Maybe it's time to break up with sponges.
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It’s no secret that kitchen sponges are a hotbed for bacteria and germs, especially if you use them for too long, or leave them sitting wet in the sink or on the countertop. At best, they will start to smell moldy after awhile. At worse, they can harbor serious bacteria like salmonella.

Studies have shown that sponges are the dirtiest object in your house—including the toilet. And cleaning them isn’t necessarily effective: An oft-cited 2017 study published in Scientific American reported that sanitation methods including microwaving sponges or washing them in the dishwasher could actually increase bacteria. In a 2019 study by the Italian Journal of Food Safety, researchers found such high levels of contamination in kitchen sponges that they called them “unacceptable as a kitchen tool.” Yikes.

And yet, you’ll find at least one in almost any home kitchen. (Including my own.) So what gives?

Sponges have been used to clean kitchens for generations and the benefits are obvious: Abrasive sponges are great at scrubbing off stuck-on food, and non-abrasive ones wipe up spills easily and clean dishes without scratching them. Plus, sponges are cheap. They are disposable, after all.

But the lifespan of a sponge varies from household to household. If you’re not sure how long you’ve been using yours, it’s probably been too long. Most experts suggest using a new kitchen sponge every week, at the latest. And to clean the sponge thoroughly between uses with a mixture of water and bleach, then wring it out as much as possible so that it can dry.

Or, if the idea of cleaning your dishes with a grimy sponge is enough to make you want to switch to paper plates forever (don’t do that), there are some alternatives. Dishcloths dry faster than sponges, making them less susceptible to bacteria. But like sponges, you can’t let them sit around wet in the sink. Start with a fresh dishcloth every day and toss the dirty one in the washing machine and wash in hot water.

Silicone scrubbers (like this one by Peachy Clean) are nonporous and do not harbor bacteria. Plus they can be washed and reused for a long time. The downside is that some types can be are slippery when wet, which can makes dish washing tricky.

Scrubbers made from certain types of materials like stainless steel or foam (like the popular Scrub Daddy) can be washed in the dishwasher and tend to try out more quickly, which can prevent bacteria growth.

A sturdy scrub brush that can be washed in the dishwasher is another alternative—over time, it too, will need to be replaced, but with proper care it can outlast a regular sponge.