Imagine: you're going out for a special meal. You've picked the perfect outfit, shoes and makeup. You go to add your favourite piece of silver jewellery as a finishing touch, but you open your jewellery box to discover it's covered in awful brown and black tarnish, rendering it unwearable. What now?
While you can remove silver tarnish easily enough, doing so the wrong way or with the wrong products can cause more tarnish or - even worse - cause damage to your jewellery.
Thankfully learning how to clean silver jewellery is simpler than you think and it only requires a few tools and techniques. Once you've learned the process, cleaning your favourite silver pieces will become routine, and you won't be shocked at opening your jewellery box to a tarnished necklace again.
Keep reading to learn all about how to clean your silver jewellery properly to extend the life of your favourite pieces and be able to enjoy wearing them whenever you like.
This guide is specifically about cleaning silver jewellery. You might like to also check out our 10 tips to quickly clean jewellery which also covers other metals and gemstones.
What is silver tarnish?
According to Wikipedia, tarnish is a product of a chemical reaction between a metal and a non-metal compound, most commonly oxygen and sulphur dioxide, which forms a metal oxide (and sometimes metal sulphide or chloride) on the metal.
The good news is that normal tarnish on silver is not corrosive and the metal underneath the oxide layer should be just fine. However, silver can also tarnish from exposure to chlorine and acids which may potentially be more damaging to the metal, including causing pits to appear.
Tarnish can appear as a yellow, brown, black or grey coating on the surface of your silver jewellery, which is sometimes quite patchy. Sterling silver tarnishes more easily than pure silver due to its copper content and this tarnish is likely to be more noticeable and darker in colour. However, even pure (or fine) silver can develop a matte grey oxide on its surface over time.
Most jewellery is made with sterling silver or similar alloys because pure silver is generally too soft to be made into jewellery. However, you may own sterling silver jewellery which has had a pure silver plating applied to its surface, which can help to slow down tarnishing. Learn more about sterling silver and pure silver.
How silver tarnishes
Tarnish appearing on your silver jewellery is normal. Even the best silver jewellery tarnishes, so don't assume the problem is related to the quality of your jewellery or it not being made of real silver. If anything, tarnish indicates that it really is silver!
When silver is exposed to gases in the air - especially sulphur - it discolours and darkens as it reacts with the gas to form a layer of tarnish on the surface. A similar process can occur when silver is exposed to an array of other chemicals.
Many things in your everyday life can cause your silver to tarnish. These include:
- Hand creams
- Chlorine from swimming pools or cleaning chemicals
- The PH of your skin
- The air around you, especially if it's humid
Silver tarnish is almost impossible to avoid, but there are a lot of factors that can make it more or less obvious and happen more or less quickly. The good news is that you can make a big difference to how bad the tarnish gets and you can clean your silver to bring it back to its sparkling best.
How to clean silver jewellery
There is more than one way to clean silver jewellery. Your choice of method will depend on how tarnished the piece is, what materials you have on hand and how careful you want to be.
If you bought your silver jewellery online, check the manufacturer's care instructions. They may also sell jewellery cleaning products that are safe for their silver pieces. Check out our jewellery care and cleaning guide for your Simone Walsh Jewellery pieces.
Whichever cleaning method (or combination) you choose, make sure you have at least two separate gentle cloths on hand: at least one for cleaning and one for drying. The types of cloths you might use to clean glasses or a mirror are likely to work well (microfibre cloths and similar are great).
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Having some good quality absorbent kitchen towels on hand is also helpful as the towels will easily mop up water from rinsing your jewellery, making it much easier to finish drying with the soft drying cloth you have set aside.
We also recommend having a soft bristled brush to help get into difficult areas and to remove debris.
To ensure you're organised to clean your jewellery whenever it's needed, we suggest setting up a little kit which is easily accessible and has all the tools and chemicals you may need.
So here are our suggested cleaning methods, from least invasive to most. You might only need to use one of them or possibly a combination. Let's get cleaning ...
Soap and water
Okay, so this step definitely won't remove any tarnish from your jewellery, but starting your cleaning process with a gentle, fragrance free soap (liquid Castile soap is our favourite) diluted in warm water is highly recommend. It will help to remove dust and grime, not only making your jewellery look better but also making it much easier to remove the tarnish lurking underneath the grime.
Use your soft cleaning cloth to clean the silver in the solution. You can also use a soft bristled brush if needed, but be careful not to scuff or scratch the surface, especially with shiny pieces.
You might like to return your pieces to the soap and water solution at the end of your cleaning process to help remove any chemical residue left behind.
Always be sure that your final step with any cleaning process is thoroughly rinsing your jewellery with clean water to remove soap residue and any other chemicals. Then dry your pieces quickly and well with a soft cloth. Don't worry: I'll nag you about this again later!
Having a good quality silver dip on hand for your sterling silver jewellery is highly recommended. For lighter tarnish it will often do the trick very quickly and easily, but if your jewellery is more heavily tarnished, we recommend considering the electrochemical cleaning method or silver polish as your starting point (see below).
Using silver dip will quickly remove tarnish from your silver using a chemical process. For lighter tarnish it generally works in less than a minute. It will also remove tarnish from crevices that are impossible to reach with a cloth or soft brush. For this reason it may be a good idea to finish with silver dip after more heavy cleaning methods to clean the areas you can't otherwise reach.
Be sure to follow the instructions provided with the specific silver dip you have on hand. It's essential to very thoroughly rinse the chemicals from the metal or you may find the silver tarnishes more quickly in future as a result of a residue from the dip remaining behind.
Note that silver dip won't polish your jewellery, so if you'd like the pieces to be more sparkly, we recommend following up with a precious metal polishing cloth (see below).
Jewellery polishing cloth
A good quality precious metal or silver polishing cloth should be an essential part of your silver cleaning kit. Luckily we can help you out with our professional quality jewellery polishing cloths.
A jewellery polishing cloth can remove heavier tarnish than silver dip, but it won't be as effective as our homemade electrochemical cleaning method or silver polish for very heavy tarnish. However, it is generally easier and quicker than these processes, as well as being more gentle than a silver polish or cream. A jewellery polishing cloth will also give your jewellery a lovely shine.
Metal polishing cloths have chemicals embedded in them which will remove tarnish from the metal. They are less abrasive than silver polish or cream, especially if you have a good quality cloth. We still recommend using them with care and not rubbing the silver too aggressively which may scuff the metal.
Not only will these polishing cloths remove tarnish from the surface, they should also give your silver a beautiful shine, which can't be achieved with silver dip alone. This makes them a great follow up after dipping if your jewellery should be shinier than it is.
Your polishing cloth will quickly develop black marks from the cleaning process, which is to be expected. Once your cloth is completely black it needs to be replaced as these cloths won't continue to remove tarnish after they've been washed.
Once you've finished cleaning, as with other cleaning methods, you need to be sure you've thoroughly rinsed your jewellery to remove any residue, which may cause pieces to tarnish more quickly if left behind. After rinsing be sure to quickly dry your pieces using a soft cloth.
Homemade electrochemical silver cleaner
This is an eco-friendly and low tech (but science-y!) jewellery cleaning method and it will generally do a good job of removing heavier tarnish without damaging your silver. Best of all, it's likely that you already have the ingredients in your cupboard.
Cut a piece of aluminium foil which covers the bottom of a small glass or ceramic bowl. Then pour a cup of hot water into the bowl and mix in the following:
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1 tablespoon of baking soda
- 1 tablespoon of gentle colourless and fragrance free detergent (Castile is our favourite)
Put the jewellery to be cleaned into the bowl so it sits on top of the foil and is covered by the solution and leave it to sit. After 5 to 10 minutes you can remove the jewellery and discard the solution and foil, which may have turned a mottled grey. Repeat if necessary with a new mixture and fresh piece of foil.
Be sure to rinse your jewellery thoroughly after this process to remove the electrolytes. We highly recommend following up with a silver polishing cloth to help remove any remaining particles of tarnish that can be left behind by this method. It also has the benefit of slowing down future tarnish and giving your pieces some shine.
As always, after you've finished cleaning and rinsing make sure you dry your pieces thoroughly with a soft cloth.
Silver polish or cream
If your silver is badly tarnished then silver polish or silver cream will be your friend. We recommend finding a good quality polish which is specifically intended for use on silver (polish which is intended to work with an array of metals is likely to be more abrasive).
Silver polish is always somewhat abrasive, so we recommend using it with care. Better quality silver polishes should generally be more gentle, but they still won't be as gentle as silver dip, electrochemical cleaning or a silver polishing cloth. This is why we recommend using them on jewellery only occasionally and generally for more heavy tarnish.
Follow the instructions for your specific silver polish, but generally you will need a dry soft cloth to dab the polish onto before gently rubbing it against your silver jewellery. After initial rinsing you might like to follow up with a silver dip once most of the tarnish is removed to help remove any still lurking in crevices.
You may need to occasionally rinse the piece to remove the dirty polish so you can see how cleaning is progressing. Once you've finished the process, be sure to rinse it very well so none of the residue remains on the piece, including in crevices. Be sure to dry the piece with a dedicated soft cloth as soon as you're done.
Rinsing and drying
Just to be crystal clear (yes, I'm nagging you!): you really do need to thoroughly rinse and dry your jewellery after any cleaning process you've undertaken. This should be thorough enough to remove all residues from the cleaning process and will slow the build up of tarnish, so you won't have to go through the process again too soon.
Use clean water for rinsing (under a tap is fine) and ensure the water reaches all crevices in the jewellery. I generally rest rinsed pieces on a good quality paper kitchen towel to absorb water droplets before patting them dry with the paper towel. I will then finish with a dry soft cloth to remove as much remaining moisture as possible.
It's best that drying happens soon after rinsing to avoid water marks being left on the jewellery and the process of tarnishing starting again too quickly.
How not to clean silver jewellery
Search online and you'll see all sorts of homemade silver cleaning methods using everyday ingredients you'll most likely have at home. Most of them are problematic and are really not recommended by jewellery professionals.
If you're in a jam and urgently need to clean your silver jewellery just this one time, then you might find these methods will get you out of trouble, especially if you're very careful. However, we do not recommend using them at all if you can possibly avoid it.
Some of these methods include:
- Baking soda paste (too abrasive)
- Toothpaste (ditto)
- Vinegar (too acidic and may damage gemstones)
- Lemon juice (ditto)
- Olive oil mixture (leaves a sticky residue that may be difficult to remove)
- Any combination of the above
How to prevent tarnish on silver jewellery
With the proper care, you can keep your silver jewellery looking as new and sparkling as the day you bought it for years to come. Here are our tips to help you care for your silver jewellery into the future.
Wear your jewellery
Simply wearing silver jewellery regularly can help to keep tarnish at bay as it will rub against your skin, clothing, etc which can mechanically remove some tarnish and grime. It won't prevent tarnish, but it can help.
However, if you're one of those unlucky people whose skin chemicals causes silver to quickly turn black, this won't work so well for you. In this case you'll need to do much more regular cleaning or choose a different and less reactive metal to wear (gold or platinum).
Take your jewellery off!
Consider taking off your precious jewellery when showering, swimming (whether in a pool or the sea) and especially when cleaning with harsh chemicals. You might also want to take off your jewellery before applying makeup or skin care products, before putting it back on again once you've washed your hands.
These situations can potentially damage jewellery and some of the chemicals you encounter may cause tarnish to speed up or other forms of damage.
Store your jewellery properly
Unless you're happy to clean your jewellery quite often, I recommend you avoid using jewellery trees or similar jewellery storage solutions that keep your jewellery in the open air. Otherwise you'll find the pieces will quickly gather dust and household grime, but also silver jewellery especially will tarnish much more quickly. This goes double if you live in a humid place or keep your jewellery in a bathroom.
The best solution is to store your sterling silver jewellery in a container which is dry, relatively small and doesn't allow free flowing air to pass through it. You might also find that putting some humidity absorbing sachets into such a container will help to slow down tarnish further.
If you find your silver is tarnishing quickly inside your storage container, then this might indicate that the container is unsuitable and should be switched to something else. Some plastics especially can give off chemicals which can speed up tarnish.
Whatever storage solution you choose, apart from tarnish and grime considerations, also be sure that you're able to keep chains untangled and that pieces of metal or gemstone jewellery are not rubbing against each other, causing them to scratch.
Have a cleaning routine
Having a cleaning and tarnish removal routine (and a suitable kit) really will make a big difference as it will help keep tarnish to a minimum, making your silver jewellery easier to clean and less prone to damage.
We recommend putting jewellery cleaning into your diary at the time of year when the weather is transitioning from cooler to warmer and vice versa. These are generally times when you're thinking about changing your wardrobe around, so it's a great opportunity to revisit and refresh your jewellery collection.
Looking for more detailed info about cleaning silver, including valuable antiques? Check out this great document from the Canadian Conservation Institute.