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Holiday Tip: A Rub-Free Solution For Silver Tarnish

December 9, 1998
Johns Hopkins University
A Johns Hopkins materials engineer explains what causes silver tarnish and how to get rid of it, without a large application of elbow grease.

Johns Hopkins Professor Offers Simple Trick to Lift Ugly Tarnish from Fine Serving Pieces

You're preparing for a holiday party or a family gathering. You've invited the guests and planned the menu. You take out your finest utensils and serving pieces -- then let out a loud groan. The silver is badly tarnished. It's time to tackle one of the season's least popular traditions: cleaning and polishing the silver.

Many people just reach for a commercial product and start rubbing. But a materials scientist at The Johns Hopkins University says a simple home recipe using baking soda, water and aluminum foil can remove stubborn stains from silver with minimal muscle power. Jerome Kruger, a professor of materials science and engineering, says this method is particularly helpful in pulling tarnish from narrow grooves and intricate patterns, places that are hard to reach with traditional cleaning methods.

Kruger is an internationally respected expert on corrosion, and tarnish -- like its cousin, rust -- is a product of the corrosion process. In fact, the term is derived from a Latin word for "gnawing," the same root that produced "rodent."

"Corrosion is the deterioration of a material, usually a metal, as a result of chemical reactions with the environment in which it is placed," Kruger explains. "Tarnish is produced when silver reacts with sulfur compounds in the air, such as the gas released when you boil eggs. Tarnish doesn't harm the metal. It's just ugly. Silver pieces are supposed to be bright, shiny and lustrous."

To remove tarnish, Kruger triggers another chemical reaction that separates the sulfur from the silver. Here are the four easy steps:

1. Wrap the entire silver object in aluminum foil. Be sure the foil makes tight contact with the silver in at least one place. Make a few cuts in the foil to allow liquid to seep into the space between the silver and the foil.

2. Place the foil-wrapped object in a large glass, enameled or stainless steel pot that can be placed on the stove.

3. Fill the container with a solution of water and 4 to 5 tablespoons of baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) per quart of water.. Use enough water to cover the silver object. Let the mixture simmer gently for 30 minutes.

4. Remove the aluminum foil. Rinse the silver and dry it thoroughly.

The tarnish in the cracks and crevices should be removed by this procedure. If not, repeat.

Although commercial silver polish products will also remove tarnish, they usually require more scrubbing. "The tarnish in the grooves is very hard to remove with commercial cleaners," Kruger says. "The reason that this process works so well is that it acts electrochemically. There is a flow of electrons between the silver object and the aluminum foil, and that's what removes the tarnish."

The electrochemical process may not entirely restore the original gleam, Kruger cautions. People who want some extra sparkle may choose to apply a small amount of commercial polish to the broad, smooth surfaces of the silver piece.

Kruger first circulated this tarnish removal recipe in a consumer cleaning tips pamphlet produced by the federal agency now known as the National Institute of Standards and Technology. He was employed by that agency before joining the faculty at Hopkins.


A color slide of Professor Kruger is available; Contact Phil Sneiderman (see above).More information on Professor Kruger's work on corrosion is available at


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The above post is reprinted from materials provided by Johns Hopkins University. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

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Johns Hopkins University. "Holiday Tip: A Rub-Free Solution For Silver Tarnish." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 9 December 1998. <>.
Johns Hopkins University. (1998, December 9). Holiday Tip: A Rub-Free Solution For Silver Tarnish. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 9, 2015 from
Johns Hopkins University. "Holiday Tip: A Rub-Free Solution For Silver Tarnish." ScienceDaily. (accessed October 9, 2015).

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