Don’t let tarnish keep you from wearing your favorite earrings, rings, bracelets, or necklaces. With a few everyday kitchen items, you’ve got what you need to clean silver jewelry and remove tarnish at home safely.
Facts About Silver Jewelry
For everyday pieces of jewelry, sterling silver is one of the most popular choices around the world. But what is “sterling silver” and is it real silver?
To understand the difference, you need to remember that silver is a chemical element. Its symbol on the periodic table is Ag, which stands for “Argentum” (derived from the Latin word for “shiny.”)
What is Fine or Pure Silver?
Pure or “fine silver” is 99.9% silver and is so soft that it is easily damaged, dented, or bent. This softness makes pure silver unsuitable for jewelry, and so it’s mixed with other metals (usually copper) for added strength.
What is Sterling Silver?
Sterling silver is a mix of silver and copper to give it strength. In the United States, this mixture consists of 925 parts silver and 75 parts copper. Sterling silver pieces meeting this standard will bear an imprint of 925 or STER on them.
If your sterling silver comes from another country, its mixture may be different. It may also have an imprint that says STER, STG, SS, or Sterling Silver.
What is Electroplated Silver?
Sterling silver is not the same as silver electroplated jewelry. Silver-plated items are made from another metal like brass or copper, then a thin silver coating is added to the surface.
This difference is important to know because jewelry makers in countries without legal silver standards often mislabel electroplated stuff to drive up the price. In the U.S., an electroplated item will bear the imprint EP Brass or EP Copper.
Telling the Difference
One way to know if something is electroplated silver is by its sheen: real silver is not as shiny or cold-looking as plate, nor does it come off in flecks that reveal a darker metal below.
Another clue is that electroplated silver sometimes turns green, while fine or sterling silver turns black when it develops tarnish.
Why Silver Jewelry Tarnishes
Tarnish is a chemical reaction between your silver jewelry and various substances. It is almost inevitable due to the wide variety of things that cause it.
Things that Cause Tarnish
Many things we come in contact with regularly can make silver jewelry tarnish — even the air! Sometimes, what you eat can cause tarnish when the food’s compounds come out in your body’s sweat.
The type of tarnish you see depends on its cause. You can often figure it out by the color.
Silver and Sulfur Produce Silver Sulfide
Silver sulfide creates a black tarnish on your silver rings or other jewelry.
This reaction happens when silver is exposed to sulfur in cleaning products and cosmetics. Well-water (or bore water) are often sulfuric, too.
It’s also present in some foods like eggs, cruciferous vegetables (cabbage, broccoli, kale), alliums (onions, garlic). So, if you eat a lot of sulfuric foods, your sweat can cause this reaction.
Even the air can be high in sulfur, especially in heavily polluted areas.
Silver and Chlorine Result in Silver Chloride
This tarnish starts as a white residue on your jewelry that turns dark gray-blue after exposure to sunlight.
Silver chloride tarnish often develops if you wear your silver jewelry while swimming in a pool or the ocean, when using certain cleaning and laundry products, or while coloring your hair.
A diet high in food containing chloride (like rye bread, celery, olives, seaweed, or anything heavily seasoned with table salt) can make your sweat cause this tarnish, too.
Copper in Sterling Silver Oxidizes
A dark greenish-black tarnish on sterling silver jewelry is due to its copper content. When copper is exposed to oxygen, it oxidizes.
Since you can’t live without air, there’s really no way to avoid this type of tarnish. You can clean it away, though.
Tarnish Does Not Damage Jewelry
The good news is that tarnish doesn’t harm your jewelry. Some ornate, engraved pieces even look better with a little tarnish since the dark brown or black layer emphasizes the design. But on other jewelry, it’s unsightly.
So, here’s more good news: using a few common household ingredients, you can get tarnish off of your jewelry without causing damage. (If you enjoy making natural cleaners from kitchen ingredients, here are more homemade cleaning mixes to try.)
How to Clean Silver Jewelry at Home
There are two ways to remove tarnish: either by gently rubbing it away or by reversing the chemical reaction that caused it.
As with many cleaning projects, it’s best to start with the most gentle method then work your way to the others if needed.
TIP: For any vintage or heirloom silver jewelry, it’s best to seek professional cleaning. Many jewelry stores offer this service for free or little cost. A professional will also inspect the item for signs of damage and make any needed repairs.
What to Avoid
You may have read that things like lemon juice, Coca Cola, salty water, ketchup, vinegar, or even window cleaner will get tarnish off of your silver jewelry.
They might work at first, but they’re all acidic substances that eventually cause damage.
Remember: silver is a soft metal. Mixing it with copper helps it hold its shape, but the silver itself is still easily damaged. Acidic substances may strip away that layer of tarnish, but they’ll also weaken the silver within your jewelry. Over time, you’ll wind up with pitting and other problems.
Mild Soap and Water
You can remove minor tarnish easily by cleaning your sterling silver jewelry with a little soap and water. It’s very important to use a mild soap for this — not one with oxygenated bleach or heavy degreasers.
TIP: Don’t submerge hollow jewelry or items with inset stones or glued-on embellishments. Water may weaken what’s holding them in place. Instead, dip the cloth into the water and wipe the pieces.
- Add a few drops of mild dish soap to a cup of water.
- Rub with a soft cloth in long strokes following the grain in the silver.
- Rinse well with warm water and dry immediately with a soft, cotton cloth.
Baking Soda Paste
In the past, toothpaste made a great silver jewelry cleaner. It has to be a non-gel type that doesn’t contain whiteners, breath fresheners, activated charcoal, or silica. That kind of toothpaste is tough to find nowadays.
Fortunately, baking soda works just as well.
- Stir 3 parts baking soda into 1 part water to form a grainy paste. (Example: 3 tablespoons baking soda and 1 tablespoon of water.)
- Apply this paste with a soft cotton cloth and very gently rub along the silver’s grain. Do not scrub!
- Turn your cloth as it begins to grow grey, so you’re always using a clean spot to wipe.
- For tricky spots, use a baby’s toothbrush. (Adult toothbrush bristles are stiffer and may scratch your jewelry.)
- Wash or wipe the piece with soapy water (see above), then immediately dry it with a clean, soft cotton cloth.
The Aluminum Foil Method for Tarnish-Removal
Soap and water or baking soda paste both rely on mechanical removal of tarnish.
The aluminum foil method below uses science to reverse the chemical reaction that caused it, by turning the silver sulfide back into silver. (Here are more surprising ways to use aluminum foil around the house.)
TIP: Since this anti-tarnish method includes boiling water, it should not be used on jewelry with gems or glued-on stones that the heat might damage.
You will need:
- 1/2 cup baking soda (90g bicarbonate in the UK)
- 1/2 gallon water (1.89 litres in the UK)
- A large pot
- Aluminum foil
- An empty sink with a stopper
- Put a stopper in the sink then line the bottom of the basin with a sheet of aluminum foil.
- Place the jewelry on the foil. Make sure each piece of jewelry is touching the aluminum foil but not touching other items.
- Bring the water to boil in the pot.
- Stir the baking soda into the boiling water until it’s fully dissolved. It will fizz a bit, which is why the pot needs to be large.
- Slowly pour the water mixture into the sink, taking care not to move the jewelry around as you do. (It helps to aim the water against the sink wall.)
- Wait 5 minutes, then remove your jewelry. Don’t burn yourself with in the process! A wooden spoon is helpful. Just don’t use anything rubber, since it contains sulfur and can cause tarnish.
- Immediately rinse and dry your jewelry with a soft, clean cotton cloth.
- For heavily tarnished items, you can repeat the process as needed until they’re tarnish-free.
Commercial Silver Polish
Most store-bought silver polishes use a combination of mechanical cleaning (i.e., rubbing) and a chemical reaction.
Commercial silver polishes also contain anti-tarnishing agents, so they can help keep your jewelry looking good longer. There are many options available in stores and online.
- Brilliant makes a highly-rated jewelry cleaner, which includes a basket for easy dunking.
- Weiman’s jewelry-cleaning wipes work on silver as well as other jewelry metals.
How to Keep Silver from Tarnishing
Once you’ve cleaned your silver jewelry, there are several simple steps you can take to prevent tarnish from quickly returning.
- Remember the old rule that jewelry should be the last thing you put on and the first thing you take off. This practice protects it from exposure to cosmetics, hair sprays, and perfumes that contribute to tarnishing.
- Never wear jewelry while doing housework, including laundry. Also, remove rings and bracelets before cooking, since acidic foods can tarnish silver.
- Take off silver jewelry before bathing or swimming. Dry your skin thoroughly before putting it on again.
- Avoid contact between silver jewelry and wool, felt, or rubber — they all contain sulfur that can cause tarnish.
- Store your pieces in a padded jewelry box or armoire to protect them from exposure to moisture and heat.
- Tuck silica gel packets (the kind you find in new purses or boxes of shoes) in with your jewelry. Or add a couple of sticks of chalk. These both absorb moisture and reduce tarnishing.
- Wear your jewelry often! Your skin’s natural oils provide a protective, anti-tarnishing layer that can keep your sterling silver jewelry bright.
Note: This post first appeared in September 2015. It has been wholly revised and updated for republication.