Seashells can make beautiful decorations and keepsakes from a beach vacation. However, seashells fresh from the ocean often have residues, odors, and even small creatures attached. While bleaching is a quick way to clean and whiten shells, it kills any living organisms and damages the natural coloration. Fortunately, there are methods to thoroughly clean seashells without bleaching. With a little time and elbow grease, you can have pristine seashells to display and enjoy.
Why Avoid Bleaching Seashells
Bleaching uses chemicals like chlorine or peroxide to strip away organic compounds. This process whitens and sterilizes shells quickly, but has some significant downsides:
- Bleach kills any living organisms on the shell. If you wish to keep creatures like hermit crabs as pets or study organisms like algae or small snails, bleaching will destroy them.
- It fades or ruins the shell’s natural hues. Theoriginal colors add to a shell’s beauty.
- It weakens the calcium carbonate in shells, making them more brittle and prone to breaking.
For collectors and naturalists, bleaching also destroys important contextual information about where and how a shell formed.
Supplies for Cleaning Seashells Without Bleaching
The good news is you likely have most supplies needed to get shells clean without bleach:
- Tap water
- Distilled white vinegar
- Liquid dish detergent
- Plastic container or bowl
- Old but clean toothbrush
- Rice or beans
- Plastic wrap
Optional handy supplies:
- Gloves for hands
- Safety goggles
- Respirator mask
- Stiff bristled cleaning brush
- Baby oil, mineral oil, or olive oil
- Nail brush
Let’s look at the best methods for cleaning seashells using these basic supplies.
Cleaning Seashells with Vinegar
White distilled vinegar is an effective and natural cleaner for dissolving residues on seashells. Follow these steps:
- Fill plastic container with 2 parts warm water and 1 part white vinegar.
- Soak shells in solution for at least one hour. For larger shells with more buildup, soak overnight.
- Use a toothbrush to gently scrub shells. This removes attached sand, debris, algae, and organisms.
- Rinse thoroughly with water.
- Set shells out to dry completely before displaying.
Vinegar disinfects shells while dissolving mineral deposits, grime, and salts. It helps remove foul odors from shells also. Vinegar will not harm a shell’s natural glossy layer or coloration.
You can reuse the vinegar/water mixture until it no longer bubbles or fizzes when soaking shells. Then discard it and make a fresh solution.
Using Rice to Clean Shells
For an abrasive scrub, rice can clean a seashell’s interior. Pour a few tablespoons of rice into the shell’s opening. Shake the shell for a minute or two to allow the rice to scour the interior. Tilt to pour out rice and repeat with fresh rice until coming out clean.
Run water into the opening to rinse. Do a final rinse with distilled vinegar to further clean and disinfect the interior.
Cleaning Shells with Detergent
Dish soap allows you to clean shells with your hands for a more tactile experience:
- Fill container with warm water and add a squirt of liquid dish detergent.
- Swirl water to dissolve soap.
- Holding shell carefully, dip into soapy water and use fingers to gently rub outside surfaces.
- Use a soft brush or old toothbrush to clean crevices, openings, and detailed areas.
- When exterior is clean, place opening of shell underwater and wiggle to flush out interior. Repeat if needed.
- Rinse thoroughly under warm running water.
- Allow to dry fully before displaying.
The soap helps cut through oils and grime while softening any small attached organisms. Take care not to scrub too hard on delicate areas.
Removing Attached Organisms
Seashells fresh from the ocean may have live organisms like barnacles, algae, and small snails attached. You can remove these without bleaching:
Barnacles: Use a flathead screwdriver or oyster shucker to gently pry underneath the base of barnacles to pop them off.
Acorn barnacles: These tiny white volcano-shaped shells can be scraped off with a fingernail or rubbed off under running water.
Algae and vegetation: Use an old toothbrush, nail brush, or rubbing alcohol to scrub off algae and seaweed growths.
Small snails or mollusks: Wearing gloves, use a toothpick or tweezers to pluck these creatures off the shell. Check under soft tissue remains for tiny eggs. Rinse well.
Polishing and Whitening Shells
For an extra sparkling look without bleach:
Baby oil: Rub a thin coat of mineral oil or baby oil onto the shell and let penetrate 5 minutes. Wipe off excess. The oil will gently restore luster and fill tiny scratches.
Flour: Make a paste of baking flour and vinegar. Apply to shells and rub gently with a soft cloth. Rinse and let dry. The flour is a mild abrasive to whiten and polish.
Whitening toothpaste: Use a dab of paste designed for whitening teeth. Rub gently onto shell with a soft brush or cloth. Rinse immediately so paste does not harden.
Storing and Displaying Seashells
Once shells are thoroughly clean and dry, you can craft them into art or display them around your home. Some tips:
- Wrap extra delicate shells loosely in tissue or cloth to prevent scratching.
- Lay out shells in a box of rice or beans to absorb any lingering moisture and keep free of dust.
- For decor, use museum putty or craft wire to affix shells to lamps, vases, frames, etc.
- Keep valuable shells in a curio cabinet or covered display case away from direct sunlight.
With proper care, your naturally cleaned shells can remain attractive for years to come.
When to Seek Professional Help
Some very old, fragile, or valuable shells may require expert handling. In those cases, seek help from:
- Museums with conservation departments
- Private shell collectors groups
- Taxidermists or preservationists
- Auction houses like Sotheby’s
Professionals have access to specialized cleaning methods and materials to meticulously clean while preserving a shell’s integrity. This includes techniques like:
- Chemical baths
- Enzyme soaks
- Ultrasonic cleaning
- Controlled air abrasion
They can also properly mend and fill any cracks or holes in a delicate specimen shell.
When to Bleach Shells
While avoidable for most shells, there are some cases where bleaching is preferred:
- Severely damaged interiors: If a shell has unreachable deep stains or odors, bleaching may be the only way to fully clean and sanitize it.
- Delicate cleaning: Bleach can dissolve softer inner calcium layers of thin shells that might scratch during abrasive cleaning.
- Whitening for crafts: If you need shells purely for craft projects, bleaching provides uniform whiteness.
Use bleach sparingly and rinse thoroughly when done. Limit exposure to an hour or less to prevent too much damage to the shell.
Cleaning Other Beach Finds
Shells aren’t the only treasures you can find on the seashore. You can clean these without bleach using similar methods:
Coral: Use a soft brush and plain water to gently scrub off algae or mud. Rinse well and air dry. Avoid soaking coral in liquids which can harm its porous surface.
Sea glass: Tumble pieces in a jar with sand and water to wear down sharp edges. Wash and allow to fully dry before using in crafts or decor.
Sand dollars: Never bleach delicate sand dollars. Use water and a soft brush to clear away layers of sand and debris.
Crabs/lobsters: Remove meat remains then soak in enzyme cleaner or ammonia for several days to fully clean out shell interior.
Storing Uncleaned Shells Short-Term
If you don’t have time to thoroughly clean shells right after a beach trip, proper storage is key:
- Wrap shells individually in paper towels dampened with fresh water. This keeps them moist and prevents drying.
- Place wrapped shells in an airtight plastic container or zipper bag in the refrigerator.
- Change out damp paper towels each day until ready to clean.
- Clean shells within 1-2 weeks for best results.
Seashells left sitting dry or in water will quickly become fouled and deteriorate. Refrigeration preserves shells in a humid environment for days until you can clean them.
With some simple cleaning methods and basic supplies, you can have stunning seashells to display in your home or craft into art and jewelry. Avoid the damage of bleach and preserve the shells’ natural beauty by using alternatives like vinegar, rice, rubbing alcohol, or dish soap. Employ a soft touch and some patience removing attached organisms and residues to keep seashells looking their best.