When tackling the most stubborn messes—whether it’s cooked-on egg, crusty bits of frizzled cheese, or baked-on tomato sauce—we often bypass a sponge entirely and reach for a scrub brush. Scrub brushes offer a few advantages to sponges: Their bristles are better at cutting through tough messes and are less likely to cling to food, their handles help provide good leverage, and they tend to keep our hands out of the mess. But not all scrub brushes are built the same, so we decided to test nine models, made from both natural and synthetic materials, with varying handle lengths and head sizes. They ranged in price from about $5 to about $24. Keeping water temperature, soap amount, and cooked-on foods consistent, we put the brushes through the wringer, powering through messes in skillets (both stainless steel and cast iron) and metal baking pans. We also scrubbed metal bowls covered in sticky biscuit dough and washed each brush upwards of 10 times, either by hand or in the dishwasher. Additionally, we sent copies home with nine editors and test cooks and asked for their feedback after a few weeks of real-world use. We were looking for a brush that could cut through difficult messes, fit comfortably in our hands, rinse clean without hassle, and hold up to all that rigorous scrubbing and cleaning.
A good scrub brush is only as reliable as its bristles, and we discovered a few bristle qualities that made scrubbing more effective. First: stiffness. There was a spectrum of bristle stiffness, from soft and flexible to ultrastiff and rigid, and most testers preferred the latter. We found that the brushes with stiffer bristles more effectively cut through tough, burnt-on food remnants, leaving behind sparkling cookware. The brushes with softer bristles—including the one brush with natural-fiber bristles—were unable to scrape up cooked-on messes as efficiently as their stiff-bristled counterparts and instead tended to just smear food around. When used to scrub cast-iron pans crusted with rendered burger fat and metal baking pans sticky with burnt-on tomato paste, mustard, and molasses, softer bristles bent out of shape. This made for unkempt, frayed brush heads whose performance worsened over time. The brush with natural-fiber bristles became the most disheveled.
The bristles’ arrangement and positioning on the brush heads also mattered. We preferred bristles that flared out from the heads considerably, especially on the sides, reaching beyond the brushes’ hard plastic heads. Widely flared bristles increased the scrubbing surface area, allowing us to scrub off more food with fewer passes. Flared bristles were also more effective at reaching into corners. The heads of brushes with straight, unflared bristles too often knocked into skillet edges or baking pan corners without reaching into them, keeping us from tackling every single stain.
The bristle clusters of some brush heads are packed tightly together, whereas some are spaced far apart. Widely spaced bristle clusters tended to perform best. Crumbs, dough, and other food remnants were less likely to get stuck between these bristle clusters, and if they did, they came loose with a single rinse. Brushes with no gaps between their bristle clusters more easily trapped food, and it took additional rinses under the faucet, cycles in the dishwasher, or even whacks on the sink edge to relinquish the debris. All in all, brushes with stiff, widely flared, well-spaced clusters of bristles prevailed.
In addition to their primary sets of bristles, seven of the nine brushes had extra features intended for the toughest scrubbing challenges. Five brushes had plastic scrapers on their backs, but their designs varied. Testers preferred wide, flat scrapers over narrower, tapered scrapers. In lieu of scrapers, two brushes had strips of short, ultrastiff bristles on their backs. The bristles’ many tips were more abrasive than the solid scrapers, allowing them to more effectively scour away tough burnt-on messes.
The best scrub brush handles assure a comfortable grip and create good leverage. In our testing, one important factor was the angle at which the handle met the brush head. The handles of the most successful brushes in our lineup were gently sloped or curved away from their heads, creating enough space to keep testers’ hands free of mess while maintaining good leverage for scrubbing. The handles of three brushes bent away sharply from their heads at angles that measured more than 45 degrees, which raised our elbows and forced our hands away from the action, making for awkward scrubbing positions. The head of one brush was adjustable, swiveling between a 0-degree angle and a 45-degree angle from its handle, which was intended to increase versatility and scrubbing options. Frustratingly, the lock mechanism wasn’t strong enough to keep the brush head in place, so it flipped back and forth with every stroke and made the brush almost impossible to use. We preferred rigid handles that sloped up at angles of about 45 degrees or less, which positioned our hands close to the brushes.
Handle material and design mattered as well. The best handles were made of silicone-coated plastic and had built-in ridges or bumps that made for secure, slip-free grips, even when they were wet and soapy. However, silicone didn’t always reign supreme; one silicone-coated handle was hard and supersmooth, causing our hands to slide around in the soapy water and occasionally slip off the brush. The metal handle of one brush and the wooden handles of two others were smooth and pleasant to hold when dry, but slippery when wet, especially during vigorous scrubbing. Only one wooden-handle model was sufficiently rough-textured and easy to grip, but it felt so thin and spindly that stronger testers feared they might snap it in half. Also, the wooden-handled brushes weren’t dishwasher-safe, rendering them more likely to retain stains, odors, food bits, and globs of dough.
Finally, handle length greatly impacted scrubbing ability and comfort. Testers’ preferences generally came down to the sizes of their hands. Those with smaller hands mostly preferred shorter handles and found longer-handled brushes awkward and uncomfortable to use. Testers with larger hands often recommended brushes with longer handles, complaining about feeling cramped by short handles.
One scrub brush, the O-Cedar Rinse Fresh Pot & Pan Brush, easily washed away its competition. Its main set of stiff plastic bristles cut through every mess we threw at it. We liked that the bristles, especially those around the head’s perimeter, flared out and scraped up stains in otherwise inaccessible corners. Wide gaps between bristle clusters ensured that all crumbs, dough, and other remnants rinsed free easily. An extra strip of ultrastiff bristles on its back side powered through challenging burnt-on patches. The handle was gently curved and easy to maneuver most of the time, and its silicone grip was comfortable and secure even in slippery, soapy water, though its handle was a touch long for some users. It’s also dishwasher-safe and did not become stained during our tests. This brush has earned a permanent place beside our sinks, and we think it deserves a similar spot in your kitchen.