats first.  Fitness Zest sells a yoga mat for $49.99 (as of November 2017).  It is made from natural rubber, which makes it biodegradable.  And, it is advertised as organic, which is even  better in my book. 

I’ve been using this mat for a few months and I am very satisfied with it.  The natural rubber sticks well to hard wood and carpet, but is not so sticky that lint or hair adheres to it.  Unlike my previous cheap plastic yoga mats, when I use the Fitness Zest yoga mat on carpet, it doesn’t stretch much at all.  No longer does my yoga mat turn Warrior into a n undesired split attempt!  I also love that it’s longer than standard yoga mats, 72″ rather than 68″.  Note: the mat does smell like natural rubber.  It doesn’t bother me, but the smell is noticeable.  

The rubber natural yoga mats are really easy to keep clean.  According to the manufacturer’s response on Amazon to the question of cleaning, “…All you need to do is wipe the mat down front and back with a damp cloth or sponge.  You can saturate the sponge with a mild organic cleaner…”  I wet a cloth with water, add a few drops of my liquid castile soap, and wipe down the top surface of the mat. 

natural yoga mat

Three natural yoga mats

My current preferred yoga mat is:

While I have not yet tried any other natural yoga mats, my other front runners were: 

I am sure there are many more good, truly natural yoga mats.  Have you tried one?  Please share in the comments below!