Lululemon The Mat Yoga Mat

Is Your Yoga Mat Killing You?

*12.16.11: Since posting this we’ve had quite a few questions about the Lululemon mats. Stephen has added some additional info in the comments.*

I’m honored to have a post written by my first guest blogger, Stephen Ewashkiw, who happens to be my favorite yoga teacher. (Full disclosure: He’s also my husband.)

On the surface, this post is about Stephen’s trials and errors trying to find an eco-friendly yoga mat. But it’s much more than that. It’s also about consumer responsibility, corporate green-washing, and not being afraid to ask the hard questions. So even if you think down dog is something couples do in the privacy of their own bedrooms, there’s something here for you.

Over to Stephen.

I love yoga. I practice daily. Which means I have my hands, bare feet, forearms, back, and my face (oops!) on my yoga mat all the time. That’s why it matters what’s in my yoga mat.

I love the earth. I love trees, people, animals, and the air that we breathe. That’s why it matters what’s in my yoga mat.

My first mat was an all-natural rubber biodegradable mat (made by Jade). I figured once I was done with it, it would break down quickly, without leaching toxic chemicals into the world. However, I didn’t know that it would start to break down BEFORE I was done with it. Eighteen months after buying it I had worn out both sides and needed a new one.

I decided that my second mat better last A LOT longer.

A Mat With Added Metal
At the time, many of my friends used the Manduka PRO mat. It is guaranteed to last a lifetime and the company website says all the right things when it comes to environmentalism: “Zero-waste”; “sustainable”; “OEKO-TEX certified*”; “emissions-free manufacturing”; “committed to environmentally friendly practices and products”…

These claims all made me feel that Manduka takes their environmental responsibilities seriously.

But, as I was doing some more research, I came across a blog that claimed that the Manduka PRO mat contains heavy metals.

WHAT?!?

This was pretty hard to believe. After all, Manduka said they were super-enviro so I thought “Well, that can’t be true”.

I emailed Manduka to find out.

Their first response was vague. It said that they are environmentally friendly and do their utmost to limit their impact on the earth. That’s great, but clearly NOT what I asked. So I asked again. The reply came back. The Manduka PRO, they told me, is made with PVC but does not contain heavy metals.

Because of my research, I knew this to be impossible.

In order to make PVC stable, heavy metals MUST be added to the recipe.

What’s All The Fuss About Heavy Metals?
This seems like a good time to stop and tell you why the idea of heavy metals in my yoga mat freaked me out so much.

First of all, in case you don’t know, heavy metals include fun things like arsenic, mercury, and plutonium. The heavy metal most commonly found in PVC products is lead. Yes, the same lead that was outlawed in paint and gasoline decades ago because of its devastating effects on our health.

Exposure can cause headaches, cancer, mental illness, neurological disorders and a whole bundle of other health problems.

How Much Heavy Metal Is Too Much?
Of course, there are international standards about how much heavy metal content is acceptable in various products, but these standards mostly apply to packaging and textiles. The most stringent regulations are for baby clothes – and those are allowed to contain almost as much heavy metal as plastic packaging.

Editor’s note: What kind of world do we live in where there is an acceptable level of heavy metals for baby clothes?

Nobody actually knows exactly how much of this stuff we can safely be exposed to, though according to this article in the Telegraph, the US Center for Disease control says “there is no safe threshold for lead exposure”. Also, nobody really knows how much we are exposed to. A little here, a little there – it all adds up.

We also know it’s not possible to avoid heavy metals completely – they’re everywhere**. When it’s possible to avoid them, I want to.

Remember, I use my mat EVERY day. With my bare hands and feet (and face). However little lead is in there, do I really want it soaking into my skin?

Waste Capture and Release
I continued to ask questions of Manduka, until I made enough of a nuisance of myself that I got a call from Sky Meltzer, their CEO. He was very nice, wanted to hear what I had to say, and told me that yes, in fact The Manduka PRO and PROLite mats DO contain heavy metals, because they contain PVC.

He also told me that Manduka participates in waste capture so that any heavy metal waste from making their mats is stored and doesn’t get released into the environment. Where is it stored? He couldn’t tell me. What happens to it once you capture it? He couldn’t tell me.

So, even if you think the government regulations are to be trusted (you also think pizza is a veggie, don’t you?), remember that the use of heavy metals in manufacturing is creating toxic waste so bad that it has to be stored instead of thrown away. I couldn’t even find out where the waste is today, let alone what is going to happen to it 50 years from now.

And then, there’s the other stuff that PVC makes necessary. According to Lead Action News, “In many cases, the final PVC product will contain relatively little raw PVC. Additive chemicals acting as stabilizers, plasticizers, pigments, optical brighteners, flame retardants, biocides, foaming agents and lubricants can make up over 50% of the final product.”

This is not what I want to be thinking about when I’m in savasana.

Exploring Other Options
Fortunately, I had plenty of non-PVC mats to choose from. I looked at several natural rubber and organic plant fiber options. Finally I found what I think is the ultimate eco-friendly, rugged yoga mat.

I bought The Mat from Lululemon. The Mat contains no PVC, is made with Polyurethane, and contains recycled luon (their own-brand fabric). No lead, mercury, or Black Sabbath to be found.

The bonus is that it’s also a great yoga mat. It still looks like new, is super-sticky, and absorbs sweat. It’s also pretty good with spilled coffee and knocked over bottles of water. I just wash it once a week with lemon juice diluted in water. I love it!

More Info On Heavy Metals
*What the heck is an OEKO-TEX?
The Oeko-tex standards are standard for the AMOUNTS of heavy metals and other nasty things manufacturers are allowed to put in their products. At best, yoga mats adhere to the standards for baby products, Class I. At worst, Furnishings, Class IV. Either way the standards vary little between classes. http://www.oeko-tex.com/oekotex100_public/content1.asp?area=hauptmenue&site=grenzwerte&cls=02

**Where else should I look for heavy metals?
As far as consumer products go, heavy metals turn up in the most unexpected places. Here are a few examples:


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12 Comments

  1. Bruce says:

    I have to agree with the Polyurethane is really, really bad crowd. The EPA likely based it’s findings on perfectly mixed and cured samples over a short period of time and does not account for the process of creating it or what happens to it as it decomposes. A quick search for illnesses caused by urethane foam insulation will give you loads of information about what happens when the mix ratios are off by just a fraction. Assuming that Lululemon isn’t perfect….remember the see through pants?….you can assume that some fraction of the mats will have manufacturing defects and will off-gas horrifying chemicals…into your lungs. Just hope you don’t get one of those.
    Best option: natural material…repurpose once it starts to shed.

  2. kevin says:

    You are completely wrong. Some PVC containes Pthalate, not lead. Pthalate is present in lead and provides the maleability in lead and many other elements. There is PVC that is Pthalate free. Additionally, the CPSC and California Prop 60 prohibits Pthalates in products so all companies are beholden to test and assure all materials PVC and otherwise, are Pthalate free. You should do more research before you put out wrong information.

  3. concerned says:

    Do some research on how polyurethane foam is made and I think you will be shifting your view on the lululemon yoga mats.

    Look up words:
    isocyanate
    polyurethane foam

    It is one of the most toxic chemicals that you have been discussing.

    • Martha says:

      My instinctual reaction to the chemical smell and taste on my hands after using a lululemon mat and after thoroughly washing my hands over ten times just to see if I could get rid of it is that there is something unsafe and just not right about whatever is used to make that mat

  4. […] check out Is Your Yoga Mat Killing You for some valuable information about the materials used to make the […]

  5. […] Is Your Yoga Mat Killing You? About yoga mats, corporate greenwashing, and asking the right questions before you buy. […]

    • Stephen says:

      From the research I have done I have discovered that according the to the EPA, finished flexible polyurethane foams do not represent a health hazard, and for this reason are not limited in their exposure limits.
      Natural rubber, the “chemically smell” found on lululemon’s The Mat, and many other mats that include natural rubber, is VERY stinky. On our bike trip we have passed countless piles of freshly harvested rubber and it stinks like rotten fish combined with old sweaty socks. At least by the time it is in a yoga mat the smell has dissipated somewhat.

  6. blaimYoga says:

    Article Update:

    Jennifer Grayson, Eco-Etiquette journalist (http://jennifergrayson.com) asked me some questions in response to this article. I checked it out and here’s what I found out.

    1. Does lululemon have a mat recycling program?

    They do not have a company-wide program. This is left to each store to organize. My local store at the Americana in Glendale doesn’t have a program in place, but I’m now working with them to set something up with Donation Yoga Los Angeles.

    2. What is Ultra-Fresh and how safe is it?

    Ultra-Fresh 50 is added to The Mat as an anti-bacterial. The Mat (and The Travel Mat) contains approximately 90mg of the active ingredient, Tributyltin maleate (TBTM), in the polyurethane. Anything with a name like that can’t be awesome for you. However, the EPA studies I have read show that for this amount of TBTM to be toxic you would have to consume the entire 90mg and weigh no more than 500g.
    Some studies have linked TBTM to endocrine disruption, however, according to the information I found, you’d need to consume 500 times more TBTM in one go that is in the entire mat for there to be the possibility of any problems.
    With Ultra-Fresh DM-50 impregnated fabrics, primary sensitization patch tests indicated no sensitization at the highest level tested, which is higher than the amount used in The Mat.

    I see the benefit of having my yoga mat be anti-bacterial. I sweat on my mat all the time, and I wash it, at most, once a week. The amount of Ultra-Fresh added to the mat is minimal, the studies are inconclusive that exposure to these levels has any effect to my health, and having no bacteria on my mat is a good thing.
    I do not see the benefit of having heavy metals in my yoga mat if they don’t have to be there. The American Health Association says that current “safe” levels of heavy metals cause serious health problems.
    Why use a PVC-based mat when other options exist?

    • Fernanda says:

      Very interesting article, thanks!! Do you know exactly what the Lululemon “The Mat” is made from. I know they say the bottom layer is ‘natural rubber’ but it seems more thick and ‘foamy’ than e.g. the jade rubber mat that i also had previously! do they not use any chemical foaming agents to produce that rubber layer, and wouldn’t those agents include harmful substances? And what is the top so-called ‘polyurethane’ layer actually made of? it seems like a very unusual material, very grippy and rubbery…are you sure there are not harmful additives in there? I also am very conscious and concerned about what might be in the mat i stand and sweat on most days! Thanks again for such an interesting article!! Fernanda

    • JaneM says:

      Hi Fernanda,
      Of course it is very difficult to be “sure” that there are no harmful additives in anything, so I can’t promise this mat is free from harmful substances. In fact, I would hazard a guess than anything that goes through a modern manufacturing process has been in contact with something potentially harmful.

      Polyurethane is a plastic material that can be made into many forms (hard, soft etc). The one on The Mat is similar to a tennis racket grip according to Lululemon.

      The bottom layer is a mixture of natural rubber and Lululemon’s own fabric, luon (90% rubber, 10% luon). Luon is a nylon/lycra blend that they also use to make their workout clothes, and the luon in The Mat is recycled.

      So, to sum up, I would never promise that a product is 100% clean and perfect. However, I agree with Stephen (who wrote the article) that when compared with the other options out there, The Mat is one of the best (if not the best) in terms of environmental friendliness, health consequences, and sustainability (because it lasts so much longer than many cheaper mats).

    • Dave says:

      I’m sorry, I’d have to wholeheartedly disagree. Polyurethane is one of the most toxic substances mankind has ever produced. It is formed from approximately a 1:1 ratio of isocyanate and polyol. Isocyanate is manufactured by reacting amines and phosgene, a chemical so dangerous that Wikipedia has this to say: “Owing to the hazards associated with phosgene, the production of isocyanates requires special precautions.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isocyanate

      Isocyante also decomposes into hydrogen cyanide, which is the form of cyanide that everyone associates with the death of humans. In fact, the Bhopal Disaster of 1984, in which thousands of people were killed, and tens of thousands seriously injured, was the result of a leak from a facility that produced methyl isocyanate, and the gas cloud contained that substance as well as hydrogen cyanide. It is widely considered to be the worst industrial disaster of all time, by a good margin. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhopal_Disaster

      Although the finished product is stable, it is highly flammable, and therefore usually requires heavy amounts of flame retardant to be added to the polyurethane foam. Sofas containing polyurethane foam in the cushions can reach over 1400 deg F in a short time, evolving toxic gas that is the usual cause of death in house fires.

      So, the question we should be asking ourselves, as yogis, is: Do we wish to contribute to the continuing production of these toxic chemicals that cause injury and death to the workers who make them (most often in developing countries), as well as polluting our water supplies and damaging the environment, all in the name of comfort and convenience?

      Incidentally, what is wrong with the natural rubber Jade yoga mat? Is it really such an issue that you had to replace your after only 18 months? Considering the cost of yoga classes, clothing, and other fitness expenses, buying a new mat every year or two is small potatoes. Personally, I’d gladly pay more money to avoid contributing to the demise of our planet, my kids, and all the other living beings. We should never put our own health above the well-being of the rest of the planet. With natural materials, harvested in a sustainable way, we don’t have to.

      Namaste