Originally made from natural sea sponges, they are most commonly made from synthetic materials today.
The first references of sponges used for hygiene dates from the Ancient Greece. Competitors of the Olympic Games bathed themselves with sea sponges soaked in olive oil or perfume before competing. In the book Odyssey by the Greek poet Homer, the god Hephaestus cleans his hands, face, and chest with a sea sponge, and the servants in the Odysseus palace also used sea sponges to clean the tables after the meals the suitors of Penelope had there. The Greek philosophers Aristotle and Plato also mentioned sea sponges in both scientific and historic contexts in their works. Ancient Greeks and Romans also used sea sponges tied to sticks for anal hygiene, a tool known as the xylospongium, and washed them with sea water.
Ancient Romans also used sea sponges extensively for hygiene and other uses. The belief that sponges had therapeutic properties led to its usage in medicine for cleaning wounds and treating disease.
Sea sponges were used as tampons by women throughout history and are still used as a cheaper and more eco-friendly alternative to fibre ones. However, researchers do not recommend using sea sponges as tampons, as they may contain dirt and microorganisms, especially if poorly sanitized.
Synthetic sponges can be made of polyester, polyurethane, or vegetal cellulose. Polyurethane is used in polyester sponges for their abrasive side. Polyester sponges are more common for dish washing and are usually soft and yellow.
Vegetal cellulose sponges made of wood fiber are more used for bathing and skin cleaning, and are usually tougher and more expensive than polyester sponges. They are considered more eco-friendly than polyester sponges as they are biodegradable and made of natural materials.
Several methods have been used to clean sponges. Studies have investigated the use of the microwave to clean non-metallic domestic sponges that have been thoroughly moistened. A 2006 study found that microwaving wet sponges for two minutes (at 1000 watt power) killed 99% of coliforms, E. coli, and MS2 phages, but Bacillus cereus spores required four minutes. After some fires were caused by people trying to replicate the results at home, the study's author urged people to make sure their sponges were wet. A 2009 study showed that the microwave and the dishwasher were both effective ways to clean domestic sponges.
Caribbean and Mediterranean developing countries are the largest sponge exporters, whereas the largest importers are developed European and North-American countries. Tunisia is the world's main sponge exporter, exporting 90% of its sponge production. France is the main importer, being supplied by Tunisia, but France's sponge demand has fallen in recent years.
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