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The Best Way(s) to Clean Silver

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We put your best tips for cleaning silver to the test on a single spoon—here's which method proved most effective. 

how to clean silver
Mostly silver-plate utensils that we tried to polish unsuccessfully. 

My first attempt at testing your tips for silver cleaning resulted in a sad, sad story: The silver pieces I picked up at a flea market called The Golden Nugget (maybe the name should have been an indicator) turned out to be mostly silver-plated. So despite my best efforts and your good ideas, some of the pieces just wouldn't clean—and would have to be re-plated if I hadn't just paid $1 for each utensil and thrown in the towel. You called it when I mentioned rust, and you were right.

For the second test, I borrowed a silver spoon from Amanda Hesser and tried six different solutions in bands across it to see which one cleaned best—meaning without stripping away the good tarnish, but getting things much shinier. Here are your suggestions, what we tested, and the winning trick:

How to Clean Silver Alpha Smoot
Your suggested polishes that we put to the test. 

From the bottle:

  • The man who sold us the silver-plate utensils (not mad at him, because technically we didn't ask) recommended hubcap cleaner as the best way to get them squeaky clean. 
  • User Claire Smith recommended jewelry cleaner, and others got specific: "I think Wright's silver polish is the best," said Molly Fuller (who was seconded by Boulangere). Chocolate Be raised the bar with her recommendation: "Each and every time you polish silver with anything but Tiffany silver polish (which is very expensive and I don't know if it is still even available) you will be taking some silver off your piece." 
  • Two readers, QueenSashy and Klrcon, suggested using toothpaste to clean silver—but Boulangere said that it's "abrasive and will scratch the silver, especially if it's not silver plate."

DIY polishes:

  • "Oxidation on silver can be cleaned off with lemon juice and baking soda," Rebecca Harvey shared. 
  • Klrcon insisted that "for silverware the easiest method is the aluminum foil and baking soda trick," which is something we heard from a number of users. "You just dump it in the sink and let it soak and it does a darn good job of getting even heavily oxidized tarnish off if you leave it long enough... Then you just give it a good rinse." 
  • Others suggested varations on this solution, ranging from Pegeen's tip "to fill an aluminum pan (or one lined with aluminum foil) with hot water, add salt and baking soda, and stir to dissolve. When you add the silver pieces, a chemical reaction occurs, removing tarnish." to our art director Alexis' version, which called for just baking soda, stirred into hot water in a pan lined with aluminum foil.
How to Clean Silver  How to Clean Silver Alpha Smoot
Amanda Hesser's silver spoon which we used (left) to test the effectiveness of aforementioned cleaners; right, the results.

The Spoon Test: 

From the top of that spoon (pictured above) moving down, these are all the solutions we tested and how they fared as cleaners:

Toothpaste (blue):

  • (–) Definitely the least abrasive cleaner out of this lot, a whitening toothpaste only lightened the tarnish rather than removing it altogether—which, depending on your needs, might be enough.
  • (+) Smell is great and it's not a very annoying thing to get on your fingers because it just rinses off.
  • (+) Cost is minimal (and/or you probably already have it on hand).

Tiffany Silver Polish Spray (white): 

  • (+) Both highly effective and gentle, this silver cleaner removed the brown tinge of tarnish without getting rid of any of the good stuff. 
  • (–) Obtaining it was easy in New York City, where you can just swing by the Tiffany's store even if you're wearing sneakers, but wouldn't be as simple to come by in other markets.
  • (+) Spray feature made it easy to coat a piece quickly, and would have been really nice if you were cleaning a lot at once. 
  • (–) At $20 a bottle, it was the cheapest item in the Tiffany's store, but pricey comparatively.

Wright's Silver Cream (pink): 

  • (+) With a strength comparative to the Tiffany's cleaner, Wright's was very effective right from the bottle—though it did require a little more time to get a high shine. 
  • (–) Sponge applicator doesn't make total sense when you're cleaning forks rather than earrings, but did the great work of keeping it mostly off your hands. 
  • (+) One of the lower-priced off-the-shelf cleaners, Wright's is easy to obtain at any drug store or pharmacy and consistently low in cost.

Lemon juice + baking soda (foamy):

  • (–) Relatively abrasive, especially for an all-natural cleaner, this combination removed almost all of the tarnish (even some of the good kind) and left a slightly dulled sheen. 
  • (+) Made by mixing up two common pantry items, this one is something you'll always have on hand—and very easy to come by if you don't.
  • (+) The fizzing effect was great fun. 

Hubcap cleaner (clear):

  • (–) Far and away the most aggressive of the cleaners we tested, hubcap cleaner left the most silvery, shiny section—but stripped away all the good tarnish and even left a strange splotch.
  • (–) Dug up on a back shelf at Home Depot, this wasn't the easiest bottle to source in New York. 
  • (–) Something about rubbing hubcap cleaner on a utensil you wish to eat off of later just feels...wrong. 

Aluminum foil + baking soda + hot water (underwater in left image):

  • (+) A short soak in this solution loosened the dark tarnish so that it rubbed right off, but left just the right amount of lighter coloring that we love.
  • (+) Being mostly water based, it was the least gunky solution to deal with.
  • (–) As the baking soda and foil reacted with the silver, the whole bath gave off a slightly strange, dirty scent.
  • (+) Though it required a bit of set-up—lining a dish with foil, then dumping in baking soda and hot water—we could see how this would be the easiest way to polish a mess of silverware by far.
How to Clean Silver
The Electric Kool-Aid—I mean, the Baking Soda + Foil Test. 

The Verdict?

While true silver polishes, such as both Tiffany's and Wright's, cleaned the spoon very much to our liking (meaning thoroughly but without excessive abrasion), nothing compared in ease, effectiveness, and lack of mess than the combination of baking soda, hot water, and aluminum foil. It's all-natural, effective because of a chemical reaction (which we geekily love), and seemed impossible to mess up. We also loved how simple it would be for cleaning a whole pile of silver. 

If you happen to live near a Tiffany's and don't mind forking over for a bottle, or have a tub of Wright's on hand for cleaning earrings, they wouldn't be bad in a pinch. Our tube of toothpaste didn't seem very effective, but the real concern would be that every tube is different so the potency would be hard to moniter. Both lemon juice + baking soda and hubcap cleaner were so powerful we'd be scared to try them on good silver—and the latter was just a little gross to consider for untensils.

How to Clean Silver

How to use baking soda + hot water + aluminum foil to clean your silver:

  • Line a casserole dish or shallow vessel with aluminum foil (or obtain an aluminum dish).
  • Sprinkle in a generous amount of baking soda.
  • Add the silver pieces, being sure that each piece touches the foil. 
  • Pour hot water on top, wait until it cools, and then remove each piece and rub clean with a rag. 

First photo by Bobbi Lin; all others by Alpha Smoot.

Tags: DIY Home, Kitchen Hacks, Home Decor, Entertaining, On the Cheap