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
If you have a shell with a living creature in it, you should try to return it to where you found it or to a similar environment. Taking live shells is illegal at many beaches. If you have a live shell that is not illegal to keep, there are very few creatures that are able to leave a seashell they live in, so you will have to kill them if you want the shell. There are several ways to do 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
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.
- Freeze It!
- Place the shells inside of a Ziploc bag.
- Add enough water to the bag so all of the shells are covered.
- Place the bag with the shells and water in the freezer.
- Allow it to freeze solid for a couple of days.
- Remove it from the freezer and allow everything to thaw completely.
- Bury It!
- This method takes the longest, but is quite effective.
- 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).
- Cover with dirt and mark the spot clearly so you can find it again.
- Leave them long enough for the organisms and creatures in the ground to clean out the shells and remove any life.
- Cook It!
- There are two ways to cook shells to remove the living tissue.
- You can either boil them in a pot filled with water or place them in a microwave for a couple of minutes.
- Remove them with tongs and oven mitts/towel as they will be very hot.
- Use tweezers or your fingers to carefully pull out any living tissue from inside the shell and dispose of it.
- Now that the living tissue is removed, you can continue on with cleaning the “dead” shells.
Cleaning Dead Shells
You Will Need:
- Baby or mineral oil
Steps to Clean the Shells:
- Fill a bowl with one part water and one part bleach. It should be full enough to cover all of the shells completely.
- Soak the shells in the liquid until the periostracum, the flaky, leathery covering on the shells, is removed.
- 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.
- Use the toothbrush to remove any other particles from the surface.
- Rinse thoroughly with clean water and allow them to dry completely.
- If you are planning on displaying the shells, rubbing them with baby oil or mineral oil will give a beautiful shine.
- If you are planning to put the shells in an aquarium or terrarium, soak them in filtered water for a two days, replacing the water each day. This will allow any bleach residue to dissipate.
Special Cleaning for Sand Dollars
Sand dollars are fragile creatures and have special cleaning instructions.
You Will Need:
- Soft brush
- Sand Dollar Coating
Steps to Clean Sand Dollars:
- Begin by allowing the sand dollars to dry for a few days.
- Fill a bowl with one part bleach and three parts water.
- 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.
- If necessary, use a soft brush to gently scrub away any dirt.
- Rinse thoroughly and allow them to dry completely.
- If desired, a commercial hardening coating can be applied to protect them and lessen the chances of them breaking.
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.