It’s hard not to be crazy about sterling silver jewelry. Between its luster, its brilliance, and its versatility, it’s easy to see why silver is one of the most popular materials for jewelry.
Still, many of us find ourselves neglecting all the beautiful silver pieces in our jewelry boxes for one simple, annoying reason: tarnish. When oxygen or sulfur come in contact with silver, they chemically bond to its surface and cause the silver to appear dirty or discolored. Who wants that?
Fortunately, caring for silver and reducing tarnish is as simple as doing the dishes. All you need is to arm yourself with a few facts about the metal and a few tips and tricks for care and cleaning. With this ultimate guide, you’ll leave ready to start wearing your fabulous silver again with all its shine!
A few things about sterling silver
Knowing a few industry terms will help you understand the physical attributes of your jewelry and how to care for it. The purity of the metal, for instance, determines how malleable the silver is and how quickly it will tarnish: .950 sterling silver will bend more easily and tarnish more quickly than .925 sterling silver because of its increased purity, so extra caution should be used to take care of .950 silver jewelry.
“Oxidized” is another term used to describe silver. For some works silversmiths intentionally allow parts of the jewelry to darken and oxidize, typically small details, to make them stand out more. This detailing can be lost, though, with excessive cleaning and polishing. So be sure to identify any purposefully oxidized silver bracelets, earrings, rings or necklaces you have and set them aside for separate cleaning.
Wear: You can avoid tarnish by wearing your jewelry often. The oils in your skin will “clean” the silver and keep it looking shiny.
Avoid exposure: Contact with household chemicals, perspiration, rubber, chlorinated water, or any substances which contain sulfur (e.g., mayonnaise, eggs, mustard, onions, latex, wool), will cause corrosion and tarnish — so it’s a good idea to remove silver jewelry when doing household chores. Direct sunlight also causes silver to tarnish, so be sure to take off your silver jewelry before you go swimming and sunbathing.
Lotions, cosmetics, hair spray and hair products, and perfumes are also “enemies” of silver and will accelerate tarnishing. There’s a reason generations of women have been getting dressed with jewelry last, as a finishing touch!
Storage: As exposure to air tarnishes it, storing silver in airtight plastic bags with anti-tarnish strips is a great preventative measure. Just make sure you don’t store multiple jewelry pieces in the same bag: silver is a soft metal, so the individual pieces can scratch each other. Link or chain bracelets should be kept unclasped or unhooked to prevent scratching as well. If you can’t use plastic bags, try to make sure that the storage area has low humidity. You can also place a piece of chalk, a packet of activated charcoal, or a container of silica gel in the storage area to minimize tarnish.
Simply polishing your silver works well when the tarnishing is not too severe. It’s also the best method for cleaning oxidized silver, as you can stay away from the intentionally tarnished areas.
Silver is soft and can become scratched easily. You can use a special silver cloth to polish your items, but a lint-free flannel, microfiber, or other soft nonabrasive cloth will do as well. Do not use paper towels or tissues to polish your jewelry as they contain fibers that can scratch the silver.
When polishing, use long back-and-forth motions that mirror the grain of the silver. Do not rub in circles, as this will magnify any tiny scratches. Also, change to a different section of your cloth frequently to avoid placing tarnish back on the silver. You can use a Q-tip to get into small, detailed areas.
Be careful with silver-plated items, as excessive polishing can remove the plating (depending on the thickness) and leave pieces worse than when they started.
If your pieces are heavily tarnished and you don’t have the time to clean them, take them to a professional silver cleaner. Very old, fragile, or valuable pieces should also be cleaned by a professional.
What about commercial silver cleaners?
Commercial silver polishes and dips are easy to find and use, but have several serious drawbacks. For one, the vapors from silver polish can cause damage and even be fatal if inhaled in an unventilated room. The powerful solvents in commercial silver cleaners may also require special hazardous waste disposal to avoid contaminating groundwater or causing other environmental harm.
As if these health and environmental concerns weren’t enough, commercial silver cleaners can also actually harm your silver by removing the anti-tarnish coating and valuable patina. Even though cleaners might give a temporary shine, the pieces will tarnish much more quickly and have to be cleaned more frequently once you have broken down the surface.
Homemade silver cleaner
For cases when the polishing cloth isn’t enough to remove tarnish, you can make your own economically- and environmentally-friendly silver cleaner using ingredients from your kitchen.
It should be noted, however, that silver cleaners are not for all types of silver jewelry. You should not, for instance, ever immerse jewelry adorned with pearls or opaque gemstones (e.g. turquoise, opal, carnelian, onyx), as this could seriously damage these softer stones. (Give these pieces a very brief rinse if they become too dirty.)
Even for jewelry with clear gemstones (e.g. blue topaz, amethyst, garnet), take special care when using a silver cleaner: the chemicals could lodge under the gemstone settings or loosen any glue. And remember, do not use silver cleaners on your oxidized jewelry — stick to the polishing cloth instead.
After using any cleaner, be sure to thoroughly rinse your silver with running water or a clean, damp cloth. This is especially important for detailed or etched items, since polish can stick in small crevices and harden. After, dry the pieces with a microfiber cloth to prevent white water spot stains from forming.
Soap and water: Warm water and a mild, ammonia- and phosphate-free dishwashing soap should be your first line of defense if the polishing cloth fails to remove tarnish. Soap and water should also be used to clean your pieces before using any of the methods listed below.
Baking soda and water: You might have heard that a non-whitening, non-gel toothpaste can be a good substitute for commercial silver cleaners, but nowadays these basic toothpastes are hard to find or distinguish from the toothpastes that will discolor your silver. Instead, make a paste of baking soda and water and use a clean cloth to apply a pea-sized amount to the silver and polish. For etched, stamped or detailed items, thin the paste with more water and use a clean, soft-bristled toothbrush to get the cracks and crevices. Run the silver piece or pieces under running warm water, and dry with a clean cloth.
Olive oil and lemon juice: Mix 1/2 cup lemon juice with 1 tsp. olive oil in a bowl large enough to hold the cleaning solution and a small microfiber cloth. Dip the cloth in the solution and wring it out so that it doesn’t drip, then polish the silver, rinse, and dry.
White vinegar and baking soda: Use this gentle cleaner to remove heavy tarnish that’s preventing you from polishing your silver. Soak the tarnished piece in a solution of 1/2 cup white vinegar and 2 tbsp. baking soda (be prepared for the fizzing!) for two to three hours, then rinse and dry.
Baking soda, salt, aluminum foil, and boiling water: You can take advantage of a simple chemical reaction to clean your silver: all you’ll need is some baking soda, salt, and aluminum foil. Line a glass roasting pan or the kitchen sink with aluminum foil, dull side facing down. Place the silver pieces on top of the aluminum foil. Then pour boiling water over the pieces until they are covered and add 2 tbsp. each of baking soda and salt. Stir the solution to allow the baking soda to dissolve — you don’t want any granules scratching the metal.
The reaction causes the tarnish to transfer to the foil, and in about 5-10 minutes you’ll see the tarnish “magically” disappear from the jewelry. (Be prepared for the smell of rotten eggs, though, as the sulfide tarnish comes off the silver.) Using salad tongs or nitrile gloves (not rubber gloves, which contain sulfur), remove the silver jewelry from the hot water or drain into a colander. Rinse the jewelry with water, then dry and buff with a soft cloth. Voila! Your silver should be sparkling clean and ready to keep you looking fabulous.