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The chemistry of cleaning

by Crista Sanderson, May 2018

If you are lucky enough to own any silver items, you’ll know how quickly your shiny precious metal becomes dull and eventually dark grey or even black if it is not polished regularly. This darkening process is known as tarnishing and it happens when the silver reacts with sulphur in the environment to form a coating of silver suphide on the shiny surface of your silver.

The traditional remedy is to polish the silver with a mild abrasive silver polish and a cloth. This process removes the coating of silver sulphide and restores the silver to it former lustre. Unfortunately, though, it has two downsides. The first is simply that it can be quite hard work, time-consuming, fiddly and painstaking.. The second downside is perhaps more serious. When the dark coating is removed, it is not only suphur that is being polished off. The sulphur has chemically bonded to the silver to form silver sulphide, and so some of the silver is polished off with the sulphur. You are left with a shiny – and ever so slightly smaller – piece of silver every time you polish!

There is an alternative

Fortunately, there is a simple and effective alternative. Not only will it restore silver to a bright shine, it is also quicker and far less work. Here’s how to do it.

  1. Find a plastic washing up bowl and line it with aluminium foil. Alternatively, use a disposable foil baking tray.
  2. Boil a large kettle of water.
  3. Mix 1 tablespoon full of baking powder with 1 tablespoon full of salt and tip the mixture into the foil-lined bowl.
  4. Tip in 125ml of vinegar. Be careful here because there will be a chemical reaction and the baking soda mixture will start to foam.
  5. Quickly tip in the boiling water from the kettle.
  6. Now gently lower your silver items into the liquid. You must make sure that each piece of silver touches the foil.
  7. Wait for at least 30 seconds (longer if the silver is badly tarnished) and watch as the sulphur is detached from the silver and attracted to the aluminium, where it forms aluminium sulphide.
  8. Remove the silver when it looks clean (be careful it will be hot) and buff with a clean dry cloth. Hey presto, shiny silver and hardly any work.