While not all microbes are harmful, there are some which can be detrimental to your health and the “life” of your yoga mat. Microbes can damage yoga mats, causing these to disintegrate sooner or lose its quality. In some cases, the mat may be in a perfect state but give off an offensive odor. Beyond the state of the mat, it’s also crucial to consider the implications a bacteria-ridden mat (you often press your face against) can have on your health.
While you don’t have to use an antimicrobial mat to avoid getting sick or smelly, there are several important reasons to consider investing in one. Whether you use your mat regularly or not – the nature of yoga makes these products a breeding ground for bacteria.
Your mat comes into direct contact with your skin and bodily fluids, like sweat. It also comes into direct contact with whatever surface you lay it out on. This means your mat has to deal with a lot of microbial traffic – whether it be a public studio room or backyard. Even when you aren’t using it, you need to consider the nature of the location you store it in. If there is any exposure to moisture or humidity, you run the risk of mold and mildew.
Of course, most people take special precautions to keep their yoga mat fresh and hygienic. While conducting regular maintenance on your workout equipment can help reduce microbial growth, using antimicrobial materials is more accurate and easier.
For one thing, you cannot see microscopic organisms with the naked eye. Even if your yoga mat is free from stains or puddles, there may be menacing forces hidden in plain sight. Using products that inhibit their growth can give you peace of mind that your equipment is clean.
This can be especially important for the yogi who has their mat stored for longer periods of time (or in questionable conditions). If you don’t monitor and continue upkeep on your standard yoga mat, you may find that you need a replacement after a couple of months in the basement.
With an antimicrobial mat, you can simply push it out of your mind and reduce the chances that you lose it to a mold infestation following an unexpected leak or flood.
If you’re someone who uses your yoga mat regularly, you can benefit from the reduced upkeep. While there are certainly many benefits for using such a mat, there are so few people who know what materials are antimicrobial.
A wide variety of materials are utilised to manufacture yoga mats - PVC (polyvinyl chloride), TPE (thermoplastic elastomer), PU (polyurethane), cork and rubber (natural or synthetic latex). Let’s try and understand the microbial characteristics of these various mats. Before diving deeper, it is imperative to understand one factor - water! Microbes proliferate in moist conditions. In the absence of moisture, microbial growth would not occur. Armed with this knowledge, we need to understand the cell structure of a yoga mat. You might have already come across these terms - ‘Open Cell’ & ‘Closed Cell’. These terms refer to the inter cellular structure of the mats.
An open cell mat is effectively ‘open’ to absorbing any bodily fluids deposited on the surface. Contrastingly, a closed cell mat does not absorb any liquids deposited on the surface. If you started yoga a long while ago, you might have started your practice on the traditional TPE or PVC mats. When your sweat deposits on these mats, it would probably absorb through. The benefit of such a mat is that the surface would largely remain liquid free, making it easier to maintain grip. The absorption of the liquids would eventually promote microbial growth in the mat, reducing the life of your mat. Cleaning these mats would also be more difficult because the cleaning liquid would absorb in the mat and mix with the pre-existing sweat but would be impossible to distribute sufficiently. Hence, the old PVC and TPE mats would need to be replaced in 4 to 6 months.
The rubber mats are a lot more interesting. The rubber material is commonly topped off with a thin layer of PU or cork. Polyurethane surfaces are primarily closed cell. Hence, any liquids deposited on the surface do not absorb in the underlying rubber material. Consequently, the sweat accumulating on the top surface can often compromise the grip on the mat. Hence, these mats are not ideal for hot yoga, or for any yogis who sweat a lot. So, what about the antimicrobial traits of cork?
Cork has been a popular material among countless industries for centuries. In the last two decades or so, scientists1 have been looking into exploring the bioactivity of the substance.
While the popularity of cork products can widely be attributed to durable, elastic, and hypoallergenic properties, many experts highlight their impressive antibacterial abilities.
According to a 2015 study published in FEMS Microbiology Letters2 investigated cork’s potential in reducing the levels of two harmful bacteria. In the experiments, cork exhibited a 96.93% reduction in Staphylococcus aureus activity and a 36% reduction in Escherichia coli after only 90 minutes. In these cases, natural cork matched or outperformed the comparative material which used a known antimicrobial additive.
While scientists are still investigating the exact chemical and physiological properties that give cork this ability, current evidence supports the idea that the material has antimicrobial components.
How do I clean my cork or PU yoga mats?
While the antimicrobial characteristics reduce the need for upkeep – this doesn’t mean you should never clean your yoga mat.
Although these mats are considered antimicrobial, this doesn’t mean that nothing can grow on it, or it won’t start to smell after a while. Cleaning yoga mats is incredibly easy and doesn’t require any special tools.
Simply wipe it off with some cold water and a damp cloth. Then, let it air dry before storing it away. Be sure to use a soft cloth and not a sponge or brush with a “scrubby” end as this can rip apart the mat.
If you just used it in a public place and are worried that water alone is not enough – feel free to use a dilute a gentle soap in the water before wiping down your mat.
Please share your experiences with cleaning and maintaining your yoga mats in the comments below. Have you had to dispose mats due to bad smells or other indicators of microbial growth?
1. Cork: Properties, Capabilities and Applications, S.P.Silva, M.A.Sabino, E.M.Fernandes, V.M.Correlo, L.F.Boesel & R.L.Reis, International Materials Reviews, November 2013, 345-365.
2. Evaluation of Antimicrobial Properties of Cork, F.Goncalves, P.Corriera, S.P.Silva, C. Almeida-Aguiar, FEMS Microbiology Letters, February 2016.