Tarnish on Silver

Pure silver is very soft, so it is usually mixed with other elements, like copper or brass, to make it stronger and more durable. Sterling silver is usually imprinted with “925,” “Ster,” or “Sterling Silver.” Silverplate is made of base metal, usually, copper or brass, with a thin layer of sterling silver electroplated onto it. This type of silver may have “EP copper” or ‘EP brass’ imprinted on it. Care of silver plate and sterling silver is the same.

Tarnish eventually forms on all household silver and is caused by a reaction between the silver and sulfur gases in the air or from contact with everyday things like wool, felt, some foods (eggs, Brussels sprouts, spinach, onions, etc.). Acids from your hands, sunlight, humidity, and heat also hasten the tarnish, making it essential to clean and polish your silver properly.

How to Polish Silver

To keep silver bright, use it! Silver should only be polished only occasionally. Although silver is sturdy, it scratches easily and is worn away a bit with every polishing.

Simple Steps to Polish Silver:

  1. Work in a well-lighted area on a non-porous surface. To prevent dents and scratches, pad the work area with an old towel.
  2. Protect the silver from the oils and acids on your skin by wearing white cotton gloves. The gloves also protect your hands from the silver polish.
  3. Before applying the silver polish, inspect the piece for a previous polishing pattern. Polish in that pattern with a light touch. Follow the silver polish’s label instructions. Avoid areas where different materials meet (such as bone or ivory handles).
  4. Apply liquid, paste, or cream with 100% cotton flannel cloth or cellulose sponge. Use a soft toothbrush or wooden cuticle stick wrapped in cotton on monograms or ornate designs. Don’t worry about removing every bit of tarnish in the crevices of ornate patterns – the darkness of the tarnish is what allows the intricacies of the pattern to really stand out.
  5. Rinse the piece when you’re finished. Be sure to remove all the polishing compound. Dry with a soft cotton cloth.

Don’t use acid dips or electrolytic cleaners – they can remove too much of the surface of your silver and may cause pieces to re-tarnish more quickly.


Stewart, Martha. Martha Stewart’s Homekeeping Handbook: The Essential Guide to Caring for Everything in Your Home. Clarkson Potter/Publishers, c. 2006.

Mendelson, Cheryl. Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House. Scribner, c. 1999.


Additional Resources

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