Growing up, my mom would use the same sponge for like, ever. Until it smelled up the entire kitchen. My brother and I still make fun of her. Although she never did this, I've often heard about people who toss their stinky, old sponges in the microwave in an effort to zap the bacteria and eradicate the smell I "fondly" recall from my childhood.
But now a new study strongly cautions against this tried-and-true method for killing off that which lives inside sponges. In fact, tossing your fav scrubbing tool in your microwave can actually empower the strongest strains of bacteria to thrive. Yikes!
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Research published in Scientific Reports calls out sponges as "microbiological hot spots" that have "the capability to collect and spread bacteria with a probable pathogenic potential." And researchers found that while nuking sponges—or running them through the dishwasher (another popular cleaning option)—may get rid of weaker strains of bacteria, the worst and potentially pathogenic varieties increase in strength, and multiply.
Anyone else imagining icky bacteria spreading all over kitchen counters, and onto dishes your kids eat off of? But wait, it gets worse. As The New York Times reports, researchers found a staggering 82 billion bacteria living in a cubic inch of sponge space. That's a lot of bacteria. As study co-author Dr. Markus Egert explains, "That's the same density of bacteria you can find in human stool samples." He cringeworthingly adds, "There are probably no other places on earth with such high bacterial densities."
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Hold on while I throw away our kitchen sponge, and reach for a paper towel instead. Of course, that mess-cleanup method is wasteful, so if you do want to continue using sponges, the authors behind this study recommend replacing them on a weekly basis. (If you're still adamant about not creating waste, you can run them through your washing machine or dishwasher on hot with bleach, and then rotate them from the kitchen to places where germ count isn't quite as concerning—like the bathroom or the garage. "When people at home try to clean their sponges, they make it worse," he ultimately says. Instead, head to Costco and stock up on sponges. Or else.