Play Mat Material Choices | The Pros and Cons

 

Icebergs are huge above the water. But dive below the surface and you’ll discover they are truly enormous.

Play mats are like icebergs. In a previous blog - READ HERE we looked at the two most common materials used for play mats - foam and fabric. But as the saying goes, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. 

The material choices for baby (child) play mats are wide-ranging and include:

  • cork
  • silicon
  • foam including polyvinyl chloride (PVC, also known as vinyl), polyurethane material (PU), or ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA)
  • fabric (synthetic, natural and blends).

 

How do I know which material is the best?

The most important factor to consider is safety. Safety includes protection from knocks and tumbles, but also nasty toxins and chemicals.

Most products, including children’s play mats, can have scary-sounding words like toxic, lead, antimony, flame retardant, phthalates, formamide, flame retardants, formaldehyde, and heavy metals. All of these you should try to avoid, and we’ll discuss them in more depth later.

Let’s start with the basics, Pros & Cons of each material choice:

Cork

Depending on where you are located in the world, if I ask you "what is cork used for?" the most common response would probably be wine stoppers. So, naturally, cork may seem a strange choice for a floor play mat. They aren’t the most common play mats on the market, but they are available.

Cork is used for flooring, wall displays, protective heat mats, wine stoppers, fishing equipment and even cricket and baseballs.  

Pros:

  • Naturally antibacterial
  • Natural material which is non-toxic, biodegradable, and recyclable
  • Eco-friendly unless mixed with foam or other additives
  • Cork can cushion a fall
  • Provides insulation from cold and noise
  • Offers a wipe-clean surface
  • Durable

Cons:

  • Not sealed
  • Easily damaged under sharp objects, or if a child decides to pick at the mat
  • Less grippy when dry so may slide around
  • Absorbs liquid, and can permanently stain if not cleaned up and dried quickly.
  • Light sensitive and easily fades

 

Rubber

100% natural rubber (from the sap of rubber trees) has been used for 1000 years. However, nowadays rubber products are just as likely to come from a chemical factory that produces synthetic rubber. For this blog, the focus is natural rubber only.

Rubber is used for shoes and tires (both automatic and aerospace)

Pros:

  • Natural, and free of toxic elements
  • Dense and absorbs noise
  • Non-slip
  • Elastic substance (elastomer) can recover back to its original shape if stretched just like elastic bands.
  • Resistant to wear and tear

Cons:

  • Man-made rubber on the market
  • Rubber can have a smell
  • Not as affordable as other materials
  • It can become sticky (you may notice this on your pram handles) over time
  • Wipe clean only
  • It can stain your floors

 

Silicon

Silicon is mostly used for surface protection, like on a table (or high chair tray) for eating, or on the floor when painting. It is not used to make play mats that protect your little one from knocks and bumps. But you’ll find plenty of placemats or splat mats made of silicon.

Silicon is used for kitchen and bakeware, highchair mats, and floor mats to protect from food or craft mess.

Pros

  • Safe, strong, and heat resistant
  • Waterproof, durable, and hard-wearing
  • Considered better than plastic because doesnt leach chemicals into foods or off-gas
  • Environmentally friendly (made from a natural resource (quartz))
  • Flexible - easy to roll and store

Cons

  • Not environmentally friendly because it requires non-renewable sources.
  • Not biodegradable
  • It is not used to make floor play mats that children lay, and play, on
  • More expensive than equivalent PVC products
  • It can stain, and be difficult to clean
Foam

The types of foam materials used to make play mats are polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polyurethane material (PU), or ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA). Toddlekind’s play mats from EVA. and play rugs are made from EVA. Let’s take a look at all three.

 

Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)

An alternative to silicone, Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) is also mostly used for surface protection. PVC is not generally used for protective floor play mats like a puzzle play mat.

If you do an internet search on PVC you will find endless sites telling you how toxic it is. It’s true. PVC is one of the most toxic plastics for health and the environment because dangerous chemical additives in PVC can contain phthalates, lead, and cadmium to name a few. All of these leach out or off-gas into the air.

If you have done your research on Toddlekind, you will know that the splat mats are made from PVC, but not the common form of PVC mentioned above. While your little one will be sitting in their high chair (with the splat mat underneath to catch all the mess), it is important to note that Toddlekind uses the highest quality non-toxic PVC with water-based UV ink. Toddlekinds’s PVC mats are free from formaldehyde, phthalates, and BPAs.

PVC is used for cables, pipes, bottles

Pros

  • Waterproof, wipe clean, and non-slip
  • Durable, and hard-wearing
  • Strong and heat resistant
  • Flexible - easy to roll, and store
  • More affordable than silicon products

Cons

  • Considered one of the most toxic materials
  • Producing PVC involves toxic plasticizers
  • There can be a strong chemical smell upon opening ie. chemical off-gassing
  • Some manufacturers use phthalates
  • Lifecycle has inherent toxicities that cannot be avoided

 

Polyurethane (PU)

Polyurethane (PU) foam is a gas-filled material made from polyurethane-based plastic. It is available in a wide range of stiffness, hardness, and densities so can be as elastic as a rubber band or rigid like a bowling bowl.

While PU is considered non-toxic, there is a component that makes polyurethanes toxic. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are gas-emitted chemicals. And they are released by lots of household products like air fresheners, permanent markers, glues, and even printers. Depending on the duration, and level of exposure people's health can be affected by VOCs.

PU is used for everything from rubber bands, and kitchen sponges to bowling balls, car seats, and children’s toys. It is even used to make PU leather, an alternative to leather.  

Pros

  • Durability
  • Shock absorbency
  • Flexibility
  • provides insulation from cold and noise

Cons

  • Some are of lesser quality than others, so can have durability problems
  • Sometimes a strong chemical smell upon opening ie. chemical off-gassing

 

Toddlekind’s newest play mat style - the Play Rug - is made from extra thick PU foam, and is non-toxic, free of BPA, formaldehyde, phthalates, heavy metals, latex, and PVC. Safe and protective for your little ones.

To ensure the best, safest product for your little one, Toddlekind uses the highest quality PU to ensure durability, and also airs out all products for one month before packaging to avoid off-gassing. 

 

Ethylene Vinyl Acetate (EVA)

Ethylene Vinyl Acetate (EVA) is a plastic made by combining ethylene and vinyl acetate. EVA can give off a toxin called formamide which is why some people don’t like it.

Toddlekind’s Prettier Puzzle Playmats are made from EVA. Under strict 3rd party testing, Toddlekind's mats are confirmed to be certified under UK, US, and EU regulations. One of the many steps Toddlekind takes to ensure the best, safest product for your little one is to air out all products for one month before packaging.

As a company, Toddlekind choose EVA foam because not only did it have a durable, high-quality, premium feel but the quality from our supplier in Taiwan is truly non-toxic. In Taiwan, they have been making EVA for over 65 years, and they have improved the formulation to exceed the strictest standards for safety in the world.

EVA is used to make jigsaw play mats, shoes, flooring, and sports equipment.

Pro

  • waterproof
  • flexible
  • shock absorbent
  • provides insulation from cold and noise

Cons

  • potential traces of chemicals from manufacturing
  • may be treated with flame retardant
  • strong chemical smell upon opening i.e. chemical off-gassing
  • wipe clean only

 

 

Fabric

Fabric play mats are often best for babies and infants who are not yet on the move. The main materials used for fabric play mats are cotton (often quilted), wool (real and synthetic), and polyester. All of these materials offer a soft, comfortable surface for your little one, and have deep padding to protect them from the hard surface of the floor while they play, enjoy tummy (or nappy-free) time, and even take a nap.

A fabric baby play mat is best laid over a foam mat, or rug because they are not slip-proof. You will find as your little one becomes more rambunctious a fabric play mat will move and bunch up.

The best fabric is organic cotton because of its washability, quality, durability, and safety. The below pros and cons factor in organic cotton only.

Examples of fabric use include clothing and bedding.

Pro

  • Machine washable
  • Durable
  • High quality
  • Free of toxic elements
  • Breathable
  • Soft

Cons

  • Can not wipe clean, unless it has a protective water-resistant, or waterproof coating on it.
  • Regular washing is required to limit germs
  • Limited padding for shock absorbency
  • Not waterproof, unless coated or layered with a waterproof membrane
  • Some materials can contain flame retardant
  • Can shrink (if not washed properly) and wrinkles

 

 

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