Whether your silver is sterling (an alloy in which there’s a small amount of copper) or an electroplate over a base metal, it tarnishes with age, and it is all cleaned the same way.
How to Remove Tarnish from Silver
At first, tarnish is a bit of yellow that can be removed easily. Left alone, it turns the metal brown, then black, and becomes more and more difficult to remove. (Not all yellow is necessarily tarnish because a gold wash may have been applied.)
Silver oxidizes when exposed to air; however, the chief component of tarnish is sulfur, particularly hydrogen sulfide (H2S). This gas is in the air everywhere, but occurs most heavily where there is severe air pollution; it’s even worse in humid areas. Elements such as wool, felt, food (eggs, onions, olives, fruit juices, or mayonnaise), fossil fuels, cut flowers, and rubber or latex also cause tarnish, as do fingerprints.
The more often you use and wash silverware, the less often it needs to be polished. Silverware that is used often or is kept carefully stored should not need polishing more than once a year. In fact, too much polishing eventually starts removing metal.
Flatware should be washed by hand promptly after eating. Use warm water with a phosphate-free detergent, rinse, and towel off. Never put it in an automatic dishwasher; where it can get banged around, come into contact with other metals, and turn white from heat and strong detergents. Electrolysis can take place when steel and silver meet (even in dry storage), resulting in corrosion. So wash silver in a plastic tub and don’t wear rubber or latex gloves, as they are also corrosive substances.
Some people, like chemist Anne Marie Helmenstine, a writer for About.com, recommends dipping silver in a non-toxic electrochemical solution to clean it. This supposedly removes tarnish without polishing and gets tarnish out of areas not easily reached for polishing. Intricate jewelry, for instance, may have indentations and creases that are difficult to get into by hand polishing.
The cleaning solution is a bit of baking soda and salt dropped into steaming hot water in a container lined with aluminum foil. The silver is immersed; touching the foil. The tarnish visibly disappears. The article, purportedly free of tarnish, is removed, rinsed, and towel dried.
Others, however, say a salty dip will not remove heavy tarnish and that it’s not necessary or even desirable to remove every bit of tarnish from items with grooves or indentations that are expected to take on a darker hue. And the method is definitely not recommended for cleaning silver with an oxidized or French gray finish. On the other hand, some say the method is ineffective where the tarnish is thick and black.
Manual Silver Rubbing
Dips may cause pitting, and items cleaned this way absorb tarnish-producing gases. The solution can also get inside any hollow areas, sit there, and corrode the metal.
The other, and safer, way to clean silver is with a commercial polish. The hand rubbing involved in this process removes tarnish and also develops patina, a kind of coating that actually adds to the silver’s beauty.
Here’s how it’s done:
- Before applying a paste, rinse the item to remove any dirt that could prove abrasive enough to scratch.
- Don’t rinse, use a wet rag, to clean off items with hollow areas.
- With your fingers or a damp sponge or cloth, apply silver polish, preferably a type of polish that washes off, as this is water-based and less abrasive than other types.
- Try to cover an area completely with a thin layer of silver cream. Rub each area gently just until the tarnish disappears.
- Rub the polish back-and-forth rather than in a circular motion.
- Use toothpicks and Q-Tips to get into small areas like fork tines.
- On large pieces such as bowls, polish the inside area first.
- Rub away all traces of the silver cream with a very clean soft sponge or a soft cotton rag.
- Dry the silver thoroughly with a towel.
- Once the item is dry, put on a pair of cotton gloves before handling it so you don’t get fingerprints on it.
- Rub with a rouge cloth to get a good shine.
Types of polish to use
Use a good quality polish with a recognized and respected name. Wright’s, the most common brand found in supermarkets, puts out a variety of polishes, one being particularly good for removing tea and coffee stains from the inside of pots.
In general, you can’t go wrong using the least abrasive polish you can find. Throw out any polish that has dried up in the jar; it’s too abrasive. Toothpaste, tooth powder, baking soda, steel wool, and plastic scouring pads are also too abrasive.
Brands other than Wright’s are:
- 3M Tarni-Shield Silver Polish
- Twinkle Silver
- Goddard’s Silver Wash.
Silver expert Jeffrey Herman recommends Hagerty’s Silversmiths’ Wash. Herman’s article, “Silver Care,” contains probably the most thorough coverage of cleaning and storing silver (proper storage being an important element in inhibiting tarnish) on the Web. For instance, he goes into such detail as special care for silver salt shakers and removing wax from silver candle holders.