We often worry a lot about the products we’re putting on our skin, but think little of what we’re scrubbing our skin with. There are a lot of concerned parents reading the labels of head-to-toe washes, shampoos and bubble baths wondering if they’re going to be harmful to their kid’s skin, that's not necessarily wrong. But at the same time as this, they’ll be using the same natural sea sponge till it’s falling to pieces and covered in bacteria.
Maybe it’s because we think sponges are like bars of soap – self-cleaning in some way. Or maybe we’re just unaware of how bacteria really grow so don’t consider what we’re putting on our kid’s skin. Either way, finding the right brush, sponge, loofah, pouf, or wash cloth for your kid’s skin is more important than we often give it credit.
We wrote here about the considerations you might have for choosing the right tool to wash your baby or young kid’s skin. One key recommendation was to consider what the most hygienic sponge or brush would be so we’ve dug a little deeper into the hygiene of your wash cloth of choice to uncover how gross they actually can get.
Why does bacteria love your bathroom?
We know bathrooms are gross. If your bathroom is sparkling clean, it’s because you know this to be true and are set on stopping the grossness getting out of hand. If your bathroom is less than sparkling, you’ll also know bathrooms are pretty gross – it’s right there in front of you.
What we don’t often understand though is why bacteria loves the bathroom so much. Yes, we know what happens with the toilet and we get that it’s a place where we wash and all that dirt must go somewhere, but bacteria spreads in places we might not expect because it thrives in very specific conditions.
Bacteria grows best where it’s:
- Warm, but not too warm. In other words, body temperature is pretty much the perfect temperature ‘zone’ for bacteria growth as the below shows…
- Moist environments are perfect for bacteria. Water is the solvent that helps bacteria multiply. While they can live without water, they can’t grow in number. This is why traditional food preservation (pre-freezer days) involved salting, curing and drying foods to remove moisture and slow bacteria growth.
- Ph neutral or slightly acidic conditions are needed for bacteria to grow. That’s why effective disinfectants use highly acidic or alkaline solutions to kill off bacteria.
- Bacteria in the right conditions can double in number every 4 minutes. That’s why applying time to any of the conditions above makes everything that much more gross. A bathroom sponge left damp in the corner of your shower for a few days will have grown quite the culture of bacteria in that time.
What sort of bacteria do you get in your bathroom and how bad is it for your kids?
We’re probably aware of a lot of the bacteria that lives in our bathrooms. From E-coli to Salmonella and Staphylococcus Aureus. We know that it makes us sick and we’re pretty clear on the importance of washing our hands to prevent it’s spread.
But there are other bathroom bacteria that we’re less aware of. For example, one study has found that the same harmful bacteria that you can find in hot tubs and public swimming pools - Pseudomonas aeruginosa – can also turn up in your loofah, pouf or sponge if you don’t dry it thoroughly and clean it properly. This type of bacteria can cause all sorts of unpleasant skin infections. So for kids, who have more vulnerable skin, this should be a bigger concern than we often think about when it comes to hygiene in the bathroom.
Surprisingly, there’s more bacteria in your shower than your toilet
This is partly because we’re more likely to clean the toilet, but also because bacteria prefer the darker, moister surfaces you might find in the bath or shower area rather than your toilet seat.
At particular fault is the shower curtain (if you have one). Difficult to clean, and never fully dry, they’re the perfect place for bacteria to grow. And the evidence suggests there’s about 60x more bacteria on your shower curtain and shower floor than your toilet seat. So if you’re thinking about your kids hygiene, you might want to be thinking more about where they’re washing than what happens when they go to the toilet.
If you ever keep bottles or sponges on the side of your bath, you’re effectively creating dark, moist, warm corners that are ripe for the growth of bacteria. Popping your washcloth or loofah on the side of the bath to dry until you next use it is effectively creating a bacteria culture overnight.
Body puffs and loofahs store the most bacteria of any washing accessory
Aside from them often being made of plastic and therefore a bad eco-friendly solution to washing, poufs, loofahs and synthetic sponges are the worst culprits when it comes to harbouring bacteria.
The complex mesh of fibres makes them dark, difficult to dry out and easily trap dead skin cells that are perfect for bacteria to feed on. Experiments suggest that even drying out thoroughly only pauses the bacteria growth, which will start right up again when the loofah or sponge comes into contact with water again.
How to wash your washing accessories
It is possible to take better care of the synthetic sponges or loofahs we might wash with in order to protect against bacteria growth
If you properly take care of these accessories, drying them out thoroughly, storing them outside of a damp bathroom and cleaning them regularly with a very diluted disinfectant you can avoid the worst of the bacteria build up.
Drying them thoroughly, wont totally kill the bacteria, but it will prevent its rapid growth in the time when you’re not using it. The best cure however is to disinfect your scrub with bleach. This sounds extreme, but a 1 minute dunking in a 1 part bleach to 9 parts water solution totally decontaminates your synthetic sponge or loofah.
The challenge though is most of us wont go to all that trouble. Plus, if you’re planning on washing your kids with it, there’s some nervousness about washing them with something that was dunked in bleach – no matter how dilute and how well rinsed out it is.
The other issue is that we’re all definitely too slow to replace our bathroom accessories when we should. Even though recommendations are to replace natural fibre loofahs every 3-4 weeks and plastic loofahs and poufs every 2 months, most people keep them around much longer than that.
That’s partly because it feels wasteful. Throwing away the items we buy for the bathroom happens much too often. It feels like the opposite of being environmentally friendly to get rid of bath sponges and loofahs, especially when they’re made of plastic
What’s the best sponge or brush for washing your kids?
If you’re concerned about bacteria growth and it’s contact with your kid’s skin, if you’re mindful of how much stuff you throw away from your bathroom and are looking for something practical that looks good in your bathroom, then you’re going to need to think again about what you wash your kids with.
We wrote about the best options for washing your baby, toddler and young children here. But the best way to wash your baby, toddler or young children is either with something like our ultra-hygienic, totally re-useable Pebbl bath time brush, or one of our Mushi wash cloths.
The Pebbl bath time brush is the easiest item to clean and will stay free from bacteria growth for longer. It dries quickly preventing growth of bacteria and won’t disintegrate when you do wash it.
Alternatively, a wash cloth like Mushi is a good substitute for a loofah or sponge. While it’s a little harder to use, it dries quickly (stopping bacteria growth – even if that itself doesn’t kill bacteria) and is easy to put in the washing machine with other clothes or towels regularly to totally decontaminate it.