This Is What Gives the Mr. Clean Magic Eraser Its Superpowers

published May 13, 2019
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(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

In 2017, Procter & Gamble debuted a new, sexy Mr. Clean. His capable forearms (and sort of sad gesture towards a more equitable division of labor across gender lines) quickly seduced his female co-star, but she could just as easily have been swayed by the miraculous cleaning power of the Mr. Clean Magic Eraser. After hitting shelves in 2003, Magic Erasers quickly became a cult classic, and are a favorite of many cleaning professionals, including Jolie Kerr, who even recommends them for de-scuffing your beloved Prada wedges.

What Exactly Is a Magic Eraser?

The Mr. Clean Magic Eraser is “Durafoam” sponge, advertised as a catch-all cleaning tool, capable of banishing everything from permanent marker to soap scum to beet juice. All you need to do is dampen the sponge and it goes to work on scuffs and stains, without any added detergents or cleaning solution.

(Image credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Design: Apartment Therapy)

How do Magic Erasers Work?

No wand-waving here: The “magic” of the eraser is simply melamine, a nitrogen-rich organic base that in its solid state is a powerful-yet-delicate abrasive. Melamine is a widespread chemical compound, used in everything from dry erase boards to sound insulation on bullet trains to your grandparents’ formica table. Because of its high protein content, it has also been used to inexpensively and illegally fortify foods (which is what happened in the 2008 Chinese infant formula scandal).

Melamine’s unique abrasiveness is what makes it such a powerful cleaning agent. “As a foam, melamine is both porous and hard and acts like an extremely fine sandpaper,” says Jessica Ek, Director of Digital Communications at the American Cleaning Institute. Unlike, say, a detergent that breaks down stains, melamine is actually using teensy air pockets to scrape the stains off. “At a microscopic level, the air pockets look like tiny upside down triangles,” explains Morgan Brashear, P&G’s Scientific Communications Manager. “When activated with water, the individual triangles become about as hard as glass. The ‘struts’—the points at the bottom of the triangle—catch on the soil and drag across the surface, similar to a windshield wiper.” That’s why they recommend spot testing, and avoiding use on super delicate, glossy, or finished-wood surfaces. Gloves are also a good idea, since scrubbing your fingers repeatedly with an abrasive substance is the kind of exfoliation you don’t want to mess with.

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

Magic Erasers will set you back about $1 a pop, and, since the erasers are so porous, they tend to wear away like a pencil eraser and break down much more quickly than other sponges. So the question is: do they really work that much better than ye olde elbow grease? That’s a yes. Their abrasive nature means they are simply more effective at removing stubborn stains. That said, feel free to save them for your tougher messes, and rely on soap and water for things like fresh food spills. And since there aren’t really any “magical” ingredients, you can also buy your own melamine sponges in bulk.

Finally, the Chinese baby formula scandal, while horrifying, shouldn’t make you concerned about what the sponges are doing for your health: Melamine is harmless unless ingested (so keep them out of reach of pets and children), and, as Brashear points out, they are actually a great option for people concerned about toxins, as the erasers are free of added surfactants and detergents.

This post originally ran on Apartment Therapy. See it there: What Gives the Magic Eraser Its Superpowers?