Sponges and Scrub Brushes: When to Keep and When to Toss

How often should you clean your cleaning items...and at what point is it time to (ahem) throw in the towel?

citric acid, cleaning brush, steel wool, sponges and bar of soap on white wooden table backgroundShutterstock / images72

I don’t know about you, but I throw my sponges away on the regular. It’s not necessarily because I’m worried about bacteria—it’s the smell that bothers me. The smell of an old sponge really creeps me out, and the odors seem to linger on my hands after I use it. No, thank you. I’m all about buying an industrial pack of sponges at Costco or Amazon and tossing them when they get stinky.

(Psst: Have you tried using microfiber cloths? They can remove 99% of bacteria with just water!)

Recent media reports are exposing the dangers of the common kitchen sponge and they say it goes beyond the odor. By the time you can smell it, your sponge is already a bacteria warehouse. They may have over exaggerated the dangers (comparing kitchen sponges to toilets!), but truth of the matter is that dish cloths, sponges and scrub brushes do harbor bacteria that can cause food-borne illness. To avoid any potential contamination, you should probably replace them “regularly” and clean them in between—but how often is often enough?

When Should You Replace Your Sponges and Scrub Brushes?

According to a study in the journal of Scientific Reports, you should replace your sponges every week. Before you get on that regimen, take a minute to first consider how you’re using them. If you only use your dish cloths or sponges to suds-up already rinsed dishes, you can probably sanitize them once a week (see below) and replace them when they begin to fall apart. On the other hand, if those scrub brushes and sponges are regularly contaminated with raw meat juices, the once-a-week rule probably stands.

If you don’t want to spend too much on replacement sponges, consider having a different cleaning item for each application. For example, I use my scrub brush to remove built-in grime from baking sheets, pots and pans. It gets dirty more quickly than my sponges, but since I never use it as the final cleaner I hang on to it for longer than a week. I have sponges that are specifically used to soap-up already scrubbed dishes and separate sponges that I use (and toss frequently) for cleaning items that had contact with raw meat.

Can’t stand the thought of having multiple sponges? That’s OK—you can extend the life of your sponge by cleaning it at least every other day.

How to Clean Your Sponges

According to the Public Health and Safety Organization, dish cloths can be cleaned using the sanitize setting of your washing machine, but the easiest way to clean a sponge is in the microwave. It won’t work for any metallic sponges like steel wool, but simply wet the sponge and pop it in the microwave for 2 minutes. The microwave will heat the water to boiling and kill 99.9 percent of bacteria. Just make sure you let it cool down before handling it again!

Another good option is the dishwasher. Studies show that dishwashers are one of the most effective killers of bacteria, and it’s easy to get into a routine if you run your dishwasher every day anyway. Just pop your sponges and scrub brushes on the top rack before you run the cycle. Make sure to have the heated drying option turned on to maximize the temperature inside the dishwasher. (Hey, is your dishwasher clean?)

Finally, you can soak your sponges. This option is especially effective if you do it every day. You get to choose—a solution of 3/4 cup bleach in one gallon of water or a bowl filled with full-strength vinegar, which works wonders in so many cleaning projects. After soaking for 5 minutes, 99 percent of bacteria will be eliminated from the sponge. Be sure to squeeze out excess water and let the sponges air dry completely after soaking.

No matter which method you choose, you can always follow the “when in doubt, toss it out” adage. It’s definitely not worth getting someone sick over a dollar or two.

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Lindsay D. Mattison
After years of working in professional kitchens, Lindsay traded her knives in for the pen. While she spends most of her time writing these days, she still exercises her culinary muscles on the regular, taking any opportunity to turn local, seasonal ingredients into beautiful meals for her family.