How to Clean Seashells

cleaningseashells

Adam asked: How do I clean seashells (clam shells, oyster shells, hermit crab shells, etc.). When I take them out of the ocean, they are left a little bit sandy and a little bit filmy. Sometimes, there is even life still inside of the shells. What’s the best way to clean them to keep them on my shelves and not smelling like the ocean?

Seashells make beautiful souvenirs from any trip to the ocean or beach. From children to adults, we all enjoy finding a beautiful shell on the beach and bringing it home to display. Unfortunately, if there is still life in or on the shell, it quickly loses its beauty to the awful stench it creates. This can be easily avoided and quickly corrected by some simple cleaning techniques to remove the ocean life and protective coatings that are commonly found on seashells. Follow the guidelines below to keep your shell collection for many years of enjoyment.

Cleaning Living Shells

The first step is to kill any living organisms in the shell. There are several ways to accomplish this, depending on the amount of time that you have and the method that works best for you.

You Will Need (Choose one method):

  • Freezing Method
    • Ziploc bag
  • Burying Method
    • Small shovel
    • Area of dirt
  • Cooking Method
    • Large pot
    • Water
    • Tongs
    • Microwave
  • Tweezers

Methods to Remove Shell Inhabitants:

Choose your method of killing any living tissue in the shells and follow the directions below. You will know that the shells are clean when the periostracum, or leathery/flaky coating that is found on shells, is removed.

  1. Freeze It!
    1. Place the shells inside of a Ziploc bag.
    2. Add enough water to the bag so all of the shells are covered.
    3. Place the bag with the shells and water in the freezer.
    4. Allow it to freeze solid for a couple of days.
    5. Remove it from the freezer and allow everything to thaw completely.
  2. Bury It!
    1. This method takes the longest, but is quite effective.
    2. Dig a hole in the ground large enough to fit the shells with plenty of space between. Ensure the hole is deep enough that animals will not be able to dig the shells up to remove them (usually 18-24 inches is sufficient).
    3. Cover with dirt and mark the spot clearly so you can find it again.
    4. Leave them long enough for the organisms and creatures in the ground to clean out the shells and remove any life.
  3. Cook It!
    1. There are two ways to cook shells to remove the living tissue.
    2. You can either boil them in a pot filled with water or place them in a microwave for a couple of minutes.
    3. Remove them with tongs and oven mitts/towel as they will be very hot.
  4. Use tweezers or your fingers to carefully pull out any living tissue from inside the shell and dispose of it.
  5. Now that the living tissue is removed, you can continue on with cleaning the “dead” shells.

Cleaning Dead Shells

You Will Need:

  • Bleach
  • Water
  • Bowl
  • Toothbrush
  • Towel
  • Screwdriver
  • Baby or mineral oil

Steps to Clean the Shells:

  1. Fill a bowl with one part water and one part bleach. It should be full enough to cover all of the shells completely.
  2. Soak the shells in the liquid until the periostracum, the flaky, leathery covering on the shells, is removed.
  3. If there are any barnacles or other attachments on the shell, pick them off with a pic or a screwdriver. Avoid using too much force as it can break the shell.
  4. Use the toothbrush to remove any other particles from the surface.
  5. Rinse thoroughly with clean water and allow them to dry completely.
  6. If you are planning on displaying the shells, rubbing them with baby oil or mineral oil will give a beautiful shine.

Special Cleaning for Sand Dollars

Sand dollars are fragile creatures and have special cleaning instructions.

You Will Need:

  • Bowl
  • Water
  • Bleach
  • Soft brush
  • Sand Dollar Coating

Steps to Clean Sand Dollars:

  1. Begin by allowing the sand dollars to dry for a few days.
  2. Fill a bowl with one part bleach and three parts water.
  3. Place the dead sand dollars into the solution and allow them to soak for a short while. Do not leave them in the solution for too long as they will become brittle.
  4. If necessary, use a soft brush to gently scrub away any dirt.
  5. Rinse thoroughly and allow them to dry completely.
  6. If desired, a commercial hardening coating can be applied to protect them and lessen the chances of them breaking. One product to consider is Sand Dollar Hardener & Whitener. It is available for purchase online.

Additional Tips and Ideas

  • If time is available, just leave sand dollars out for several months. They will dry and whiten on their own.
  • If there is a broken or rough edge, it can be sanded smooth with a file.
  • Cleaning shells can be a messy job. Be sure to wear protective eyewear to protect yourself from any squirts or sprays.
  • If there is loose tissue inside of the shell that cannot be removed, you can set it outside and flies, ants and other insects will remove it over time.

Comments

  1. Cass says:

    Live shells should never be taken from the ocean, no matter how pretty they are. They should always be left there. In fact, it’s nice to throw live shells back out into the water. Only people with special permits should collect live specimens.

  2. Kitten says:

    I agree that live shells should never be taken, but any that no longer have life in them and get washed upon the shore are much more fun to find and look for.

  3. Gina says:

    You make a reference to a commercial hardening coating under the sand dollar section. What product do you recommend?

  4. Donna says:

    What is the protective commercial hardening coat product used in the sand dollar section? Is this used on seashells, or is there another product to protect seashells?

  5. DJ says:

    I agree, live shells should never be taken from their natural habitat unless the person removing them is legally allowed to do so. There are plenty of shells on many beaches that are dead; take those if allowed by the local laws.

  6. Nancy says:

    Some of the most beautiful shells we found were the live ones…we threw them back in the water. It was so awesome to pick up a beautiful shell to find it was someone’s home…so enjoyed the hunt and finding the beautiful shells!

  7. Paula says:

    I left my shells in the bleach solution too long and some turned orange. What happened? Can I salvage them?

    Thanks.

  8. Janice says:

    I’ve used three coats of high-gloss decoupage to coat some of my shells, but never on sand dollars. True story: I’ve just come back from Marco Island, Florida. Of the eight or so Florida Fighting Conch shells I brought home, I threw back more that had the conch still in them. Imagine my surprise when one of them had a hermit crab in it! I threw it back, too.

  9. Nathan says:

    I disagree with all of you! So what if you take live shells? They are a part of nature and there are thousands more of them all over the world! It is good to have keepsakes for your kids!

  10. Shauna says:

    It is mindsets like yours, Nathan, that have caused the problems we have with many various species being extinct, or seriously endangered, today. Do you seriously think that giving your kids “keepsakes” that they will probably throw away when they leave home is worth the suffering and death of the creatures that gave their lives for your hobby? Do you tell your children that an innocent creature died so they can have something to keep? Humans have no more rights than any other beings on this planet, mate. Stop murdering innocent creatures, and buy fake ones instead if your kids must have something to look at.

  11. Julia says:

    I think it is better to teach your kids about the value of life and respect for nature and our planet than to kill sea creatures for the sake of keepsakes. Especially when there are plenty of uninhabited shells on beaches that can be taken home to treasure.

  12. Norma says:

    I say do like I do… I walk the beach and find shells that are empty and then go to the local store on the beach that sells shells that can’t be found on the beaches, that are cleaned and ready for display. They range from 2-5 cents, up to $15… and each year I add to my collection without killing anything. Your kids could go to a store like that and buy what they like without all the walking for hours to find something special that they like. Just ask around, locals will be able to tell you where you can find a shop like this.

  13. Charlie says:

    OK, so, I want to make a necklace for my girlfriend back home, and I am afraid to break them when I put holes in to put rope a through. Any advice?
    Thanks.

  14. Paula says:

    I have to agree with what others are saying, Nathan. As a professional scuba diver, and member of project aware, I think that if everyone had the same mentality as you, some creatures could become extinct. Have some respect and teach your children the same. Throw the live ones back in the sea.

  15. Steve says:

    Give me a break people. If there is nothing in the sea shells, really what difference does it make? Maybe we should not even walk on the beach and only look at it from a distance; that way we would not disturb anything! In fact, why don’t we just lock everyone up in the cities so that we don’t disturb nature!
    Nature is given to us to enjoy and appreciate. A seashell is a not only a keepsake, but also a way for people to remember and appreciate the wonders of nature.

  16. Jim says:

    Give me a break. I care about the earth and it’s creatures, but come on now. For as many fish, crabs, shrimp, and lobster that are killed each year, you are worried about some sand crab? They will be just fine if 1/10 of the population that actually goes to the beach takes some live ones home. Guess you don’t want to hear about how I drowned an opposum in my back yard?

  17. Jody says:

    Gross! I would never knowingly take a shell that still had life in it; that is a home for a creature. I have been many places and collected a lot of shells. I have only once – my last trip to Thailand – brought home a shell that had a creature in it. (I didn’t see it in there.) I’m not sure what to do. It kind of grosses me out; it’s dead now of course. :( Any ideas? I don’t think anyone should be giving directions to someone else on how to clean out live shells. That’s just wrong. Let’s be respectful to all creatures no matter if we think there are plenty of them or not. It’s not okay to take them from the ocean or the beach. If you really want one, find one that doesn’t have life in it.

  18. Mark says:

    It’s a shame that we can’t toss people like Nathan back.

  19. Melanie says:

    Jody,
    The dead shell method should probably be sufficient, but if not – try the live shell cooking method and then repeat the dry shell method.

  20. Melanie says:

    Steve,
    People taking the empty shells, particularly the big ones, leaves hermit crabs without an opportunity to grow. According to Cabinet Magazine, 30% of all hermit crabs were living in shells too small for them in 2004. The lack of sea shells is causing crabs to seek refuge in trash – broken glass bottles, etc.
    When a living creature dies in a seashell and has time to begin decomposing, the hermit crabs can smell the scent and gather at the new open house. They will wait for more crabs to arrive and get in a conga line in order of size; the largest crab takes the new house and they each pass their shells down to the next largest crab.
    Also, hermit crabs often carry other organisms on their shell as camouflage, such as a sea anemone. If the hermit crab moves into a larger shell, the sea anemone often moves to the new shell with their friend.
    Furthermore; people tend to take the beautiful, unbroken shells, which leaves the crabs with the broken, porous shells.
    There are over a thousand species of hermit crab that exist around the world.

    Source: Cabinet Magazine – The Hand Up Project: Attempting to Meet the New Needs of Natural Life-Forms
    Source: Scientific American – On a Tiny Caribbean Island, Hermit Crabs Form Sophisticated Social Networks [Video]
    Source: Animal Planet – Hermit crab
    Source: Wikipedia – Hermit crab

  21. Gayle says:

    Thanks so much for the site. I must admit I am confused about exactly what to use and how long to use the various methods of cleaning. I have been picking up shells here and there for years, but not taking care of them seriously. I tried the bleach overnight on some shells from 10 years ago and they sparkle. I thought they were totally bleached out from the sun, but the process revealed some great subtle color on most of them. Nothing is more relaxing than an early morning stroll on the beach. It’s fun to give coworkers a small treasure!

  22. Janet says:

    It was a very disappointing article to read…your callousness toward wildlife is disturbing. Many places, like Sanibel Island, actually prohibit the collecting of live shells. And Jim, your bragging about drowning a possum means you are clearly a sadistic jerk.

  23. Angie says:

    I agree with Janet 100%: it’s VERY disappointing to read about the disrespect towards wildlife. Our family just returned from Sanibel and our young children feel the same way to prohibit and protect the shells. So many available don’t have anything living in them. Very sad to read this.

  24. David says:

    I have a flamingo tongue shell that I had set in gold for my wife about 40 years ago. The shell needs to be re-set, but before I do that, how can I clean and preserve the shell so it will remain beautiful?

    I have heard both do and do not use baby oil.

    Thanks for your input.

  25. Marie says:

    I agree with Nathan 100 percent! You can’t save ‘em all!

  26. Tiffany says:

    Way to promote cruelty to animals. I find it abhorrent that people think it’s “okay” to take an animal from the wild and kill it for nothing other than a trophy. I feel the same way about trophy hunters as well. Here’s to hoping a cone snail gets a few of you!

  27. Mary Grace says:

    I agree with Tiffany. CONE SNAIL! CONE SNAIL! *ahem* But in all seriousness, it’s against the law (at least in Florida) to take live shells from the beach and kill them or keep them as pets. LAW BREAKAH!

  28. Jackie says:

    I have a very old conch shell & when unwrapped from a bath towel for moving; the outer shell is now all white & has appearance of chalk. Any ideas on how to get it shiny again?

  29. Susan says:

    I’m very distressed because I found a few shells on the beach that I thought were empty, but are home to small sand crabs! Despite inspecting them carefully I didn’t see life in any of them. I am going to overnight them to a kayaking outfit in Port Aransas and ask them to return them to the sea. This is a good lesson to anyone reading this. Leave nature undisturbed! Even though the shells may look empty, the creatures can hide away deep inside where you can’t see them!

  30. Dwayne says:

    Thanks for the tips. A lot of you seemed upset because of the live creators still in it. A couple years ago, in the Bahamas, I picked one up and didn’t see that something was in it until I got to the house.
    In other news, how many people actually buy shells on the internet.

  31. Angela says:

    It is illegal, in the state of Florida, to take ANY LIVE shell. Live shelling is illegal in most places. So, whoever thinks it’s just fine and dandy to kill a living creature so you can have a pretty shell to display on your living-room shelf–needs to think about those laws. Furthermore, we recently returned from Sanibel Island, the shelling capital of the world. Our family found many live horse conchs–some of them a foot long. We saw live creatures in them and threw them back. No question. The good news is that there were tourists all around us who found live starfish, sand dollars and other living shells. No question, they returned them to the sea. They picked up many shells (we brought home more than 100 shells!), but were not heartless enough to take live shells. There may be a minority population that is selfish enough to take live shells–but these people represent a very tiny group. Take heart in what I saw on Sanibel–99 percent of tourists were caring, kind, decent people. Cruel, oblivious chuckleheads are outliers.

  32. Lauren says:

    I think you can take the shells out of the water if they’re dead, but the thing is that you don’t know if they are. Especially sand dollars.

  33. Pat says:

    There’s many ways to really enjoy nature. Shells are not just shells; every shell is in the ocean for a purpose. I teach myself and my children to identify shells; we just don’t pickup shells. Our shell collection is like a treasure hunter’s, but guess what; we study the variety of shells, and search for them. It is a lot better to know names, shapes, colors, and also find who was living there. We have a book about shells; my daughter learns the names so fast and identifies them. We just don’t want a shell; we want to find the one we don’t have for our collection. By going to different islands and beaches, we have found the most unusual ones and beautiful ones; this way we can appreciate them more. My recommendation is, if you like shells, study them before you find them and challenge yourself to see if you can remember their names with your friends and children. We took a plastic board and display the shells; people pass by and we ask them if they have any of interest to learn seashell names, and they did, so this taught them what we do. Shells are not just shells; shells are God’s treasures and must be treated with love and respect. There is a purpose for everything and shells should be one of the most wonderful we have (that God is giving ocean shells). Hope this talk inspires you, and the next time you go to the beach, you can have another way to see shells. There’s beauty in a shell in very many different ways.

  34. Natalia says:

    Maybe you should consider removing completely the section about cleaning live shells – it is a real shame to KILL FOR FUN, like many of people from United states of America do! Especially considering that it is ILLIGAL in many places to remove live shells from the water!

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