Non-toxic play mats: What to look for and what to avoid

Lots of people have been asking us what it means to have a truly non-toxic play mat. Below is a summary of our two years of research on the subject, and why it’s so important.

The importance of choosing a non-toxic play mat

Indoor air quality is up to six times more polluted than outside our homes, even in congested cities! The main contributors to poor air quality inside are soft furnishings, floorings, MDF wood, carpets and curtains, so the choices we make when buying these can have a significant effect on the air that we breath.

Unfortunately, baby play mats are often a significant contributor to the toxic air in our homes. Traditionally, foam play mats have been made out of EVA, PVC or polyurethane. All extremely hazardous materials and not something we would feel happy to have our babies playing on for large periods of time. Babies and children are especially susceptible to air pollution and toxins. They breath in more air per second relative to their body weight, put more in their mouths, have thinner, more absorbent skin and are at crucial stages of development and growth.

Having searched high and low for a non-toxic foam play mat for our own babies, we know what a minefield it can be to find a truly non-toxic product and sift through the claims of companies who apparently make non-toxic mats. Can PVC, polyurethane or EVA foam be truly non-toxic?

What to avoid when looking for a non-toxic play mat

PVC play mats

PVC is one of the single most toxic plastics for both our health and for the environment. The production of PVC plastic is extremely harmful to the planet and also to the workers involved, and it doesn’t end there. PVC gives off up to 160 toxic gases into the immediate environment around it, and is extremely dangerous when put in mouths. What does it mean when PVC foam claims to be non-toxic? It usually means that it is free from phthalates, a substance banned in baby items in the UK in the 1990s. But are phthalates the only toxic substance in PVC material? Sadly, the answer is no, there is a multitude of other harmful ingredients in this type of plastic. There’s a really useful blog post written by Mommy to Max (full blog post here), which has looked into various research papers on the subject “even without phthalate plasticizers, the lifecycle of PVC has inherent toxicities that cannot be avoided and plasticizers – phthalates or not – will still leach from PVC products.”

EVA play mats

EVA foam is known to give off a toxin called formamide into the air around it, and therefore these mats often come with a disclaimer stating they contain a toxic substance. Even EVA play mats which claim to be free from formamide will not be completely without it as there are certain limits allowed for this toxic substance and if you are below these limits then you can claim to be non-toxic.

Polyurethane play mats

So could polyurethane foam be a safer alternative? Our research did not fill us with confidence that it is a safe material for babies to be playing on. Polyurethane is a plastic derived from petrochemicals. It contains isocyanates and is a known respiratory toxin, which babies and young children are especially sensitive to. Polyurethan often has diisocyanates which can cause further respiratory and skin damage, and are carcinogenic to humans.  

How to choose a truly non-toxic play mat

There are lots of companies making organic cotton play mats, filled with a natural wadding or padding to provide a protective cushioning. These are a great non-toxic option if they suit your needs, and is something we have used until creating our own foam mats. As our play mat was used for covering a wooden floor, we found the cotton mats were great until the babies got mobile, but once they were on the move the mats were too! So they are better on a carpet or a floor with a bit more grip.

If you’re looking to buy a truly non-toxic foam play mat, make sure you look closely at what the mat is actually made of, and look into the materials to make sure you are happy for your babies to be playing on those materials.

Little Earth Baby has created a foam play mat made entirely from trees. The natural rubber foam underside provides cushioning and padding while also sticking well to slippery floors. The cork top side provides a non-slip, wipe clean and antibacterial surface for babies to safely play. To find out more, and to purchase, click here.

Other tips on improving indoor air quality

We’ll be writing another blog post soon on this, as it’s such an important subject. In brief, be mindful of all the soft furnishings you buy for your house – second hand furniture is often much safer as most of the toxic gases are released in the first five years. Make sure the spaces where your babies spend the majority of their time are kept clear of anything potentially toxic. Opt for play mats and mattresses made from natural materials. Avoid new furniture whenever possible. Open windows every day, even in the winter and even if just for a couple of minutes. Buy house plants, they are known to filter and clean the air, and choose solid wood or stone floors over laminate alternatives.

Emma Bianco