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Analysis > Thursday, 7 January 2010 07:28:44 EST

A Dumbass Investigates The ShamWow

Keywords: shamwow, experiment, product

What better way is there, I thought to myself, to set my new blog in motion than to critically analyze a series of claims that really don't matter that much to anybody?

Why, of course there is no better way!  What kind of a dumbass would I be if I limited myself to talking about things that actually mattered?

In all seriousness though, I believe that critical thought should be applied to any claims that come your way.  One thing I want to encourage is a curiosity about information that applies to the little things, as well as the big ones.

The claims made about the ShamWow have been subjected to some critical analysis on the Internet, but I couldn't find anybody who did a very thorough job.  To me, this seemed like open territory for examining the issue in detail and separating the truth from the hype.  So let's have a look at my analysis of the ShamWow:
I assume you've seen the commercial, but if you haven't, here's a shortened version circulating on YouTube:

The main idea that they're trying to sell you on is that ShamWow works better than a regular towel.  The thing is, I have yet to find anybody who's actually subjected the ShamWow to tests using a regular towel for comparison.

So, for the sake of science, I have analyzed the claims of the ShamWow and subjected it to my own dumbass scientific testing to determine how it compares to several different kinds of towels.

It could very well be that I have too much time on my hands.

In any case, I bought 4 towels for this comparison.  One was a full plush cotton towel from Walmart, brand name "George".  The other three were cheap towels from the dollar store.  The first came with the label "Kitchen Towel 100% Microfiber", the second was labeled "Simons Micro Fiber General Cleaning Cloth", and the third was a regular towel that came with absolutely no label.

I measured them, and immersed each of them in water, the amount of which had been carefully measured..  Then I held them up, gently shaking them a little until I judged that the dripping had mostly stopped.  By the way, that line about how the ShamWow won't drip is verifiably untrue.  Just as you'd expect, if you saturate a ShamWow cloth past it's limit, the water will drip out of it when you hold it up just like any other towel.

At the point where I judged that the dripping had mostly stopped, I measured the amount of water that remained and calculated how much had been absorbed.  From those results, I calculated the holding capacity of each cloth in milliliters of water per square centimeter.

The results, comparing the ShamWow to all the competitors:

 Brand Name ShamWow Cloth:
 0.14 ml/sqcm
 George Brand Cotton Towel:
 0.24 ml/sqcm
 Kitchen Towel 100% Microfiber:
 0.16 ml/sqcm
 Simons Micro Fiber General Cleaning Cloth:
 0.14 ml/sqcm
 No Brand Name Regular Kitchen Towel:
 0.13 ml/sqcm

Clearly, in terms of absorbency the ShamWow does not blow all other towels out of the competition.  In fact, it only beat out one towel in the running, and that by the skin of it's teeth.

I should also mention here one thing that many reviewers have pointed out about the ShamWow: it smells when it gets wet.  I would describe the smell as kind of gasoline-like.  It's a little bit off-putting.

Also, there's one piece of data that I didn't include in my table above.  There was one extra cloth that I picked up for the sake of comparison.  In the full infomercial, you are encouraged to beware of ShamWow imitators.  No reason is given, presumably they're implying that these imitators are of inferior quality.

Well, it just so happens that they were selling ShamWow imitators at the Dollar Store.  You gat one full sized synthetic shammy for $1.  If this isn't the kind of product that you're being warned against, I don't know what is.  So I bought it, and tested it, and the results were very interesting.

The dollar store product performed exactly the same as the ShamWow.  Absorption was 0.14 ml/sqcm.  It had the exact same smell when it got wet.  It even performed the spongy absorption test (which I will talk about in a bit) exactly the same.  The only difference was that instead of "ShamWow" printed across it's orange surface, the words "Made in Germany" were printed in the exact same manner.

This is exactly the same product, just re-labeled and sold to a more frugal consumer base.  I wouldn't be surprised if it was made by the exact same company, just individually branded to whoever wanted to resell it.

So, if the ShamWow does not have the ability to absorb stellar amounts of water, where exactly are these claims coming from?  To understand that we have to look at exactly how the demonstration of the ShamWow works.

In one demonstration, a regular wet towel is shown and we are told that it won't work properly when wet.  To demonstrate this fact, the towel is rubbed on the table surface to create a wet spot:

Wet towel leaves wetness behind

Then, we are told that the ShamWow works whether it's wet or dry, and a ShamWow cloth (we're not told how wet or dry it is) is brought into the frame to clean up the water:

Dry ShamWow Cleans Puddle

I wanted to duplicate this experiment in my own home, but right away I ran into a problem.  Using a damp cloth, I simply could not make a puddle of water that was as clearly defined as was apparent in the demonstration.  I tried several different surfaces, including a couple of dark vinyl tablecloths.  The water just never left as clear an impression.

I'm not sure what kind of material is being used in the televised demonstration.  It's obviously got some interesting hydrophobic qualities to it though.  Take a look at the difference between the areas of the puddle that remain in the first and second picture.  When the demonstration is going on, you don't notice it, but in that very short amount of time, the damp spot has already started to dry up to a noticeable extent.

I believe that this demonstration is the result of a carefully selected surface material, carefully positioned lighting, and an optimum camera angle.  I'm also convinced that the ShamWow cloth that's being used in this shot is a fresh, dry one.

So there's no way that I was going to be able to duplicate the results of this demonstration with the materials that I have available.  But perhaps, I thought to myself, I can put this claim to a similar test that will help clear up how a ShamWow compares to a regular towel wet versus dry.

I've got an old wooden end table that seems to provide the best impression of surface wetness out of all the other surfaces in my apartment.  What I decided to do was to use it to test out how well a ShamWow cleaned up water when wet versus when dry.  For comparison, I used the highest performing towel in my arsenal, the George Brand Cotton Towel.

I made sure that both competitors had the same surface area.  I spilled a 10 ml puddle onto the table, and each time I wiped it up and took a picture of the results. First the dry towel:

The Puddle And The Dry Cotton Towel:

The Puddle

The Aftermath:

The Aftermath

The Puddle And The Dry ShamWow Cloth:

The Puddle And The Dry ShamWow

The Aftermath:

The Aftermath

Both the cotton towel and the ShamWow left a wet mark behind, although it's hard to see in the pictures.  The impression from the commercial that a ShamWow will naturally soak up all water leaving the table surface bone dry is obviously false.

Of course, I left time between each spill for the remaining water to completely dry before beginning anew.  Next I wanted to see how each cloth would fare when saturated with water.  The claim is that the ShamWow works the same whether it's wet or dry.  So I saturated the cloths with water just as I did in my first experiment, and gave each a small extra squeeze, removing about 40ml so that it had room to possibly absorb the 10ml spill.  These are the results:

The Drenched Cotton Towel And The Spill:

The Drenched Cotton Cloth And The Spill

The Aftermath:

The Aftermath

The Drenched ShamWow And The Spill:

The Drenched ShamWow And The Spill

The Aftermath:

The Aftermath

Both cloths left a significant amount of water on the table, as you can see.  Obviously both the ShamWow and a common cotton towel can easily be drenched to the point where they no longer pick up water well.

Perhaps what the ShamWow people mean to claim is that the ShamWow cloth will be able to take more water percentage wise before it stops being able to soak up water as easily.  That would take time to test at many different saturation levels though, and frankly, that's not what the commercial claims so I don't think I'll bother with that test. 

In any case, I doubt that even that revised claim would be true.  The ShamWow absorbs less over all when compared to my cotton towel, and has shown itself to be no better at cleaning spills in my tests so far.  There doesn't seem to be any reason to suspect that the ShamWow has any kind of remarkable cleaning power.

For my last test, I decided to recreate the most famous ShamWow demonstration of all: the sponge like absorption of water from a shallow glass bowl.  The commercial never specified the amount of water used in it's demonstration, I settled on 400 ml and used a full sized ShamWow, and a George Brand Cotton Towel with approximately the same amount of surface area.

I must apologize for the quality of the videos.  Even though I was directly underneath a light source, I only have a Kodak Easyshare Digital Camera to take the video with, and I was not able to get it to adjust easily to indoor lighting in video mode.  Obviously it's not a dedicated video camera, and for indoor shots I'm forced to rely on it's flash to take good pictures.

I made sure to duplicate the kind of camera angle they used in the ShamWow commercial, and found a shallow glass bowl similar to the one used in the commercial as well.  The ShamWow performed exactly as advertised:

This wasn't any great surprise, you can find YouTube videos of other people performing this test and verifying that the results hold up.  But how would a regular cotton towel fare?  That was the real question, so I put it to the test:

I've got to admit, I was a little surprised by this result.  From all the testing I'd done up to this point, I'd expected the cotton towel to perform exactly the same as the ShamWow.  But the towel took close to twice as long, and I had to turn it over in order to soak up the remaining water.  And though you may not be able to see it well, it was dripping heavily when I picked it up.

It turns out that in this one demonstration, the ShamWow really does work better than an ordinary cotton towel.  So what's the deal?  The cotton towel has the ability to absorb more water than the ShamWow, why was it inadequate to this task?

An analysis of the towel and a little thought revealed the answer.  The towel didn't soak the water in through all of it's folds.  The water basically penetrated one layer, and then had a tough time going farther.  That's why turning the towel over helped, because I was able to get more of the surface area of the towel in contact with the water.

The ShamWow, on the other hand it turns out, really does have some sponge-like qualities when folded up.  It's able to easily soak the water through each layer, saturating the cloth more thoroughly than the cotton towel was able to do.

That makes for an impressive looking demonstration, but what does it really mean in terms of usable cleaning power?  Well, it turns out, not much.

When cleaning a spill, people don't generally fold their towels several times before placing it over top, as I did in my test.  Instead, they maybe fold the towel once and cover the entire spill with a good amount of surface area from the towel, which is usually adequate for absorbing what's there.

For a small spill that doesn't require a lot of surface area to tackle, they may bunch the towels up for easy handling, as I did for my 10ml spill tests.  But larger spills are generally cleaned with an eye towards getting a good amount of the towel's surface area in contact with the water. 

And that makes sense, that's how towels are supposed to work.  You never have to clean up water in a shallow bowl this way, where the entire quantity of water is concentrated into an even depression and you must fold up your towel several times in order to make it fit.  The strength of the ShamWow, that it's able to absorb through all it's folded layers with sponge-like efficiency, is virtually meaningless for real world applications.  You generally will never need to fold up the ShamWow cloth in that manner and place it into such a concentrated area of water.

Finally, I want to tackle the carpet test, where a bottle of cola is spilled onto a square of carpet, and soaked up easily by the ShamWow.  Much has been made in several YouTube videos about an apparent inconsistency in this demonstration, making it look like they cheated.  Here's an example:

I won't say that there wasn't some editing involved, but I think this focus on the missing spill misses the mark.  I've seen the carpet demonstration performed live, and I can tell you that it does work.  You can find videos of live demonstrations on YouTube.  I think this post has reached it's saturation point of YouTube videos right now so I won't post any for you here. But if you're interested go ahead and do a search, they're not hard to find.

This discrepancy is most likely the result of the editors cobbling together shots from different takes in order to give the best presentation.  It's not a case of deliberate camera trickery.

Here's what I think is happening:

The demonstration surface, as I've pointed out, has been carefully selected for it's hydrophobic properties   I don't know whether the carpet sample was made of specialized materials as well.  In any case, I believe that due to these specialized conditions, the cola is being pulled quickly back up into the carpet and away from the demonstration surface without the benefit of the ShamWow's intervention.

From there, it's an easy matter for the ShamWow cloth to absorb the liquid.  My guess is that a cotton towel would perform this task just as efficiently.  However, not having access to the specialized materials used, I cannot perform this experiment.

There is one final claim that I want to cover.  When I was viewing the live demonstration of the ShamWow, the demonstrator, possibly because he saw me in the audience, made the claim that the cloth is excellent for cleaning glasses.  I tried it, and it's not.  Enough said about that.

In my final analysis, the ShamWow has some interesting properties, but it's hardly the breakthrough product that it claims to be.  It smells when it gets wet, it can't be put into the dryer, and it's able to absorb less water over all than most of it's competitors.

And if you want to try out the ShamWow for yourself, save yourself some money and buy the generic brand at the dollar store.


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