How To Clean Silver Jewelry and Remove Tarnish

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With a few common household items, you can naturally remove tarnish and clean your silver jewelry at home.

Overhead view of female hands using a toothbrush to show how to clean silver jewelry at home

First, the good news: silver tarnish doesn’t harm your jewelry. Some ornate, engraved pieces look better with a bit of tarnish since the dark brown or black layer emphasizes the design. But on other jewelry, it’s unsightly. And here’s more good news: using a few common household ingredients, you can get tarnish off your jewelry without causing damage.

Why Your Silver Jewelry Tarnishes

Tarnish is a chemical reaction between your silver jewelry and various substances. Thanks to the wide variety of things that cause it, it’s almost unavoidable. Things we come in contact with every day can tarnish silver — even the air! But did you know that even the foods you eat can cause tarnish, too? That’s because the compounds in some foods come out in your sweat, and those compounds can react with silver to produce tarnish.

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) is often sulfuric, too, and it’s also present in some foods like eggs, cruciferous vegetables (cabbage, broccoli, kale), and alliums (onions, garlic). 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 chloride food (like rye bread, celery, olives, seaweed, or anything heavily seasoned with table salt) can make your sweat cause tarnish.

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 no way to avoid this type of tarnish. You can clean it away, though.

How to Clean Your Silver Jewelry at Home

There are two ways to remove tarnish: gently rubbing it away or reversing the chemical reaction that caused it. As with many cleaning projects, it’s best to start with the most gentle method and then work your way through the others if needed.

TIP: For any antique silver or heirloom 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.

Be Careful About Following Silver-Cleaning Hacks

You may have read that lemon juice, lemon-lime soda, Coca-Cola, salty water, ketchup, vinegar, or even window cleaner will get tarnish off your silver jewelry. They might work at first, but they’re all acidic substances that will weaken your silver jewelry. Over time, you’ll wind up with pitting and other problems.

Use Mild Soap and Water

You can remove minor tarnish easily by cleaning your sterling silver jewelry with soap and water. It’s essential to use a mild soap, not one with oxygenated bleach or heavy degreasers.

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  1. Add a small amount of mild dish soap to a cup of water.
  2. Rub with a soft cloth in long strokes following the grain in the silver.
  3. Rinse well with warm water and dry immediately with a soft, cotton cloth.

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.

Or Try a 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.

  1. Stir 3 parts baking soda into 1 part water to form a grainy paste. (Example: 3 tablespoons baking soda and 1 tablespoon of water.)
  2. Apply this paste with a soft cotton cloth and gently rub along the silver’s grain. Do not scrub — abrasion can damage the surface. Use a soft toothbrush or cotton swab in crevices.
  3. Turn your cloth as it grows grey, so you’re always using a clean spot to wipe.
  4. Wash or wipe the piece with soapy water, then buff it dry with a soft cotton cloth.

The Aluminum Foil Method for Tarnish-Removal

Soap and water or baking soda paste both rely on the mechanical removal of tarnish. The aluminum foil method 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.)

You will need:

  • 1/2 cup baking soda (90g bicarbonate in the UK)
  • 1/2 gallon water (1.89 liters in the UK)
  • A large pot
  • A piece of aluminum foil
  • An empty sink with a stopper
  • Paper towels

Steps:

  1. Put a stopper in the sink, then line the bottom of the basin with aluminum foil. You can also use a large bowl or pan for this if you’d prefer.
  2. Place the jewelry on the foil. Make sure each piece of jewelry touches the aluminum foil but does not touch other items.
  3. Bring the water to a boil in the pot.
  4. Stir the baking soda into the hot water until it’s fully dissolved. It will fizz a bit, so the pot needs to be large.
  5. 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.)
  6. Wait 5 minutes, then remove your jewelry. Don’t burn yourself in the process! A wooden spoon is helpful. Don’t use anything rubber since it contains sulfur and can cause tarnish.
  7. Immediately rinse your jewelry with cold water and dry it with a soft, clean cotton towel.
  8. You can repeat the process as needed for heavily tarnished items until they’re tarnish-free.

TIP: Since this anti-tarnish method includes boiling water, you should not use it on silver items with gems or glued-on stones that the heat might damage.

Or Use a Commercial Silver Polish

Most store-bought silver cleaners use a combination of mechanical cleaning (i.e., rubbing) and a chemical reaction. Commercial silver polishes also contain anti-tarnishing agents to help keep your jewelry looking good longer. There are many options available in stores and online.

How to Keep Your Silver Jewelry from Tarnishing

Once you’ve cleaned your silver jewelry, there are several simple steps you can take to prevent tarnish from quickly returning.

  • Jewelry should be the last thing you put on and the first thing you take off to protect it from exposure to cosmetics, hair sprays, and perfumes that contribute to tarnishing.
  • Never wear jewelry while doing housework, including laundry.
  • 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.
  • Stash silica gel packets (the kind you find in new purses or shoes) in the drawer with your jewelry, or add a few pieces of chalk to 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.

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