How Do You Clean Seashells Without Bleach?

Collecting beautiful seashells while visiting a beach is a pastime of many. Some of these seashells make it to the display cabinet; others are used in arts and crafts, all of them need to be cleaned first. Most people use bleach to clean them, but how do you clean seashells without bleach?

Most people who collect seashells will use bleach to clean them. Alternative methods of cleaning seashells without bleach include the following tried and tested ways:

  • Muriatic Acid
  • Vinegar
  • Boiling Water
  • Hydrogen Peroxide
  • Fire Ant Nest
  • Baking Soda
  • Toothpaste
  • Mineral Oil
  • Lighter Fluid

Collecting seashells for whatever reason is typically a very satisfying hobby. Most of them will only need a good scrub with warm water and soap before they can be displayed or used as art. Others require a more extensive cleaning regime due to an abundance of sea scum and gunk found in and on them.

How Do You Clean Seashells Without Bleach?

Seashells rejected by the sea make for the most beautiful display and art pieces. To think that a sea creature called the shell home, and you get to take these beautiful “homes” to your home, is what makes collecting seashells magical.

Some of the seashells that you pick up on the beach will have a periostracum layer on the outside of the shell and, together with algae, will be the most difficult elements to get rid of when cleaning your shells.

Most people know that you can use bleach to remove the gunk and smells from a seashell. But what if you are out of bleach? Let’s look at alternative ways to clean the houses of the creatures of the deep. 

Please note that there may be barnacles or other sea materials left on the shell after using some of these methods listed below. You can use a brush or dentist picks to remove them should any be remaining after treatment.

Cleaning Seashells With Muriatic Acid

Muriatic acid, or any acid for that matter, used to clean seashells is a controversial topic.

Some shell collectors refer to using muriatic acid on shells as moving over “to the dark side” of shell cleaning, as the acid removes/dissolves some of the calcium carbonate shells in the process.

Others believe that a quick bath in the acid cleans it thoroughly and brings out the underlying color in faded shells.

It can’t be denied that this method of shell cleaning is the fastest and easiest way to get rid of barnacles and algae, bringing calcified and discolored shells back to their original color.

When using muriatic acid, you have to take certain precautions to protect yourself, as it’s a dangerous substance to work with:

  • Protective Goggles

  • Protective Gloves

  • Protective Clothing

  • Protective Mask

Take care that your neighbors don’t spot you in the backyard dressed in your protective gear. They might think that you are either germ conscious or have suddenly turned into a science nut doing dangerous backyard experiments.

I mentioned the backyard as you must use the acid in a well-ventilated area. Direct contact can cause chemical burns on your skin, and it should under no circumstances be inhaled – it can damage your respiratory organs irreversibly.

Be sure never to mix the acid with chlorine bleach, as the combination of the two will produce toxic chlorine gas. Neutralizing the acid can be done by adding a base – sodium bicarbonate – where you add the baking soda to the acid mix until it stops reacting.

After neutralizing the muriatic acid, there are many ways to dispose of it without danger.

Should you still be interested in using the powerful yet dangerous muriatic acid to clean your shells, here are some directions for use:

  • 1 Cup Muriatic Acid
  • 3 Cups of Water
  • Tongs
  • Bucket of Water
  • Baking Soda
  • Toothbrush

Put the shell in the mixture, using the tong for a couple of seconds (3-10 seconds seem to be the norm), dip in the bucket of water mixed with baking soda to neutralize the excess acid.

Turning calcified seashells into their original color is what you can expect from this science experiment and the cleaning of the shell.

Small shells can be dipped for 1-2 seconds, while thicker shells like conches can be done up to 8 seconds and may an extra dipping round. After dipping the shells, use a toothbrush to remove any leftover gunk.

Check out this video, see firsthand muriatic acid’s cleaning abilities, and decide if you would use it on your shells.

Cleaning Seashells With Vinegar

Seashells often have a very pungent odor when uncleaned; the smell blends in well at the beach but not so well in your clean-smelling house. Vinegar can be used to scrub seashells, but it’s best not to soak them in the vinegar.

The exoskeletons of sea animals are known as mollusks – commonly referred to as seashells. The main composition material is calcium carbonate (also the main ingredient found in limestone), which animals use as a home until they outgrow them.

When you leave the shells in vinegar, the following will happen:

  • Carbon dioxide bubbles start to form due to the reaction between the acetic acid found in the vinegar and the calcium carbonate in the seashell.

While having a cleansing effect when left for a few minutes, a long exposure will lead to the shell dissolving. Before fully disintegrating, they will become thin and fragile.

The best and most effective way is to take a small brush, dip it in the vinegar, and clean the shells manually. This method is also highly effective in getting rid of the smells and leftover materials from the previous owners.

Ensure to wash the shell with soap and warm water after treating it with vinegar, and rub some mineral oil on the shell to give it an awesome shine.

How Do You Clean Seashells Without Bleach 01

Cleaning Seashells By Boiling Them

The simplest method of cleaning seashells without bleach is to get the following materials together and boil them:

  • Large Pot
  • Water
  • Tongs
  • Tweezer/Dental Toothpicks
  • Mineral Oil (If you have any on hand)

Preparation and instructions:

  • Take your lovely, newly harvested seashells, and place them in a water bath for a day or two – the longer, the better.
  • Fill the pot with room temperature water.
  • Place the shells into the water – the reason why you don’t put the shells into boiling water is because some may crack.
  • Ensure that the last seashell is covered with at least 3 inches of fluid.
  • Bring the water to boil and leave it for 5-10 minutes, depending on the size of the shells.
  • Use the tongs to take them out and lay them on a towel to cool down.
  • When cooled down, take your tweezers or dental toothpicks, check if any shell contains some sea gunk, and remove it.
  • Apply mineral oil to the shells – rub it on with your hands or a paper towel.
  • Use as desired.

Cleaning Seashells With Hydrogen Peroxide

Hydrogen peroxide (check it out on Amazon below) is another cleaning wonder that can be used to clean your “new” seashells. The invasive properties (oxidizing agent) found in the hydrogen peroxide make light work of any bacterial cleanup.

Fill a bucket or bowl with the seashells you picked up on the beach and pour the peroxide so that there’s about a two-inch cover above the last shell. Leave the shells for a few hours before taking them out and rinsing them with soap water before drying them on a towel.

When the shells are nice and dry, apply some mineral oil with your hand or a paper towel, and see how the oil brings out the color even more.

Cleaning Seashells By Placing Them On Fire Ant Nest

Other inventive shell cleaners swear by this method. Especially when you are struggling to get rid of items inside the shell, you know that little pieces of matter responsible for the most incredible stink.

When struggling to clean the shell’s inside, place them on a fire ant nest for a week or two, and let the ants do the rest. The meaty parts causing the stink will be no more.

Additionally, you can bury your shells underneath a layer of dirt. Either the bugs will take care of the matter, or natural decomposition will occur.

After taking it out after a month or so, use any of the cleaning methods above for a rinsing clean before applying some mineral oil to complete the cleaning process.

Cleaning Seashells With Baking Soda

I love how you can use items found in your home to clean seashells. Baking soda is such an item. There are two ways to use sodium bicarbonate to clean your seashells. You can combine them if one method does not completely clean the shells.

Method number one:

  • Take 2 cups of water
  • Add 2 tbsp of baking soda
  • Add a dash of salt
  • Mix until fully dissolved

Place the seashells in the mixture for 10-20 minutes – you should see the algae, sand, and mud come off almost immediately. Wash the shells with warm water and soap before letting them dry on a towel. Add the finishing touch by applying mineral oil.

Method number two:

  • Mix the baking soda with water to a toothpaste consistency

Spread the mixture on the shells leave it on for a couple of hours before washing it off with warm water and soap. Let the seashells dry on a towel before treating them to a mineral oil massage.

Cleaning Seashells With Toothpaste

Another staple product found in most homes is a tube of toothpaste. If you don’t want to use harsh bleaches, acids, or corroding vinegar on your shells, toothpaste could be your best option.

Directions for use:

  • Smear the seashells with a light layer of toothpaste.
  • Leave the toothpaste on for at least 5 hours – overnight if possible.
  • Take a glass of warm water and an old toothbrush and start scrubbing at the hard layer, taking your time to clean all the nooks and crannies.
  • Take some warm water and rinse the shells properly before letting them dry on a towel.
  • Treat them to a mineral oil spa by rubbing the oil in with your fingers or paper towel.

How To Protect Seashells After Cleaning Them?

When you have cleaned your seashells, managing to remove both inside and outside residue (sea scum), it’s a great idea to protect your seashells in the future.

Bringing out the seashells color while also protecting it can be done by applying some of the following:

Mineral Oil And Lighter Fluid 

As you may have noticed when reading the article, after each cleaning method, it is advised to treat your clean seashells with mineral oil.

Mineral oil is used by thousands of seashell collectors, as it does not change into a yellowish color after a while (stay clear from using vegetable/cooking oil as it discolors and can produce a stinky smell after a time.)

Many sea shellers recommend that you mix the lighter fluid with your mineral oil. Mineral oil is viscous and can have trouble penetrating the microscopic pores in the shell. The recommended mixture is 50/50.

The lighter fluid makes the mineral oil less dense and allows for easier penetration into the top layer of the seashell. After helping the mineral oil to penetrate the shell, the lighter fluid evaporates, leaving a dry shell surface that’s not sticky due to any residual mineral oil.

Use a brush to clean the shell, remove everything inside with dental picks, or use any recommended methods listed above before applying the mixture.

Baby oil works for some, while others claim it starts to smell after a while. Stick with the winners and use mineral oil (almond oil is a good substitute.)

Acrylic Clear/Gloss/Matte Finish

Many shell collectors and arts and crafts artists choose to protect their cleaned shells by spraying them with one or a couple of layers of acrylic clear spray.

Others prefer to safeguard their collections by using a clear acrylic gloss spray or matte. Polyurethane sprays are also an excellent option in keeping your shells shiny and protected against the elements.


The most controversial cleaning method – muriatic acid – may be the most dangerous to apply to you and the seashell, but it’s the most effective when used in a controlled manner.

Controlled manner refers to wearing protective gear at all times, not keeping the shells in the acid for long periods, and disposing of the acid only after it’s neutralized by baking soda.

The other methods listed may work a charm, and if one method doesn’t clean the seashell completely, jump to another until your shell is as clean as possible. Adding mineral oil to the shell when clean will preserve the shell’s color and also protect it by adding a protective layer.