The Best Way to Clean Seashells Without Ruining Them

Incoming surf and seashells on Sanibel Island, Florida, USA
Danita Delimont / Getty Images

So you've picked up a seashell or two while on vacation at the beach. Many people do. After all, they make a nice inexpensive souvenir, right? You bet, except if they're not cleaned properly. There's nothing worse than unpacking your bags after a beach getaway and getting whacked in the face with that fishy ocean smell. A good cleaning is all that is needed to destroy any odors the seashells might have. Knowing how to clean your seashells properly will not only get rid of the smell, but you may find you have a nicer looking shell without any algae or barnacles covering it.

Collecting live shells in Florida is prohibited without a proper license (live shells are shells that contain a living organism inside). "Dead" shell specimens, are empty inside and can be picked up freely.

How to Clean Seashells

Cleaning Live Shells

While it's preferable and way more eco-friendly to never collect "live" shells, occasionally you or your children will inadvertently pick up one. If you find that you've picked up a live shell, it is best to return it to the ocean. These are living creatures and by "cleaning" out their shell you are basically killing them. However, if cleaning out a live shell doesn't bother you, here are the best ways to remove the animal tissue inside.

  1. Burying: This is probably the easiest, but takes a couple of months. Locate an area in your yard where you don't mind digging a hole. Bury the seashells about 18 inches (deep enough so animals will not dig them up). They need to remain buried until insects, larvae, worms, and bacteria remove all the tissue. The longer you leave them the better.
  2. Freezing: Place seashells in a water-tight Ziplock bag, cover with water, then place in the freezer (just like you would do to fresh fish). When you are ready to clean them, let the bag thaw at room temperature until completely defrosted. You should be able to grab hold of the animal inside and gently pull it out. Then, clean the shell itself.
  3. Boiling: Place seashells in a pot, add water, and bring to a boil. Let boil for a few minutes (the more shells the longer). Use tongs to remove one shell at a time. So you don't burn yourself, grasp shell with gloves or a towel and gently pull out the animal tissue inside.
  4. Microwave: As long as you don't mind the smell in your microwave, this is an easy method. The time it takes to cook your seashells can really vary by microwave, so just try it until you figure out how long for each shell. Grasp cooked shells with gloves or a towel and gently pull out the animal tissue inside.

Cleaning Dead Shells

Once you've removed the animal tissue inside your shell or your shell never had any, to begin with, you're ready to clean the outside. These steps are a whole lot easier.

  1. Bleaching: Soak the seashells in a 50-50 solution of bleach and water. The length of time depends on the type of seashells and the number of seashells being cleaned. Just be sure to remove them when the periostracum is gone. The periostracum is the flaky, leathery covering that covers most live seashells. Many professionals warn against bleaching because the shell will absorb the smell and that can't be gotten rid of. Also, it can ruin the color. So, if you are bleaching your shells, don't leave them in the solution too long.
  2. Barnacles: If there are still barnacles and other matter on the seashells, you can use an instrument, such as a dental pick, to chip off the material. Other useful tools are a toothbrush, grill brush, wire brush or a water pick.
  3. Rough Edges: If the tips of the shell are rough or unsightly, use a rotary grinder or sandpaper to smooth out the sharp spikes.
  4. Shining: If you want to give your seashells a nice finish, you can wipe them with a mineral or baby oil.
  5. Toothpaste: Interestingly enough, teeth and seashells have a lot in common. Both are made out of similar porous materials and therefore toothpaste makes a great shell cleaner. Smear all sides of the shell with toothpaste and let it sit for up to 5 hours. This will ensure that the toothpaste has enough time to soak in. Once the toothpaste has hardened over the shell, scrub it off with a toothbrush.
  6. Coat the Shell: After you have cleaned the shell, spray it with a satin-finish polyurethane or coat it with clear nail polish. This will ensure that your shell's organic look remains preserved and colors stay shiny and vibrant.

Cleaning Sand Dollars and Sea Biscuits

Immediately soak your sand dollar or sea biscuit in water. After a while the water will start to turn brown, change the water and soak them again. Keep doing this until the water doesn't turn brown. Then, soak them in a 50-50 bleach and water solution for about 10 minutes. Rinse with fresh water, then set them out to dry.

Make sure you don't leave them in the bleach for too long or they may crumble. Sand dollars and sea biscuits are very fragile so the more you bleach them the weaker they become. To harden a sand dollar or sea biscuit mix equal parts glue and water, then brush over the shells and let dry. Once hardened, these shells make great additions to craft projects, home decor, or to give as a gift. 

Cleaning Starfish

Do not take live starfish from the ocean. They are living organisms and it is detrimental to nature to remove them from their homes. However, if you are lucky enough to stumble upon a dead starfish, it is important to preserve it right away. Start by soaking the starfish in a 70% Isopropyl Alcohol solution overnight, if it is a big starfish you may want to leave it in an extra day.

After soaking, let it dry out in the sun. Be sure to weigh down the legs so that it doesn't start to curl up as it dries. Make sure to use something small, like a coin, so that it doesn't damage the starfish. Once it's dry, your starfish is ready to be displayed.

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