30% Off Sitewide Mother's Day Early Bird Sale

Why Sterling Silver Tarnishes

If you’ve ever tried to rescue a beloved piece of jewelry, you know how hard it can be to clean tarnished silver! Sterling silver is one of the most popular materials for jewelry — it holds the light beautifully, makes delicate mounts for stones and more resistant to dents and scratches than fine silver or high-karat gold.

There’s just one problem: sterling silver tends to tarnish. How many of us have taken out a beloved piece to see it stained and blackened? Did you ever take off a pair of earrings or a bracelet and see the tell-tale marks of tarnish beginning to spread across the metal?

In this post, we’ll talk about sterling silver tarnish, why it happens, and what you can do to prevent it. We’ll also cover the best kept secrets on how to clean your tarnished silver jewelry!

What Does Tarnish Mean?

Tarnish is to silver as rust is to iron. It’s a chemical reaction that eats away at your precious jewelry, changing color and texture and eventually weakening its structure. Small pieces, like hooks on earrings or narrow rings, can eventually tarnish right through. The lasting effects of tarnish can cause an object to disfigure, lose some of its silver, or all of the silver entirely!

To understand tarnish better, you need to understand sterling silver better. I promise this will only take a moment, and besides, it’s kind of fascinating (or maybe that’s just me?).

Sterling silver is a mix of metals. It’s always at least 92.5% silver, but silver on its own is a bit like gold on its own: beautiful, but soft. A pure silver ring dents easily. A pure silver brooch will deform and twist. So the other 7.5% of sterling silver is copper, but in some cases designers will use nickel or zinc. These additives strengthen the silver so it’s less likely to damage during wear.

Why Does Sterling Silver Tarnish?

Unlike gold, which never tarnishes, special chemicals added to your silver, like copper, react with oxygen in the air to dull your bright silver jewelry. Anything that makes the copper more reactive will make tarnish more likely: heat, moisture, radiation, chemicals, sweat, or being stored in the bathroom can make your jewelry more likely to tarnish. Normal atmospheric moisture and room temperature is enough for sterling silver to tarnish over time.

Salt, acids like lemon juice or vinegar, or even cosmetics and perfumes can make your silver more likely to tarnish. Lots of foods contain acids that eat away at the copper in sterling silver — including ones you might not expect, like salad dressings. Tap water, which contains chlorine, can do it too! Even the salt in our sweat increases the chances of damage.

Sunlight — UV radiation — is kind of a mixed bag when it comes to jewelry; too much harsh sunlight can kickstart tarnish or make it worse.

How to Keep Silver From Tarnishing

Sterling silver is sadly prone to tarnish, but there are things you can do to keep it tarnish-free as long as possible are my top tips:

Store your sterling silver properly

Store your jewelry in a jewelry box, ideally one lined with felt. Personally, I think this looks classic and gorgeous, but it also sucks water out of the air better than almost any other material. Can you use those little silica sachets you sometimes find in packaging? Yes, that’s actually a good idea, but I’d buy them from a craft shop to keep your precious jewelry extra safe.

It will help protect your sterling silver jewelry against impacts as well, and a fully felt-lined box will be completely dark on the inside. That’s important because the UV from sunlight can be strong enough to start the tarnish process. If you have especially big sterling silver pieces, or prized pieces that were special gifts or passed down through family generations that you particularly want to keep safe, consider keeping them separately in their own felt pouches inside the jewelry box.

Try to keep sterling silver pieces with other silver jewelry. Mixing them with fine silver is — ahem — fine, but don’t mix them with lower grades of silver like silver plate.

Keep your sterling silver away from water

This is the most important point for most folks. Don’t let your sterling silver get wet! If it does, dry it thoroughly as soon as you can. Do not put it away wet, or leave it in moist air. Remember, tarnish is a chemical reaction ignited by water, so the dryer you keep your sterling silver, the better.

Common culprits are obvious things like rainy weather, washing (it’s tough to wash your hands and keep a bracelet really dry) and beverage spills. Keeping your jewelry in the bathroom is an issue too. I know I mentioned this earlier, but it bears repeating: if you keep your sterling silver jewelry in the bathroom it will most likely tarnish.

Honestly, it’s worth putting the box in your bedroom if you can. It’s also best not to sleep in your jewelry. This is the number one cause of lost stones, damaged mounts, and more. I’d always recommend putting it away before you go to bed.

Don’t expose it to harsh chemicals

Don’t clean your sterling silver with anything harsh. If you use harsh chemicals to clean anything else, take off your jewelry to do it. All household cleaning chemicals are too harsh to let near your sterling silver. Drip from a spray nozzle can eat into rings, residue in the air from cleaners can affect earrings and necklaces.

Clean your sterling silver with the right products

You need to clean your jewelry regularly to keep it in good condition and reduce the risk of tarnish. Ideally, you’ll just use a polishing cloth as it’s least abrasive and you control the delicacy of cleaning with your hands. My other recommendation is scrubbing out the fine grooves of your personalized jewelry with a clean, dry, never-used soft bristle toothbrush for those tougher to reach crevices.

You may think showering with your jewelry on simultaneously cleans it, but you already know from Tip #2 to keep your precious sterling silver AWAY from water at all costs! Further, the chemicals in shower gels, shampoo and conditioner is a recipe for damaging your jewelry! Don’t even think about putting your beloved piece in the dishwasher…

Some recommend using toothpaste to clean jewelry. Contrary to the YouTube “experts” out there, I do not recommend it! Toothpaste is too abrasive and will remove the silver in the process of cleaning tarnish. Over time it will scar your jewelry, and render it more vulnerable to tarnish in the future.

How to Clean Tarnished Sterling Silver

Most sterling silver jewelry that has mildly tarnished can be effectively cleaned with a polishing cloth. If the tarnishing is a bit more serious, use a mixture of cloudy ammonia and warm, slightly soapy water of which I’ve included the detailed instructions to follow. Make sure you thoroughly rinse and dry the piece afterward! Remember that over-hot water and soap residues can damage some stones mounted in your jewelry, as well as the metal itself.

For serious stain and tarnish, it is not worth risking damage to the jewelry and best to find a professional who can safely restore it.

Bonus Surprise! You May Just Find Something New in My Sterling Silver Collection!

So, does sterling silver tarnish? Unfortunately, yes. But mild tarnish can be cleaned at home at little to no cost. Follow our prevention guidelines and cleaning tips to keep your sterling silver jewelry shining bright for years to come!

It holds the light in a way nothing else does, even fine silver; and while it’s lustrous it’s also strong. For me as a designer, that means I can make more delicate designs and know they’ll stand the test of time. Hopefully, for you, it means there’s jewelry that reflects more moods and experiences, speaks to more of your life, and reflects the texture of your relationships better – like the new love grows necklace!

I’ve designed my sterling silver rings and necklaces of all styles and types – my hope is that you can find something that can replace a damaged or tarnished piece, or that you can put on alongside some of the pieces you already wear and love!

© 2022 Lisa Leonard Designs. All Rights reserved.