When we ask our friends expecting babies (this is in north east London) what they're planning to wash their baby with, they've often said a natural sea sponge.
Even with 3 kids of our own, it's not something we knew much about, but when we started work on our Pebbl bathtime dispensing and scrubbing brush, it made sense to understand more about why sea sponge has become a popular for bathing.
In a push back against the growth of synthetic alternatives for many decades, it seems like the trend towards 'natural' has made this sponge popular. Plus they have that rugged, earthy look which makes for a nice Insta pic in your bathroom.
We have spent a lot of time thinking about the right bath time essentials for our kids, from the right bath tub, towel, skincare or the right sensory bath toys to use and of course the right thing to wash our kids with.
So here’s the ultimate guide to natural sea sponge and whether that’s the right choice for washing your infant at bathtime.
Understanding natural sea sponge
What is natural sea sponge?
Sponge grows almost exclusively in salt water and without a brain or nervous system, it is actually one of the simplest animals on earth. It lives by attaching itself to stationary objects on the ocean floor and passing sea water through its body and extracting the sea minerals it needs to live. Harvesting the sponge encourages further reproduction and that makes it a great sustainable material.
Traditionally a big export from the Mediterranean, sea sponges are now harvested from places like Tarpon Springs in Florida – known as the sponge capital of the world!
Unlike natural sponges, synthetic sponges are made from a range of wood pulp fibres and are treated with chemicals to form cellulose sheets that can then be turned into sponges for washing.
How do we make sea sponges for washing with?
Sea sponges have been used to wash with for thousands of years and the process is largely still organic.
Divers harvest sponge from the sea floor with hooks and knives designed to leave enough of the roots of the sponge attached to the surface so that it can regenerate quickly. Once back on board the boat, the sponge is laid out under wet cloth till any organisms living in the sponge have died and then they’re hung to dry.
Additional preparation of the sea sponge might include bleaching to lighten the colour of the sponge, and they may spend some time in a mild acid solution to make sure any microorganisms are killed off before being packaged and sold.
What are the different types of sea sponge?
Experienced divers are able to choose the right sort of sponge type to harvest to meet the needs of what people want. That’s because the firmness and abrasiveness of sponge varies and is suitable for different purposese
- Honeycomb sea sponge – large, soft and absorbent this sponge is middle of the range and the most popular choice for a bath sponge to wash with. The size might be a factor for washing a little one so you might need to find one cut down to a smaller size or do that yourself.
- Soft sea wool sponge – soft and absorbent, these sponges are ideal for newborn skin and are very delicate albeit not necessarily very durable.
- Silk fina sea sponge – a much firmer sponge that is less designed for washing skin, but may be better for washing up or cleaning tables and furniture where the more robust sponge can hold up against tougher surfaces, muck and dirt.
- Sea grass sponge – a multipurpose but less durable sponge that might work well for a range of jobs but wont last a long time.
- Hard head sea sponge – a firmer and drier sponge that is better for exfoliating and can endure more hard wearing cleaning.
How to use and look after a natural sea sponge?
How to make a sea sponge last longer
There’s some debate over how long a natural sea sponge can last. On the one hand you see reviews like this that complain their sponge disintegrated after a week – and this really does seem to be a common problem.
Then there are other people that say they’re incredibly durable, will last years and save you loads vs buying synthetic sponges.
But the truth of how long your sponge lasts comes down to how you look after it
Improving the durability of your natural bath sponge:
First take a table spoon of baking powder or bicarbonate of soda and add to a container of water (bigger enough to fit your sponge in) and soak the sponge in there for 15 minutes each week. Rinse and allow to air dry. This process supports the structure of the cells in the sponge and will help it last longer without crumbling away.
Disinfecting your natural bath sponge
Sea sponges naturally prevent the growth of bacteria – making it perfect for your warm, damp bathroom where bacteria loves to grow – but to kill bacteria, the sponge will need some help. To do this add the sponge into a soak with white wine or cider vinegar or put it into a soak with some drops of tea tree oil which is an effective anti bacterial and will also help remove any smell.
Don’t boil, microwave or put the sponge in the dishwasher. This will harden it and reduce its durability and ability to absorb water for washing. Never bleach to clean it. Don’t twist and pull at the sponge. Squeeze to rinse, don’t twist to wring it out or you’ll damage the structure of the cells and reduce its usefulness over time.
How often do you need to replace a natural sponge?
Natural bath sponges last longer than synthetic sponges. Natural sponges inhibit bacteria growth because of the enzymes they carry and that means you’re not storing a sponge full of bacteria in your bathroom and thinking it’s getting your little one’s clean.
Synthetic sponges became popular because they were cheap, convenient and we either didn’t think much about what we were putting on our kid’s skin, or we were happy constantly throwing the sponges away and replacing them.
More concern about waste, especially wasting products that take a long time to breakdown or use a lot of plastic has pushed us towards thinking more about using sustainable products when it comes to kids.
Sustainable means both the way it’s made – we know natural sea sponge is harvested pretty sustainably and regrows easily – and how long it lasts. Natural sea sponge lasts longer than synthetic sponges if you’re concerned about bacteria growth. Synthetic sponges have no protection from the ripe conditions in your bathroom for bacteria growth whereas sea sponges have natural enzymes that restrict bacteria growth. It means you can be confident using a sea sponge to wash your kid’s skin for a lot more baths than a synthetic sponge.
However synthetic sponges do hold their shape for longer and unless properly cared for, a natural sea sponge is likely to shed and disintegrate before too long. Especially in the hands of a baby keen to chew things or a not too careful child, you could end up with a handful of sponge fibres and not much more to actually wash with.
With a good sponge, moderately well looked after, you might expect a sea sponge to last about 8 weeks before it needs replacing.
The benefits of natural sea sponge for bathtime
Why are sea sponges good for washing?
- Absorbent – Sea sponges are pretty cool in part because of just how much water they can soak up. Great for cleaning up spills, but when it comes to bath time they can be great for lathering up and for rinsing down because of all the water they hold.
- Super soft – There’s something about little babies that makes you want to guarantee nothing rough ever touches their soft smooth skin. So a super soft and gentle sponge is a big plus in the sea sponge corner when it comes to washing your baby’s skin.
- Long lasting – debatable whether they do last a long time, but a sea sponge will fall apart rather than go ‘bad’ from bacteria so that’s a pretty good reason to choose it for washing.
- Naturally antibacterial in warm bathrooms – as per the above, sea sponges inhibit bacteria growth, so you can be confident you’re not rubbing more germs round your baby’s skin or having them ingest a bunch of bacteria while they chew on the sponge.
Why buy natural sea sponges for your kids?
- Hygiene – Natural sea sponges naturally inhibit bacteria growth so you’re making a massive improvement on the dank bacteria synthetic sponge that is stuck in the corner of your bath tub. Even those loofahs or poufs you might hang in your shower collect more bacteria than your toilet seat, so this a much better choice for your kids – especially babies keen on chewing stuff!
- Reuseable and durable – In theory sea sponges last a long time (read more above and judge for yourself if you think you can bother with the cleaning etc needed to keep it going a long time).
- Environmentally sustainable and biodegradeable – Sea sponges are definitely a great eco-friendly choice given how they’re harvested. Get one that’s not wrapped in plastic, been bleached and try and make it last a while to get the best results.
- Affordability – Sea sponges are fairly expensive compared to the couple of quid you might spend on a synthetic sponge, but they’ll last a bunch more time and are way better for your skin which you can’t really put a price on.
Why are natural sea sponges great for newborn babies?
One of the biggest concerns we have as new parents is what we’re putting on our baby’s skin when it’s so pure.
Some of that is just our over protectiveness as parents, but there’s a bunch of science behind it that means we should be weary of what we’re using.
Infant skin is thinner and more vulnerable than adult skin (approx. 3-5 times thinner). The ‘thinness’ refers to the upper hydrolipidic film on top of your skin and the strato corneum. Together this means a child’s skin is more vulnerable to absorbing what you put on it, and if something harmful is applied to their skin, it will do more damage.
It’s for that reason that you should always read the bottle of the lotions, creams and washes you use on your kid’s skin. But it should also make us extra vigilant about what we’re using to wash with. A bacteria laden sponge or wash cloth is not great on skin that is already vulnerable.
A sponge that is naturally antibacterial without having to coat it in chemicals, a sponge that is effective at washing and that cleans efficiently (kids don’t tolerate a whole lot of time for washing) makes a natural sea sponge a good choice.
Are natural sponges always the best option for babies?
If our biggest concern is what we’re bringing into contact with baby’s skin, it’s important to get the right bath sponge and always check the packaging to make sure you’re not using something you don’t understand the meaning of.
Not all sea sponges are prepared the same and you’ll need to find the right version that is: soft, unbleached and hasn’t had any extra chemicals applied to enhance the life of the sponge
Sea sponges can be expensive too. We tried a pretty standard sea sponge that cost about £10 for 2 fairly small sponges.
If you do find you need to replace them every couple of months, it could make it a pricey option. While looking after your sea sponge and cleaning it to make sure it doesn’t fall apart or go mouldy will make it feel more affordable, taking care of a sponge might not be your priority with a little one to look after!
What sponges or washing accessories should you use as infants get older?
A sea sponge can be great for washing your newborn baby. As an adult they can be a great eco-friendly and luxurious way to wash as well.
But how do we help kids move from being washed to washing themselves with confidence?
Kids need the right tools to learn. That’s why we designed the Pebbl bath time sponge-brush. This is a great alternative for toddlers onwards that actively gets them learning to look after their own skin health and hygiene. Pebbl controls the amount of soap released, lathers incredibly well and is ergonomic designed for little hands to wash with.
It’s free of all the chemicals you might associate with a synthetic sponge (BPA-free, Phthalate-free) and will last a life time. It works so well, you’ll want to use it as an adult, so there really is no replacement you’ll need. The brush can be washed in the dishwasher and used again and again.
Alternatives to natural sea sponges for your infant?
Wash cloths – This is a really popular choice. We made our own Mushi wash cloths out of microfibre to help increase their absorption and their ability to trap muck and dirty and remove it from your baby’s skin. You can put them in the washing machine and reuse them 1000 times.
They can be a bit of a trap for bacteria, but as long as you’re washing them regularly (ideally after each bath) and leaving to dry thoroughly they’ll be pretty hygienic. They’re not great at washing hair and you don’t get a big lather on in the bath, but they are brilliant at getting into the nooks an folds of skin which makes them great for very young babies that can’t hold their head up well to begin with.
Synthetic sponges – a pretty poor substitute. Having used them and kept them for far too long with our eldest kids, they really do get quite grim. It’s hard to remember how bad they were since we switched to using our own Pebbl bath brush.
Shower pouf / loofah – Typically made from plastic and notorious carriers of all sorts of nasty bacteria, these are a really bad solution – especially for kids. They’re hugely wasteful and not very effective at cleaning, so best to avoid altogether
Goshi – These Japanese shower towels are directly marketed to young kids, but for school aged children they could be a great upgrade on the wash cloth or flannel you might typically use. They’re better exfoliants and lather up incredibly well.
Pebbl bath sponge-brush – Again this is our own solution to bath time that is designed to make bath time easier for you and while teaching your kids hygiene habits for life. The colours, design and the fun of getting your kids involved in the washing will all make getting them doing the dirty work much easier, building their confidence around looking after themselves.