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What are melamine sponges, and why do they clean so well?

Deal Alert!

You can get 20 extra-thick melamine sponges from STK for just $7 on Amazon right now, down from the usual $10.

20-Pack Melamine Sponges | $7 | Normally $10

Melamine sponges are one of recent history's more useful accidental inventions. A material originally designed for insulation and soundproofing just happened to possess incredible cleaning properties, and now, we can use it to detail clean our homes for just a few cents per sponge.

How They Work

Melamine sponges might look fairly dense and solid, but they're actually air-filled laticeworks of a material called formaldehyde-melamine-sodium bisulfite copolymer (don't worry, the formaldehyde is neutralized during the manufacturing process, according to Wired).

Instead of relying on chemical cleaning agents to loosen stains, melamine sponges essentially act as an extremely fine sandpaper that can scrape away unwanted scuffs, with no soap required. The individual strands of the material are extremely small, which allows them to get into nearly microscopic gaps in almost any surface. But they're also very hard and abrasive, which allows them to remove stains and scuffs from the underlying material.

Melamine foam up close.
Melamine foam up close. Photo via BASF.

A side effect of the the material's hardness is brittleness, which is why melamine sponges can break up and leave behind a residue after some vigorous scrubbing. A quick wipe with a wet towel is usually enough to eliminate the residue, but the fact remains that if you're scrubbing hard, you can tear through melamine sponges very quickly.

Where To Use Them (And Where Not To)

With just a little bit of water, melamine sponges are great for erasing scuffs from painted walls, dirt from textured shoe soles, and grease from around your kitchen. I've used them to clean marks off of walls that I was positive I'd eventually have to paint over.

But melamine's abrasive properties mean you'll want to find another way to clean shiny stainless steel fixtures, polished marble countertops, nonstick pans, or any other material that will show fine scratches. When in doubt, always test on an out-of-sight area to make sure the sponge won't damage the surface you're trying to clean.

What to Buy

You're probably familiar with the most popular brand of melamine sponge, the Mr. Clean Magic Eraser, which usually sells for about $1 per sponge.

But you don't need to pay $1 for a sponge that will likely dissintegrate after just a couple of uses, because the same melamine-based material is used in dozens of inexpensive third party sponges, which can be bought in bulk online for just pennies per sponge.

Seriously, here's 48 of them for $10. Or 70 for under $14. Or 20 extra-thick sponges for $9, if you don't want to be constantly reaching for a new one. I've bought several different no-name versions of these on Amazon, and I've always found them to perform basically identically to Magic Erasers, as has Apartment Therapy.  

That said, Mr. Clean has innovated on the original sponge concept with Magic Eraser products designed for cleaning toilets without dipping your arm into the water, or mopping floors without spending time on your knees.

But even if you think a melamine toilet wand is overkill, it's not a bad idea to keep a few inexpensive melamine sponges at the ready for when life throws you a stubborn mess.

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