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How Can You Clean Sterling Silver if It’s Turning Grey, White, Black!

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Erin L

Erin L

There’s nothing worse then pulling a cherished piece of silver jewelry out and finding it’s turned black, grey, white or yellow.  Trying to figure out how to clean silver it  can be tough.That colour is called tarnish and it’s the bane of any silver-lover.

I love making sterling silver jewelry in my spare time. Occasionally I take on custom-made jewelry requests. But I recently had a customer write me to say a necklace I’d made for him had turned black after just a couple weeks.  He was surprised and thought something was wrong with the piece. Though it can look unsightly if not cared for properly, tarnish is a normal and natural process with sterling silver. But once tarnish or blackening is there, how can you clean sterling silver?

What causes Tarnish?

A well-used silver polishing cloth.

A well-used silver polishing cloth.

When silver tarnishes, it’s a surface discolouration  caused by the interaction of oxygen (air) with the silver. As the British Assay Office explains it, “silver naturally interacts with oxygen and sulphur-bearing pollutants to create silver sulphide, resulting in a visible discoloration of the metal’s surface. Silver tarnishes in environments containing various sulphuric gases, even in very low concentration. The amount of tarnishing is determined by the relative humidity, ambient temperature, gas concentration, and the length of time the silver is exposed to the gases.”

With sterling silver this process is normal, natural, expected, and yes, it can occur relatively quickly.

Many things can speed tarnish; air pollution, the minerals in your water (and as such, wearing your silver jewelry in the shower can speed this process too), living or working near a chemical, electric or manufacturing plant, or even in proximity to a gas starion are all things that can cause discolouration more quickly.

Recent studies have shown tarnish develops microscopically within hours of being cleaned and exposed to air again.  You may not see it on the piece for several days or weeks, but it’s there, and will show up as a black residue on a polishing cloth.

How to clean sterling silver

A great way to keep seldom worn jewelry clean (and silverware if you have it), is to store sterling silver in a ziplock bag with all the air squeezed or rolled out of it.  You can wrap it in a soft cloth first too.  Oxygen and thus tarnish may still seep in and can still cause blackening especially if the pieces are stores for long periods of time, but it should keep things to a minimum. Another great way to keep jewelry tarnish free?  Wear it!  Constant contact with the silver keeps tarnish from building up.

Chemicals can cause tarnish

Coincidentally at the same time as this customer contacted me,  I had a friend show me some rings I’d made for her.  The shiny sterling silver had turned a deep, dark black (photo at left).  This was no tarnish effect, and she admitted she’d immersed her baubles in some household cleaner (Lysol) to spruce them up.  Instead, they’d become instantly and deeply chemically oxidized.

Now, she actually liked this look and referred to it as ‘edgy’, so she’s leaving them as they are for now.  If she did want them restored it should be a relatively simple process of buffing the chemical scarring off the surface layer, and exposing clean shiny silver beneath.

Don’t experiment with cleaning silver using household cleaners!

But this also serves as a leaning moment; only soap and water, silver polish, or a silver polishing cloth should be used to clean your silver jewelry.  Many household cleaners and chemicals can alter your precious silver.  In fact, I once had a ring turn bronze after accidentally spritzing window cleaner on it, and had other silver turn grey by getting baking soda onto it.  That too buffed out, but you’ll want to be careful with your jewelry.  Chemicals can also permanently damage certain stones like topaz, opal and more, so don’t experiment; you run the risk of really doing permanent damage.

How to Clean Silver and Remove Tarnish-> Get this Inexpensive Polishing Cloth

If you do find some discolouration of your silver, you can remove it with a dry silver polishing cloth. If that won’t work, stop while you’re ahead and take it to a pro for professional help.

A Note about Grocery Store Silver Cleanser

I’ve purchased cleansers from grocery stores that just don’t work.  If you’re going to get a cleanser from somewhere other than a jewelry professional, test it first on a small area.  If the cleaner doesn’t remove tarnish instantly, it’s not working.  Proper liquid silver cleaners will remove all tarnish in about 3 seconds.  If you need to soak, or scrub, stop using it, rinse your silver, and return the cleaner to where you bought it and get your money back. (Keep your receipt!)

For the jewelry ‘geeks’, the Government of Canada has written a helpful article about how to best care for your silver.  Read it here.

Have you got a horror story – or a home remedy for tarnish?  Post your comments below!

How to clean sterling silver tarnish easily

If you’re looking for some tried and tested silver cleaning products, we can absolutely recommend these:

Liquid Silver Cleaner : Silver liquid cleaner is great for wiping on with your own cloth

Silver Dip for Flatware: I’m never without this tall container with internal basket that lets you dip several pieces of silver flatware at once.

Silver Wipes: Pre-moistened pads; excellent for single-use, portable

Silver Travel Wipes: ideal for antiquing!

Dry Polishing Cloths: great for shine on the go; tuck one in purse, pocket or car

Silver Dip Cleaner Basket: ideal for dropping small jewelry in; lifts out with basket strainer

Silver Cream: Thick cream great for cleaning pieces with raised patterns or tiny nooks in designs; rub it in, let it sit and use a toothbrush or silver brush to polish away.

Horsehair Brushes: for gentle cleaning

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Erin L

Erin L

I'm a journalist, tech blogger, writer, TV producer, silversmith& jewelry designer, foodie and world traveler. I blog, write for publications, and supply freelance writing services to Calgary, and the world.

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