You finally found the vintage sterling silver tea set of your dreams. It was in perfect condition a few months ago, but now it looks strangely dull. What happened to the beautiful shine? It’s tarnished, that’s all. Fortunately, cleaning sterling silver isn’t difficult, and you can even use things found around your house to make your own DIY silver cleaner.
Why Does Sterling Silver Tarnish?
Sterling silver isn’t pure silver. It’s actually an alloy (a mix of metals) with 92.5% silver plus other metals like copper, zinc, or nickel. Pure silver is 99.9% silver, and although it’s resistant to tarnish, it’s too soft for serving pieces and most jewelry. Mixing silver with other metals strengthens it and creates the beautiful, bright shine it’s known for. Unfortunately, it’s prone to tarnish.
Tarnish is a reaction between the other metals in silver alloys plus airborne moisture and sulfur. It comes in many colors, from pink to brown and black, darkening with time. Humidity, air pollution, and cigarette or cigar smoke can make tarnish develop more quickly. Even the natural oil and salts in your fingertips can lead to tarnishing.
Cleaning Sterling Silver
You can purchase tarnish removers for anywhere from $6-$7 to $30 and up for a small bottle. But how do you know they’re safe for your silver and for you? Some commercial silver cleaners can actually strip the shine from sterling silver along with the tarnish.
And not all cleaners are completely safe. Thiourea, for example, is a chemical used in popular silver cleaners. California requires product warning labels for thiourea, and New Jersey has listed it as a hazardous substance since 1996.
Luckily, removing tarnish and restoring sterling silver to its original luster rarely requires dangerous chemicals. In fact, you probably have everything you need for a DIY silver cleaner.
Tools for Cleaning Sterling Silver
- An old, soft toothbrush
- Cotton swabs or buds
- Cotton balls or make-up pads
- Soft cloth such as cotton flannel, diaper cloth, or microfiber (avoid wool and felt)
- Cotton or vinyl gloves (avoid rubber)
Try a DIY Silver Cleaner
Before you start, use a soft toothbrush or cotton swab in crevices to remove old polish or grime. Rinse in warm water.
- Ordinary dish or liquid laundry soap: A few drops in warm water works well for lightly soiled or tarnished silver. Wash with a soft cloth, rinse well, and dry thoroughly.
- Aluminum foil and baking soda: Line a bowl with aluminum foil. Mix 1 tablespoon baking soda for each cup of hot water. Soak for 30 seconds, making sure each piece touches the foil, so the desired chemical reaction takes place. For heavy tarnish, soak for 1-2 minutes up to 10 minutes. Buff with a soft cloth.
- Aluminum foil and baking soda variations: Add 1 tablespoon sea salt and ½ cup white vinegar or a tablespoon of powdered laundry detergent for each cup of hot water.
- Toothpaste: Avoid toothpaste with abrasives such as baking soda. Apply to a soft cloth and buff away the tarnish. Rinse well and dry.
- Cornstarch: Use one part cornstarch to three parts water to form a paste. With a damp cloth, spread the paste and let it dry. As you rub off the dried cornstarch, the tarnish will go with it. Rinse well and use a toothbrush in crevices if needed.
- Lemon-lime soda: Fill a bowl with enough lemon-lime soda to cover your silver. Soak for an hour or more. Presto!
- Tomato ketchup or sauce: Apply ketchup with a soft cloth and rub your silver to remove tarnish. Or use enough tomato product to cover the silver for 10-20 minutes. Rub with a soft cloth, rinse, and dry.
- Banana peel: Pop a few banana peels in a blender with enough water to make a paste. Rub the paste over your silver, rinse, and use a toothbrush to remove leftovers. This might sound odd, but some people swear by it.
- Cola: Submerge your silver in any carbonated cola beverage such as Coca-Cola® for a minute or two. Don’t overdo it. Rinse well and dry.
- Never use bleach.
- Don’t use ammonia. Some say yes; others say no. We say it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Shop Sterling Silver
Precautions for Cleaning Sterling Silver
No matter where you found your cherished sterling silver — on eBay, Facebook Marketplace, at an estate sale, or on MaxSold — it might need special attention.
If it’s an antique or vintage, its handles may be weak. Always support the weight from underneath. This applies to all sterling silver items, including candlesticks and candelabras.
Avoid brushing or rubbing too vigorously. Don’t scrub your silver like it’s your bathtub or kitchen sink.
If your sterling silver is heavily tarnished and valuable, it’s best to consult a silver restoration specialist.
How Often Should You Clean Sterling Silver?
A yearly cleaning is often adequate. If tarnishing is a problem, clean your silver a few times a year. It’s better to avoid tarnish build-up with a DIY silver cleaner than waiting until the tarnish is heavy and requires a lot of work or a specialist.
Best Practices for Storing Sterling Silver
A cabinet designed for displaying sterling silver is your best bet. Keep it away from sunlight, and air it out at least monthly.
Be sure to protect your silver from dust, humidity, and airborne contaminants like cooking fumes, fireplace or tobacco smoke, and outdoor air pollution. Avoid storage in a damp basement or hot attic.
Lining shelves with soft flannel or cotton muslin will absorb moisture. You can even buy treated flannel and activated charcoal cloths made especially for silver.
For long-term storage, a dark cabinet or chest is best. Wrap each piece individually in an anti-tarnish bag, acid-free paper, or cotton muslin. Sealed bags like Ziploc® bags are ideal for small pieces and jewelry.