02 June 2010

What's in a Magic Eraser?

photo by Cherie Diez at the St. Pete Times

On 24 May I wrote a column about the inane suggestion that people clean their tubs with a half a grapefruit and some table salt. It sparked a conversation in the comments about Mr. Clean Magic Erasers. I was aware of them, but I'd never used one. None of the commenters seemed to know what the active ingredient in them is, the best anybody could do was report that they are made from melamine foam.

Intrigued, I bought some over the weekend and I was amazed at how well they cleaned up my ancient enamel sinks and tub. Amazing.. I noticed that the labeling on the box made no mention of an active ingredient or anything added to the sponge that would make it clean so well. So I dug. Come with me on a journey of discovery.

Here's the Mr. Clean I remember.





And here he is today. The only men I know who look like that and who care about cleanliness are prone to breaking into a rollicking chorus of "Rose's Turn"  when the mood strikes but that's a topic for another time.


As I said earlier, there's no active ingredient listed, but these things clean like you cannot imagine. Well it turns out the active ingredient is elbow grease. Sort of.

Magic erasers are made from a form of melamine foam. Technically, it's a formaldehyde-melamine-sodium bisulfite copolymer foam made by the German company BASF. It was invented as an insulator and fire retardant. That it cleans like the dickens was a happy coincidence. Melamine is an extremely hard polymer and it's what gives things like Formica laminate its rigidity.

However, when it's pumped full of air something interesting happens.


Despite the fact that the material itself is very hard, the tiny strands that make up the foam's matrix feel soft to the touch. On a microscopic level, those rigid little strands are very abrasive, like super fine grit sandpaper.

There are no active ingredients listed on the package because there really aren't any. Magic Erasers clean by a physical process, not a chemical one. When you rub a dirty spot with a Magic Eraser, you're essentially sanding away the dirt. As you rub, the foam disintegrates. If you clean dishes or anything that will contact food with these things, rinse thoroughly when you're done. Eating melamine is not a very smart thing to do.

As a cautionary note, don't clean anything with a glossy surface with these Magic Erasers. Remember that you're using a microscopic abrasive so when in doubt, test a spot first.

So bravo BASF for being so clever and bravo Proctor and Gamble for breathing new life into an old brand. These things really work.

Many thanks to BASF for the information I used for this post.

Oh and one more thing. They are called Mastro Lindo in Italy. Why are mundane things so entertaining when they're in Italian?

28 comments:

  1. My neighbor, Mark, indeed looks exactly like Mr Clean with a physique to match. And I wouldn't be at all surprised if he one day breaks into a rollicking chorus of "Rose's Turn" when I'm out chatting on our dog walks.

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  2. Hee! Seriously, try these things. They are nothing short of miraculous.

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  3. We thought that the granite installers has ruined our new black Silgranit sink - it was such a mess (and they did so many other things badly). A Magic Eraser cleaned it up beautifully! We keep one handy all the time now.

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  4. I used one on our marble floors at the office. They are 150+ years old, and are in the well-trafficked front hall. It was amazing how beautifully they brightened the marble. I found that they come in mop form, so that will make it easier for the housekeeping staff.

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  5. I love these things. While pricey, they are the only thing short of steam cleaning that works on grout. They do tend to breakdown quickly on grout. I also keep one in the shower to clean water spots from the glass. All that power and no chemicals! Fabulous

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  6. Just yesterday I thought I needed to do a blog post myself on Magic Erasers. These things are certainly named appropriately. They are magic. I had come to the conclusion you researched that they act as sandpaper. I've tried generic brands of the erasers and they work just as well as the name brand.

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  7. I would also not recommend using them to clean your ceiling, unless you're ok with giant glossy spots marring your once matte finish.

    Ooops.

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  8. Howard: Great testimonial, I wonder if P&G is listening in on this.

    Meg: My stone guy swears by them for use on honed marble, swears by them.

    Nancie: Melamine foam is made by BASF and only BASF. All of the brands of this material are identical so long as they are melamine foam. Store brands will work just as well so long as they are the same thing.

    Sharon: When I was playing around with one Sunday I figured that it had to be an abrasive, I couldn't think of any other way they could work. It was nice to have my suspicions confirmed. Write a post on them of your own, you'd certainly have a different perspective than I do. I can imagine that they are a lifesaver in a household full of kids.

    Erin: Point made. I don't think I'd use them on a painted surface period. I have heard reports of them working terrifically on woodwork painted in semi-gloss, a test spot is definitely in order with these things.

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  9. I love these and do use them on painted walls. Gently. Our walls have an eggshell finish (love matte but won't make that mistake again in our house - we are too dirty) and most things come off w/soap and water, but the Magic Eraser has worked when regular means don't. As with everything, try it on a spot that doesn't show first!

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  10. "What's in a Magic Eraser?"

    Cleaning fairies.

    In all seriousness, I love these things so much that I had them shipped over to New Zealand during the two years I lived there.

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  11. I've got a few tough cleaning issues I need to tackle. I've got two MCMEs standing by! Will report back.

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  12. I love that you investigate these things!

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  13. Thanks for such great info - I have been using the Magic Eraser since they first came out - with 4 kids it was a miracle the marks they took off the wall. For home staging the same miracles make a well loved home spic and span. I love them.

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  14. It's so funny that you posted about these. I have been using them for years but have always wondered what was in them. I read the box but didn't look further than that due to my laziness.
    Anyway, on Monday while I was trying to get a black scuff off my wall (to no avail), I was thinking I needed to buy a Magic Eraser. I then had a 10 minute thought process about what in the heck Magic Erasers were. And now I know! Thanks for the wonderfully timed and informative post!

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  15. Wow, I'v always wondered what makes them so...magic, LOL. Thanks for sleuthing.

    I usually recommend them for cleaning stubborn stains off smooth-top ranges/cooktops.

    More importantly, I've used it to get Sharpie off walls back in my babysitting days.e

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  16. I always use a solution of TSP and water which has proven to be effective for most cleaning purposes, however from your' testimonial shall give one of these a try.

    Thanks Paul! -Brenda-

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  17. Erika: The test spot is the key. Don't use them on stainless steel!

    Raina: I love your answer. I suppose if nano-scale melamine fibers are fairies then yes they are indeed powered by fairies. I know, I'm no fun.

    Jamie: Please report back. What a terrific idea for a blog post. A real clinical trial...

    Rachele: If I don't who will? Apartment Therapy? Pah!

    Linda: Thanks for joining in!

    Steph: I find not knowing something to be an intolerable state. Seriously, I can't handle it. At least as a blogger I have an audience and don't have to make my friends crazy anymore.

    Julie: I never thought of the cooktop idea, but that's brilliant.

    Brenda: I love TSP in an almost unhealthy way but there are times when even it won't work.

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  18. I think it's fascinating how this thing works, but I think they do a terrible job labeling on this product and it IS possible to clean with ingredients that aren't toxic. So I'm conflicted. I've also seen some really nasty burns (in person) by people (arguably stupid enough to do it in the first place) who rubbed the sponge on skin. Basically, I'm not a fan.

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  19. The one thing that is labeled on the package is a warning not to use them on skin. Since what the thing's doing is abrading as it cleans, how can someone keep on scrubbing when their skin's being rubbed off? I'd be curious to learn how long melamine molecules persist as melamine. Melamine's a long-chain carbon essentially and I wonder how long it takes it to turn back into carbon?

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  20. TSP is really bad for the earth. "Simple Green" at a strong concentration is equally powerful - I've used it to clean grills, horribly grease-stained wood in kitchens from the 20's with 80 years of caked on grease, and raw never painted wood that was 100 years old to get the tannins out and prepare it for light colored stain. Not anywhere near as bad for the earth or your health and breathing, just as tough on dirt.

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  21. Would you care to back that up with something more than anecdotes and conventional wisdom? Household cleaners exist in an unregulated universe where none of the ingredients have to be disclosed or tested. Household cleaner manufacturers can make anything they want and make what ever claims they want to make.

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  22. I thought to myself, why not test this on coffee stained teeth...ill keep you posted!

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  23. I had heard about these magic erasers from a couple of friends and really didn't believe it, so I bought a box, but it sat in my cupboard for over 6 months until today, I was tired of looking at my ivory trash can lid and thought I'd give the erasers a try. Well, low and behold, it came clean and I just can't believe it. I looked on the box to see what the ingredients were and it doesn't list ANY at all. So, that made me suspicious of possible harmful ingredients, and that's when I tried to find out online and found your article and it confirms for me that it's not safe to use because of the formaldyhyde.
    How can you use it on your tub if it has an enamel surface? Are you sure it's ok to use on tubs?
    Thank you for your article.
    Anita (Baltimore, MD)

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  24. What formaldehyde? Where did I mention formaldehyde?

    On the topic of formaldehyde, are you aware that formaldehyde is a naturally-occurring substance, something your own body makes? Formaldehyde, like anything, can be toxic in high doses. So for that matter is water. Now where are you getting that there is formaldehyde in Magic Erasers? And if so, what is the concentration that has you convinced that they're not safe to use?

    Understanding the world will make you less afraid of it.

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  25. I just bought a set of these for our initial house cleaning before moving out...I fell in love!!! They DO REALLY WORK!!!! :) And the fact that it doesn't contain any harsh chemicals is AMAZING!!!

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  26. Umm, you said it

    "Magic erasers are made from a form of melamine foam. Technically, it's a formaldehyde-melamine-sodium bisulfite copolymer foam made by the German company BASF."

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  27. Please take a chemistry class, or crack a book some time. A chemical bond in a copolymer (or any other molecule) is a bond that can't be broken by ordinary means. That's what a chemical is. A chemical molecule is more than and very different from its component parts. If you knew the molecular components of the foods you eat every day you'd probably stop eating. But while things that would be bad news on their own are bonded in a molecule, they're actually good for you. Believe it or not, there's cyanide in cherries, apples, mangoes, peaches and other stone fruit, but its rendered harmless by the form of cyanide it is.

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    Replies
    1. Scary how people can see one word and start fear mongering.

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