How to Clean Seashells Controversy

horse conch on shelf

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.

seashells in the garden
Seashells make good garden accents

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.

florida horse conch
Florida Horse Conch Seashell
cleaning horse conch

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.

horse conch cleaning
The shell a couple years later

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!

old worn conch and whelk shells
Worn horse conch and two broken knobbed whelks – all have hermit crabs inside!

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.

horse conch seashell
Empty Horse Conch shell is home for barnacles

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?

seashells in a big round bowl
My Seashell Collection (part of it!)

If you know of a good way to clean shells, please leave a comment. Happy beachcombing!

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30 thoughts on “How to Clean Seashells Controversy

  1. Pingback: Early Boating Day to Beat the Thunderheads – Seashells by Millhill

  2. Mr.Sham

    I like seashells very much. Because seashells enhance the beauty of my bed room and dining room. But most of the time it seemed time consuming and troublesome to clean up. But now I am free from some worries after your article. Here’s how to clean Seashells Controversy. And he has given many pictures in the article so it is very useful to understand. Now I can clean seashells very easily and quickly.

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  4. Hollie Boutilier

    How about acetic acid (vinegar)? Has anyone tried it? I suppose a dilute solution would be best. I found a netted olive shell, and that is how I found your blog. Very nice tips! I am a Florida native.

    1. Pam

      I generally use plain old water and never have a problem with a smell. I suppose diluted vinegar would clean them but then they might smell like vinegar… ? I like the natural look, but let me know if you try it and like it! I love olive shells but only find them rarely where I live. Thanks for reading!

  5. Susan L Davis

    After a general water bath/cleaning I use Murphy’s oil soap in water and soak the shells overnight or longer. This leaves a nice light coating of shine, and a pleasant smell.

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  7. Terri

    I actually clean mine by using just regular dish detergent and letting them soak in it for a day or two. Let them dry out afterward on a towel and that’s it! No stiink!

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  13. Joyce E. Faux

    when in my 20’s and living in puerto rico i became quite a shell collector. this was in 1968 so collecting live shells was not a crime like today. i learned alot about cleaning and getting the conk meat out. i came to use simply liquid amonia. it never damaged the natural luster of the shell. i still have most of the shells, my children now have some also and because i feel, to this day , extremely quilty for killing all that beautiful sea life, i try to honor the shells by displaying them in my house and garden. they still have that same beautiful luster to this day. oh, i just turned 70. i say amonia works pretty darn good. i was also born and raised in maine and on my wedding day is when my husband and i flew to puerto rico where he was stationed in the coast guard. we lived there for 2 yrs. the amonia advice was from local fisherman and i was told of course to never mix it with bleach.

    1. Dustytoes

      Hi Joyce and thanks for the ammonia advice. It’s such strong stuff I imagine it would work. Good to know it does not hurt the color of the shells. Don’t feel too guilty about collecting live shells, I think many people do it and don’t think twice about the creature inside. It’s one of the reasons I write this blog. I did it myself long ago when I didn’t think! Then the shell began to smell. I never connected the beauty of the seashell to the creature who worked so hard to make it his home. Like I said, sometimes we just don’t think. Now we have learned, and we honor the little mollusks by doing something good.
      Thanks for the comment, and enjoy your seashell collection!

    2. Tami James

      Hi Joyce, thank you for your post. I recently became a seashell fanatic and have been trying to figure out how to restore the color. I will try the ammonia on a couple, and maybe the muratic acid on others before I do the really big ones…there’s just so much to learn

  14. Lisa Schuck

    So I was reading different articles on how to clean our shells. We have over 100 shells that we found in Siesta Key as my daughter loves unicorns so we collected tons of auger and cerith “unicorn horn” shells. After we got them home and I cleaned them to remove the odor, they eventually all turned into a grey/white color. I had concerns about the muriatic acid as my husband has used the material in his work. As we spoke, he suggested our tile/stone enhance/sealer we have for our stone entryway. So I have a quart of Tile Guard Enhance and Sealant that I ended up pouring into a bowl. Sections at a time, I placed the shells in the bowl for a few moments, took them out and rubbed them in a soft rag. Then I took a toothbrush and brushed the solution on each shell. After 24 hours, it has dryed/cured and amazingly all the color came back! I used gloves, but this is safe to use and not harmful like the muriatic acid! I don’t see that this brand of enhance/sealant is sold at Lowes anymore but I see that they sell MIracle Sealant Enhance/Sealer at Home Depot. It is important that you purchase the one with an enhancer. Think about it, this stuff is for stone, travertine, slate, which I feel is basically similar to the seashell material. So it has enhanced the color and now also sealed it for water protection! We are so happy at the beauty of the shells!

    1. Dustytoes

      Hi Lisa, thanks for that tip to enhance shell colors. I know that some of my larger shells have faded because long ago I didn’t know that the sun would do that to them. I usually rinse my seashell finds really well in plain water and show them off in their natural state. But spiral type shells could have something hidden inside, so I like to clean them out a little better, and as you say, that can dull them a bit.
      Your post is a great tip for me and my readers… thanks!

    2. Patricia McQueen

      Hi Lisa,
      Thank you for sharing that. I really don’t want to work with acid. I am new to visiting the ocean, I’ve always lived in the city. I will try the suggestions you made thanks again.

  15. Victoria Berdnik-Atkinson

    Dawn dish detergent, tap water, toothbrush, painter sponges, magic eraser, and polish with mineral oil

  16. Melissa

    Pam’s method is pretty much the best way to clean shells. I have found a “green” muriatic acid at Walmart. I don’t know how “green” muriatic acid can really be, but it is a little less harsh than the regular stuff. I will get a wide mouth glass jar or bowl. I buy metal BBQ tongs or a slotted spoon from the dollar store. I do a 5 second dip into the acid. I immediately immerse the shell into a bucket of tap water. I roll it around. I put it into a second container of tap water and roll it around and leave it in there for at least an hour. When you take the shell out and it dries you can use clear food grade mineral oil to restore the luster. Works great. When you use the muriatic acid method make sure to do it outside with heavy rubber gloves and a dust mask so you get no fumes into your lungs. I am one of those people that even wears protective goggles and has my garden hose next to me on standby. Be careful where you dispose of the acid because it can damage your patios. I always use the bleach and water cleaning method before any muriatic dips baths. Again, I enjoy your blog.

    1. Dustytoes

      It’s so funny that you just wrote this, as I was reading Pam’s (“I love shelling”) blog because I need to get going and clean my recent collection. She has a good section about cleaning the black off a horse conch. Thanks for that info on the muriatic acid. I may try it one day.

  17. Wandering Iris

    We lived on an island for three years back in the 1980’s. We hunted shells. The locals told us to bury the shells in a sand hill and the ants would clean them. We did this and it worked wonderfully! It does take a few weeks,

      1. Dee

        You don’t want to step on a pile of fire ants. They are as vicious as they look, even in NC. I absolutely hate those little varmints!

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