Polyvinyl chloride (PVC), an ingredient in traditional plastic yoga mats, has come under fire in recent years from the medical community. The reason: PVC can contain heavy metals as well as phthalates -- questionable substances that have been linked to reproductive and other health issues.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, animal studies have linked phthalate exposure to altered hormone levels, liver cancer and lowered sperm function. Researchers have also raised concerns about prenatal exposure to phthalates. A January 2010 study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found that higher levels of phthalate exposure in the womb were associated with conduct and attention disorders later in life.
For this reason, some phthalates are now banned for use in children's toys, and many major retailers like Wal-Mart and Target have scaled back on any inventory containing PVC and phthalates. In addition to these health concerns, many environmental organizations, including Greenpeace, argue that the manufacturing of PVC releases cancer-causing compounds called dioxins into the atmosphere.
Industry groups, on the other hand, say that PVC is one of the most widely used plastics precisely because it has been studied so extensively. However, experts say yoga mats made with PVC usually end up in landfills, where they can release more toxins into the environment. In response to this claim, many yoga mat manufacturers who use PVC offer a recycling Program for old yoga mats.
The decision comes down to personal preference. Many people prefer the convenience, lower cost and durability of PVC plastic yoga mats, while others are more comfortable with natural mats.
Among standard plastic yoga mats, the Manduka Black Mat Pro (*Est. $100 and up), receives the best reviews. The Black Mat Pro, which is made of a blend of polyester and PVC, is 71 inches long, although an 85-inch version is also available. For its part, Manduka says their PVC is manufactured using an emissions-free method that they say reduces the toxins released into the environment. Manduka also offers an optional mat recycling kit (Est. $5) so the mat doesn't end up in a landfill.
PVC-based mats like the Manduka tend to be exceptionally durable, which is reflected in their ratings at Amazon.com. The Manduka Black Mat Pro earns a 4.5-star overall rating after more than 460 reviews, with more than 70 percent of owners giving it a perfect rating. Many users say their Manduka mat, which is ¼ inch thick, looks new after years of use. Others say it provides great comfort and support while still letting users feel connected with the ground. Stability is excellent, according to reviews, and the mat doesn't move or slip during difficult poses.
The Manduka Black Mat Pro is highly rated in a group test of yoga mats at Women's Adventure magazine, whose testers praise the firm but comfortable support. "In laying-down poses, yoga testers were comfortable on the fabric-like finish of this thick mat," the editors write. The author of Om Shanti: A Yoga Blog also praises the Manduka. "I've tried probably 10 or 15 different yoga mats in my lifetime, and the Manduka Black Mat is easily the best," he says. "This sort of durability is unheard of with respect to any other yoga mats."
The biggest downside to the Manduka Black Mat Pro -- other than its hefty price tag -- is its substantial weight. With a weight of 7 pounds, the 71-inch Black Mat Pro is quite a load to carry, especially for users who tote a yoga mat around regularly. The larger 85-inch version weighs 8.5 pounds. According to reviews, the Manduka can also be slippery when wet, so experts recommend using it in conjunction with a yoga towel if you're prone to sweating or participate in Bikram or hot yoga.
If weight is your primary concern, the Manduka ProLite Yoga Mat (*Est. $60) offers many of the same benefits as the Manduka Black Mat Pro but is cheaper and lighter. The 71-inch Manduka ProLite is made of the same PVC material, but it is thinner (3/16 inch thick) and weighs 4 pounds. This yoga mat also earns several recommendations, but it's clear that reviewers prefer the Manduka Black Mat Pro overall.
In a test conducted by The Wall Street Journal, one writer finds the Manduka ProLite very stable and says it doesn't slip or bunch. However, even though this is the lighter version, the writer notes that this mat still feels heavier than other yoga mats she has tested. A tester at The New York Times also describes the ProLite as "heavy" and "hard to dry," although she tested the mat during a Bikram yoga class. Both the Manduka Black Mat Pro and ProLite yoga mats come with a lifetime guarantee.
Both of these premium yoga mats are strong and durable, but they are also quite expensive. While reviewers prefer the Manduka Black Mat Pro -- and nearly everyone who reviews it says it's worth the money -- not everyone wants to spend nearly $100. The Yoga Accessories Extra Thick Deluxe Yoga Mat (*Est. $20) is a 74-inch-long yoga mat that earns positive user reviews on Amazon.com. Like the Manduka yoga mats, the Yoga Accessories Extra Thick Deluxe is made with PVC. The mat is 1/4 inch thick and weighs 3.6 pounds. It comes in 23 colors and is accompanied by a limited lifetime warranty.
The Yoga Accessories Extra Thick Deluxe Yoga Mat isn't included in any professional tests, but it is highly rated at Amazon.com. More than 230 owner reviews combine to give the yoga mat an overall 4.5-star rating (out of 5). Most users say the Yoga Accessories mat is a terrific value and provides great stability and comfort for a variety of yoga poses. Several reviewers note that their wrists and knees have never been more comfortable during demanding poses. "It is easy on the knees and remains stationary on the floor well," says one owner.
The biggest downside, according to reviews, is an unpleasant chemical odor when the yoga mat is new. Most users are able to diminish the odor by airing out the mat or washing it with soap and water, but some say it never goes away completely. A few users say the mat is too slippery, especially in hot yoga classes, but most owners say they are very satisfied with the Yoga Accessories yoga mat.