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Apologies if this is duplicate, I've dug around and can't find it.

If you leave a sponge/cloth out to dry for a while it eventually becomes slightly stiff. Upon wetting again, however, it softens up again. That is, until it dries out once more.

Why does a cloth/sponge soften up when it's saturated with water?

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  • $\begingroup$ Hi Matt. The link I've suggested refers to paper, but the effect is the same for anything containing hydrogen bonds. $\endgroup$ – John Rennie Oct 20 '15 at 8:42
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Whether you've used the cloth/sponge in dirty water (without rinsing) or clean tap water, water always contains dissolved matter (apart from deionised or distilled water which contains very little matter besides water).

When the cloth/sponge dries, the water evaporates but most of the dissolved matter does not because it is not volatile. This dried matter, a mixture of salts, organics and 'dirt', forms a sort of crust on the fibres that make up the cloth/sponge, causing them to be stiffer than clean, uncoated fibres.

When the dried cloth/sponge is soaked in clean tap water, the crusty deposit redissolves in the water and the cloth/sponge softens up again.

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    $\begingroup$ But WHY does it soften up? That is the question $\endgroup$ – TanMath Oct 20 '15 at 1:07
  • $\begingroup$ @TanMath: the stiffness is caused by these crusty deposits on the fibres of the cloth/sponge. Fresh water removes these. Deposits gone = reduced stiffness. $\endgroup$ – Gert Oct 20 '15 at 1:20
  • $\begingroup$ @Gert: I'm afraid this is wrong. Any lab technician can tell you that paper, cloths, etc soften in distilled water just as they do in your tap water at home. The effect is due to water breaking hydrogen bonds between the cellulose molecules in the cloth. $\endgroup$ – John Rennie Oct 20 '15 at 8:44
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnRennie, I have a chemlab. Yes, distilled water works the same in dissolving salty encrustation. Not all cloths/sponges are made of cellulose. $\endgroup$ – Gert Oct 20 '15 at 14:37
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OK, some speculation here, but I think that the transformation from a dry, stiff sponge to a wet, soft sponge may be similar to the transformation of gelatin from a dry, hard powder to a wet, soft jelly-like material. In the case of gelatin, the addition of water causes gelatin to form an extended 3-dimensional linked polymer network with water molecules trapped in the network, so that the material is mostly water. I once had an experiment in which I used gelatin rings which were 6% gelatin by weight and 94% water, and that resulted in a moderately stiff jelly-like material. If you were to dry this material and remove all of the water, the remaining material would of course have a much smaller volume but would also be much stiffer than the 6% gelatin/94% water material, presumably because all that water served to extend the polymer network greatly and sort of acted as a 'lubricant' against the polymer strands rubbing directly against each other. Anyone who has played with gelatin knows how 'bouncy' and easy to deform it is due to the presence of all that water trapped in the material. With the water removed, however, the gelatin network collapses. If a shearing force is exerted on this dried material there is a lot of resistance to deformation, probably due to the collapsed polymer network resulting in the polymer chains directly rubbing against each other.

I'm not familiar with the structure of sponges, but I would guess that the same idea holds for them: When wetted, water extends the structure of the material and water molecules act as a lubricant between various parts of the extended sponge structure at a microscopic level. When dried, all that water lubricant is removed and the structure collapses, resulting in the parts of the collapsed sponge structure directly rubbing against each other, thus increasing the effective stiffness of the material.

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