One question that arises most often when talking about collecting seashells is, how to clean them. And before we get into that, let me say that I strongly suggest collecting EMPTY, UNOCCUPIED SEASHELLS ONLY. I actually came across an article at a certain site (I will not link to) that tells you how to kill the living animal inside so you can keep the shell. THERE IS NO NEED TO COLLECT SHELLS CONTAINING LIVING CREATURES!! It’s easy enough to find loads of empty seashells. Also, in many areas it’s against the law to collect occupied shells.
Back when the kids were little, when we came home from the beach our pail of shells stayed in the garage for a while. We were busy cleaning off the chairs, cooler and car, so the shells didn’t get cleaned until a later date. I didn’t collect shells to display in my home. They were mostly collected by the kids, and I kept them because that is what moms do – hold onto the children’s treasures. Usually I would put them in the garden outside or in the top of potted plants as decor.
But, if you want to display seashells in the house, or use them in crafts or jewelry making, they do need to be washed off at the very least.
How I Clean my Seashells
Now that I live near the beach again, I have often collect shells and have been experimenting with cleaning them.
But I’ve found that they really don’t need extreme cleaning. Empty seashells (and the key here is EMPTY) will only need a rinsing or two in plain old water to remove the sand. My shells never smell bad. That will happen if there is something dead inside. Don’t collect living shells and you won’t have that problem!
When I found a big, uninhabited horse conch I wanted to see if I could find some pretty colors underneath the blackish coating that was all over it, so I began by soaking it in plain water.
The large horse conch was a true treasure but it was crusted with dried barnacles and black periostracum. I chipped away at the barnacles and scrubbed with a toothbrush. The toothbrush didn’t do much.
That cleaning job was on-going, and I never did get all the black off. It was enough to see the shell beneath which didn’t seem to contain a lot of color anyway. It sits on my kitchen shelf and I think the black coating adds interest.
Here is the same shell today, which is a couple years after I brought it home. The periostracum has dried and flaked off somewhat. It is a treasure.
How to Tell if a Shell is Occupied or “Alive”
If the mollusk is still inhabiting the shell you want, you will see a flap covering the opening. If you see claws poking out, it’s probably a hermit crab that is using the once empty shell as it’s home. Even if you see nothing at all, place the shell on the ground, or in the boat (wherever you may be) and wait a bit to see if it “walks away”. Hermit crabs can hide way inside the shell and be difficult to spot. Sometimes they can hide for a long time!
Living things can also be attached to the outside of the shell. I once found an enormous horse conch that was no longer home to the mollusk that made it, but weird moving things were attached all over the outside. So I took a photo of the shell and put it back in the water.
If You Do Want to “Clean” the Shells, Here Are Some Tips
Ideas for cleaning your seashells usually include soaking them in some sort of solution. Bleach and water – very small amount of bleach – is the common thinking. Shells that are white, or are supposed to be white can withstand a bit more bleach, or a longer soak. But, after trying the bleach thing a few times recently, I have decided NOT to use bleach. Ammonia is stinky but it will clean them without removing their colors.
I would never use anything but water on delicate things like sand dollars and sea urchins.
To bring out the colors on seashells many people apply some mineral oil once they are cleaned. It could leave them oily, and I prefer a natural look, so I usually don’t use that either.
Pam (i love shelling) has a post about using muriatic acid to restore color to shells. She lives on Sanibel Island so just imagine the shell collection! Her post claims the solution will restore color to a ruined or calcium covered shell. But, the acid is dangerous stuff and caution is required when using. As an acid, it eats away the unwanted covering and reveals the colors underneath. Personally, I will never use it.
White shells can be set outside in the sun which will bleach them whiter. Don’t do that with shells that have pretty markings or they will fade. Using bleach, even in tiny amounts, will fade colors too.
So there it is, simple as can be. Rinse your seashell collection in plain old water to remove the sand. Let them dry and display them! Need some ideas on what to do with all those seashells?
If you know of a good way to clean shells, please leave a comment. Happy beachcombing!
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