How To Clean Your Shells

Live Shell
Image by Alex Bellink via Flickr

Collecting seashells is one thing that is done worldwide and a favorite pastime of many. Whether you are a casual collector, or are searching for that special, elusive specimen, you will want to clean your shells before displaying.

Clean shells won’t smell and they will look more beautiful, yet still very natural. As a word of caution I suggest you make sure there is nothing living inside your shells before you bring them home. Mollusks are the sea snails that build their homes around them as they grow, and those homes are the shells you find at the beach. Usually you will know right away if the shell is occupied when you can see the creature or it’s “trap door” in the canal of the shell.

Sometimes hermit crabs will occupy an empty shell and they can hide way down inside the shell and may be difficult to see.

Take a bucket of sea water and add the shells to it and wait. If something lives inside, it will most likely begin to move and be visible after a while. Do some more collecting while you wait. If the shell is occupied, you must leave it at the beach. In many areas, collecting living seashells is against the law.  Read my page about Types of Shells to learn about what you collect.

Once your bucket of shells is home, rinse the sand off and fill a bucket, or the sink with a weak solution of bleach and water. Info on the ratio of bleach to water varies but a cup or two of bleach to a gallon of water should suffice. Drop the empty shells in and wait ten minutes or so. Be sure to rinse them well in clean water.

Although I don’t advocate collecting live shells, and in most places it’s illegal, if by chance you do bring home an inhabited shell, the How to Clean Seashells post at has some ideas for getting the dead animal out of the shell.
The echinoderms (sand dollars & sea urchins) are much more brittle than shells and must be handled carefully. Rinse them or soak in a very mild bleach solution for a minute or two and then let them dry. Putting them in the sun for a short period of time may help whiten them.

The Cowry Seashell

Shells of various species of cowries; all but ...
Image via Wikipedia

The cowry shell (also spelled ‘cowrie’) is popular on jewelry such as necklaces and bracelets and is found in varying sizes as you can see in the picture from Wikipedia.   This shell was widely used throughout the world as a form of currency.

I found another interesting use for the cowry.  According to the “Shells in History” site, In China, the number of cowrie’s stuffed into the mouths of the dead was determined by how important that person was. Commoners had rice instead of shells, but the emperor had nine cowry shells in his!

Click here and get a FREE, printable coloring page of this shell.

Cowry Shells
Cowry Shells

I doubt that the Emperor had shells of this size in his mouth (the one on the left is over 4 inches long!), but Cowries come in all sizes and according to the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum on Sanibel Island, Florida, the money cowry was the most widely circulated currency in history.

3 & 4 inch Cowry Shells, Showing underneath the Tiger Shell
3 & 4 inch Cowry Shells, Showing underneath the Tiger

The shell on the right in my photos is a Tiger Cowry and the one on the left is a Measled Cowry.  Both of mine were purchased about 20 years ago.