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How Best to Clean My Yoga Mat? Cork vs Foam – The Science of Bad Smells in The Gym

How Best to Clean My Yoga Mat? Cork vs Foam – The Science of Bad Smells in The Gym

Have you ever wondered what’s really going on when your yoga mat starts to smell? Well, I can tell you now, it’s not sweat! It’s not sweat itself that has an odour, there’s actually more going on if you look under the microscope.


If your regular foam yoga mat starts to smell, find out the best way to eliminate bad smells, but more importantly how to avoid them. After all, prevention rather than cure is a motto every yogi can stand behind.


Let’s delve deeper into the science of bad smells in the gym, why some fitness gear fosters more odours than others and how to avoid them.



Why does my yoga mat smell? The science of sweat

Have you ever wondered why gym equipment smells even after a clean? You’ll be forgiven in assuming that it’s the residual sweat that gives off the unpleasant odour.


In reality our sweat doesn’t actually have any odour. Sweat is our body’s way of regulating temperature. Sweat is 99% water and 1% salts and oils, and it’s virtually odourless.

So if the sweat doesn’t smell, why does my fitness gear smell?

While sweat itself is virtually odourless, it’s the gym environment that is providing a perfect breeding ground for bacteria. Like all life forms, the three fundamental requirements related to bacterial life are temperature, oxygen and food, and it isn’t a surprise that bacteria love the environment of your gym gear. It’s warm, dark and moist, and that is why a nice humid gym is often a great environment for bacteria to grow. When the bacteria grows and multiplies, some particular species emit odourous gases.


However, there are lots of different types of bacteria, and some are smellier than others. Bacteria are also selective, different bacteria grow on different surfaces. So the more we learn about the science, the better we can learn how to avoid the bad smells that might interrupt our work-out.


It’s also true that some surfaces harbour bacterial growth much less than others, which is what we call anti-bacterial.


The microbiology of smelly fitness gear

Bacteria are everywhere, they even coat our skin, but few have stinky side effects. Staphylocci are a group of bacteria that live all over the body. One particular species is found to be the cause of

, the Staphylococcus hominis loves the underarms and other sweaty areas because they feed off the chemicals produced by the apocrine (sweat) glands. As the bacteria feeds off this chemical, the bacteria produces 3M3SH, a type of sulpherous molecule called thioalcohol. It’s the 3M3SH that stinks!


Another particularly odour emitting bacteria is Micrococcus. One study

, and it was the micrococcus that absolutely loved to breed on polyester. The synthetic surfaces were found to have a different odour profile that natural surfaces, which can be explained by the adsorbent qualities of those surfaces. Polyester is a petroleum based synthetic which has no natural properties. Synthetic fibres hence have very poor adsorbing capacity, meaning molecules don’t stick and interact with the surface due to their molecular structure. The less the odours are adsorbed, the more malodour is emitted.


So not only are bacteria selective to what surfaces they like to breed, but they also emit more odours if the surface has low adsorbancy, ie. synthetics like your foam yoga mat.


How can I avoid a bad smelling yoga mat?

We mentioned our wellness motto; prevention rather than cure, so when buying a yoga mat, we can simply select a yoga mat that is made from a material that is less favourable to those smelly bacteria. This will prevent bad smells in the first place.

One such material is natural cork, which is not only much easier to clean and maintain (we’ll go into that later), it has it’s own natural properties that make the surface antibacterial. In fact, one study showed that cork displayed high antibacterial activity against Staphylococcus aureus, with a bacterial reduction of almost 100% (96.93%) after 90 minutes of incubation.

The anti-microbial qualities are down to the phenolic extacts found naturally in cork. which is the soft outer bark taken from a cork oak tree Quercus suber L.

Why is cork an ideal material for a yoga or fitness mat?

Cork’s unique properties such as these phenolic extracts and also the naturally high elasticity and low permeability, make cork a fantastic surface for a yoga or fitness mat. The anti-bacterial qualities of this natural material means that a cork yoga mat is much less likely to foster bacterial growth and therefore less likely to smell.


Cork really is a wonder material as it can be processed into a thin malleable material that easily rolls for portability, without the use of harmful manufacturing processes commonly used in foam mat manufacturing.


Sweat should provide grip, not make you slip

Sweat’s other important function is to provide grip for the palms of our hands and soles of our feet. However, our most common experience is that sweat is actually making our palms too slippery to hold a stretch or yoga pose. This is not how the body is supposed to work! And it’s due to the synthetic surfaces which let moisture collect and pool on the surface of the material, causing sweat to built up on the mat and make you slip. When comparing a synthetic mat to a natural cork mat, it’s a light-bulb moment. A natural surface like cork works with the body’s natural functions by providing natural absorption of moisture, which actually improves natural grip which is essential even for the lightest of yoga sessions.



How often should I clean my cork yoga mat?

If you’re going to a yoga studio or fitness club, it is preferable to give your yoga mat a clean after every session. Particularly if you’re using practicing outside or in a hot yoga session.


If you’re practicing yoga at home regularly on a cork yoga mat, then one a week should be enough. However, if you have a foam mat, clean it more often.


What cleaning products should I use to clean my cork yoga mat?

Given the antibacterial qualities of the cork mat in helping to eliminate odours, you don’t need to treat it with any chemical cleaning products. However, dirt and dust can build up, so a regular wash will prolong the life of your mat. Ideally, a regular wash of the surface with some warm water and a gentle soap should be sufficient to keep your yoga mat sparkling clean. To remove more stubborn stains, try clipping to a coat hanger and washing it in the shower. Then simply hang your mat up to dry as you would your laundry, ideally outside on the washing line.

Soaking, vigorous scrubbing in the bathtub or washing machines (as you would for a foam mat) is not recommended for a cork mat as this may damage or dry out the cork.

Do - give your cork yoga mat a gentle wipe down using a water spray and a soft towel or cloth after each session.

Do – use warm water and a gentle soap on the surface of your cork mat

Do – try natural cleaning methods of 50/50 water and vinegar or witch hazel solution and use a spray bottle. You can also add your favourite essential oils like lavender, tea-tree or eucalyptus to create a relaxing aroma.

Do – make sure your yoga mat is completely dry before rolling and storing it.

Don’t – Don’t use harmful chemicals like bleach or detergent directly on the cork, as this will degrade the material.

Don’t – Don’t leave your cork mat out for too long in hot sun as this could cause cracking.

If there are some really stubborn stains on your, you could try a little bicarbonate of soda. But remember that you really don’t need to soak or scrub. It’s best avoiding any expensive cleaning sprays, too. They are not necessary and many are harmful to the environment. 



How long do cork yoga mats last?

As cork yoga mats are much more durable than their synthetic rivals, you can expect one which is used regularly to last several years, as long as it’s stored appropriately and well maintained. For a high quality and heavy weight cork yoga mat, head over to the Swifty Fitness shop - we love that it can be used indoors or outside, and even for other fitness workouts, not just yoga!

What’s the best way to roll and store your cork yoga mat?

After any type of cleaning method, it’s important to leave your cork yoga mat to air dry completely before putting away or using it.

When it’s dry and ready to be rolled up again, it’s advisable to roll it up with the top side (the cork side) on the outside. Doing it this way will ensure your mat rolls out nice and flat each time you use it.

Is a cork yoga mat suitable for both indoor and outdoor use?

The natural cork in the Swifty Cork Yoga Mat is heavyweight and anti-slip. Combined with the 6mm natural rubber underlay means it’s pretty durable and helps to smooth out any uneven surfaces. Just be aware that prolonged exposure to the sun isn’t ideal for your cork yoga mat. It’s best to roll it up if it isn’t in use during any other outdoor exercise you might be taking part in that day.

Explore our range of fitness equipment for use at home HERE

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