How to Clean Silver Naturally

By Camilla Cheung on 28 June 2011 (Updated 30 June 2011) 21 comments
Photo: AroundTuscany

Part of the fun of shopping at thrift stores and estate sales is that I almost always find a beautiful piece of vintage silverware that is black with tarnish but just waiting for a little cleaning to reveal the diamond in the rough underneath! From vintage silver platters and bowls to candlesticks, coasters, and coffeepots, there are so many heirloom silver items out there waiting to be discovered. But how do you restore silver items to their former shining glory? (See also: Tips for Shopping at Estate Sales)

Commercial silver cleaners are cheap, but they tend to be filled with harsh chemicals that I prefer not to use around the house. Fortunately there is a way to safely clean silver using common household products that you have in your pantry right now.

Cleaning Silver With Aluminum Foil and Baking Soda

Hurray for baking soda! It is such a heavyweight when it comes to uses around the home. This method of cleaning silver works wonders even for heavily tarnished pieces as long as they can stand up to a little heat.

  1. First, bring a large pot of water to the boil on the stovetop. Make sure that the pot is large enough to fit all of your tarnished silver items. Don’t overfill the pot (leave at least two inches of space at the top).
     
  2. When the water boils, remove the pot from the heat. Place a piece of aluminum foil into the bottom of your pot, and place your silver items on top, immersed in the boiling water. Start shaking baking soda into the pot. It will foam and bubble, and you’ll notice a sulfuric smell, like rotten eggs.
     
  3. The chemical reaction will (almost magically) remove the tarnish from your silver, as the tarnish will become attracted to the aluminum foil instead of your silver piece. Keep sprinkling in more baking soda until your silver is shiny and clean or until the liquid no longer foams.

The water has to be really hot for this to be effective, but if you do it correctly, it works like a charm on tarnished silver. I’ve actually found this to be the best method for removing tarnish from vintage silver, as it is more effective than many silver polishes I have used. It even gets into the nooks and crannies where you wouldn’t be able to hand-polish the tarnish away.

Once the tarnish is gone, wash the silver with gentle soap and water to remove the rest of the baking soda. If there are a few spots of tarnish left, they should wash off when rubbed gently with a soft cloth.

If you have silver jewelry set with gemstones, I would hesitate to use this method, as it may cause damage to some gemstones. You might want to take your jewelry to a professional jeweler to have it cleaned. However, this method works well for silver platters, flatware, bowls, chains, serveware, and many other silver or silver-plated items.

Be Wary of Abrasive Methods

Many articles on the Internet recommend scrubbing your silver pieces with toothpaste, table salt, or baking soda. The reason toothpaste, salt, and baking soda work is because they are abrasives, but while they may scrub away the tarnish, they are also rubbing scratches into your silver, and in the case of silver-plated items, they may start to wear away the silver finish entirely, exposing the base metal.

Nevertheless, I have been guilty of using a baking soda/water paste to clean a few inexpensive pieces of silver jewelry. While professional silversmiths might be horrified, I find that it is worth it to me to have a clean piece of jewelry that I will actually wear rather than a tarnished-but-undamaged piece that sits in my drawer for years.

Antique silver plate and good-quality silver jewelry may lose much of its value if cleaned improperly. If you have a valuable silver piece and you are in doubt as to how to clean it, it may be best to bring it to a professional.

How do you usually clean your silver? Which method is the most effective?

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Guest's picture

I use the silver polishing cloth they give me when i get the jewelry. It works well, but i HATE that it turns black and I can't wash it.

Good article! Will def have to try this.

Camilla Cheung's picture

My problem is, I am a very disorganized person and I always, without fail, lose that cloth. But they do work well.

Guest's picture

I find that it helps to tear the foil up in smaller pieces and swish the silver (plus tarnish, which is silver + sulfur), aluminum, and baking soda around so that all of those ions get in touch and react. (The baking soda and water connect the aluminum and silver. The aluminum grabs the sulfur in the tarnish and leaves the silver on your silver piece.) I also prefer to do this in a big pyrex bowl so that I can see what I'm doing and don't have to think about what my pan is made out of.

Camilla Cheung's picture

Thanks, those are useful tips!

Guest's picture
Guest

Be aware that getting in the nooks and crannies pretty much obliterates the antique value. It makes the silver look very clean, and new. It is akin to refinishing an old piece of furniture and destroying the antique value added by the wear and patina. If you like the way the design is emphasized by the aging process, then use traditional silver cream, and rub, rub, rub! It's a matter of preference.

I might use this posted method for my contemporary silver plate serving utensils, but never for great grandma's silverware. Anyway- pretty cool! I have seen this done, but never remembered how to do it. Thanks!

Camilla Cheung's picture

Thanks for that tip! You're right, I wouldn't use this method for a truly valuable antique. But I do use it to clean up silver that I'm planning to eat off of =). Maybe it's just me, but eating off of tarnished silver = ick.

I'm glad you mentioned silver cream. It's not supposed to be as abrasive as other rubbing methods, but I'm not sure how "natural" it is, so I didn't include it here.

Nora Dunn's picture

Great tip! How much baking soda do you end up using?

For a few other non-abrasive and natural ways to clean your silver, you can try powdered milk, or banana peels. No, seriously!

Check it out:
http://www.wisebread.com/paint-a-room-and-wash-your-face-more-uses-for-p...

http://www.wisebread.com/curing-warts-removing-splinters-and-19-other-bi...

Camilla Cheung's picture

I think I end up using between 1/2 cup to 1 cup of baking soda. It depends on how seriously tarnished the item is, and how much water is in the pot!

Guest's picture
Guest

Your article mentions baking powder and baking soda.

Which is it?

Camilla Cheung's picture

Sorry, it should be baking soda. Typo on my part!

Meg Favreau's picture

Thanks for catching this -- the error has been fixed!

Guest's picture
Veronica

I decided to use my great grandmother's silver for Christmas dinner. I don't plan on selling it so I might as well use and enjoy it. It was tarnished though and I did not want to eat off of tarnished silver... not appetizing. I tried this and it worked beautifully! It eliminated 99% of the tarnish on a set of silver that is at least 60 years old and that had been in storage and unused for at least 20 years.

Guest's picture
Guest

We make environmentally friendly, non-toxic, hypo-allergenic anti-tarnish products for you silver and anything else that tarnishes. You may want to check out our blog and our post "How to clean you silver jewelry" http://blog.interceptjewelrycare.com

Guest's picture

This was completely enthralling for me. I have always loved silverware and my mom always vacillated between how to clean her set but usually made me and my sister help her do it around Christmas time. I have my heart set on a Tiffany pattern now, but have only one piece so far which I see I have been cleaning the wrong way. Thank you for this, it made my day!
Also got a question for you, if you can please help!! Is it safe to clean silver with baking soda, salt, boiling water and aluminum foil?? I heard they turn white. Is it so??

Guest's picture
Mrs H

Worked for me! No more purchasing Tarnex or anything else when this worked perfectly.

Guest's picture
Deborah

Can I use the boiling water, baking soda, and aluminum foil on a silver plated tea service?

Guest's picture
Deborah

Did not wait for an answer. Went ahead and tried the soda, boiling water, and aluminum foil on my silver plated serving. It worked like a dream. I am still in shock at how easy and fast it was and how clean it came. The detail came out clean also. I think there is a difference in patenia and tarnish and I wanted the tarnish off.

Guest's picture
Cleaners London

Great tips indeed ... It is great that you are sharing natural cleaning solutions, not expensive commercial agents.

Guest's picture
Guest

I spoke to a professional and he said explicitly not to use baking soda.

Guest's picture
Maggie

Be VERY, VERY, VERY careful using this method. It is effective on very good quality silver plate and sterling silver because you don't see the bits of silver that come away with the tarnish. Less expensive pieces of silverplate can be permanently damaged - I know from personal experience!! I learned too late that this method is also very harsh and actually removes silver along with the tarnish. I ruined 2 peices that were wedding gifts as well as a few trays and a coffee pot. I used this method for a long time and it wasn't until a few of peices didn't want to come clean that I spoke to a silversmith who told me that my items were ruined. The only way to save them would be to re-plate and it was not worth the cost. I investigated further and learned that the information from the professional was indeed correct and most professionals will tell you the same thing. A good quality silver polish is still your best bet. Tarnex and similar products are also very dangerous and also cause permanent damage. Good quality polishes cost a bit more and are available at jewelers, hardware stores and specialty stores. Do not trust the bix box retailers. Those old-fashioned polishes with a bit of elbow grease will ensure that your silver will stay beautiful for your grandchildren. There's a reason our grandmother's silver is still around today!! There are many excellent uses for baking soda - and I use it for many things myself - but cleaning silver is not one of them.

Guest's picture
Guest

Professional jewelers won't service anything they didn't make and the silver cloth, while effective, is no good if you have respiratory issues. Tried this on .925 silver ring from an that was a great resale find. It already had fine scratching , so what's the harm? In deference to the size difference I lined a large bowl with foil and poured from my water heater . Also substituted baking soda that's for odor control( different size granules). I recommend anyone who wants to preserve any detailing or small amount of patina pull the item out before it looks done and rub the rest off with cloth, as I took a little bit of character off my bargain find. Rinsed it and dipped it in bottom shelf vodka, an excellent disinfectant and jewelry cleaner. The antique earrings I found were vodka dip only, for instance. Thanks for posting!