What Causes Tarnished Metal?

Tarnished Metal

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue…

The day has come to go digging through the old jewelry box and take out that ‘something old’ for the big day. Whether you’re sorting through jewelry in search of Grandma’s silver locket, Cousin Sylvia’s beloved gold bangle, or Great Aunt Margaret’s white gold ring, a silent danger may be lurking. Tarnish!

The last thing you want is to locate the heirloom, hold it to the light, and find it tarnished and unrecognizable. Tarnished metal is common, however, and if your jewelry has become less shiny than you’re used to, don’t worry. There are many ways to clean jewelry to get it gleaming again!

But what is tarnish, and how is it caused? Read on to learn about the science behind tarnished jewelry, and how to prevent tarnishing from ruining your keepsakes!

What Causes Metal To Tarnish?

So, your once-shiny ring is tarnished – but why? It turns out that tarnished jewelry is the result of a chemical reaction, and it’s incredibly natural. You may have heard that oxygen plays a role, and that’s one part of what causes your jewelry to look duller over time.

When a metal, such as silver, reacts with a non-metal, a chemical reaction takes place. In the case of silver, the sulfur in the air we breathe is often the culprit. When silver is exposed to sulfur, it forms a new chemical called silver sulfide, which is dark in color.

When silver becomes tarnished, it is because a layer of this dark silver sulfide is forming on the surface of your jewelry. Even a thin layer of silver sulfide is enough to cover the shiny surface of your silver and make it look darker and less metallic. Since sulfur is in the air, it makes sense that your silver would be exposed to it over time and that even unworn or untouched jewelry would become tarnished if exposed to the air.

Why does your silver seem to tarnish more frequently than gold? Gold tends to be a purer substance and contains fewer metals that react with sulfur in the air. The purer your gold, the less susceptible it will be to such a reaction, and it’s more likely to stay shiny, no matter how it’s stored.

Almost every metal has the potential to become tarnished, however. We often refer to this process as corrosion.

How To Prevent Tarnishing

While the process of metal corrosion may be natural, it’s still no fun to watch your favorite jewelry lose its everyday sparkle. Luckily, there are ways to prevent tarnish from affecting your favorite rings, necklaces, and bracelets.


Now that we know that the reaction comes from chemicals in the air, one big key to preventing tarnished metal is proper storage. As tempted as you may be to keep your favorite pieces on display, a dark, airtight space might be the best home for any jewelry that is susceptible to corrosion.

Special jewelry boxes, designed to prevent tarnishing, can be key to keeping your metal safe. These boxes can be made of metal or wood, and are often lined with a soft material such as felt. Try to avoid storing jewelry in plastic containers, as this can cause friction, which will wear precious surfaces away. If you travel a lot, it’s also important to take note that you have to properly store your jewelry and don’t just pack them together in your luggage. You can check out jewelry travel cases and other travel essentials from Roam Often if you’re an avid traveler.

Want to up your storage game even further? Save those silica gel packets and put them to good use by storing them with your precious metal jewelry. Silica absorbs moisture and will slow the tarnishing process even further. If you live somewhere humid, this might be an important step toward keeping your favorite pieces safe and shiny.

Sort By Metal Type

Don’t simply throw all of your precious metal into an airtight box, however. It’s also important to be aware of which metals are stored where.

Metals also interact with other metals and storing silver with gold, even in an airtight space, can cause reactions that will ruin the look and quality of your jewelry. If possible, separate all of your jewelry by metal type, keeping silver with silver, gold with gold, and costume pieces somewhere else entirely.

Avoid Other Reactions

To prevent tarnishing while wearing your precious metal, you might want to pay special attention to what else you’re wearing. As you’ve probably realized by now, metal loves to react with just about anything, and body care products are no exception.

Substances such as body lotions, perfumes, and hair products can react with your jewelry, especially if the metal is exposed to them over time. Even laundry detergent can have an effect. Any product that exposes jewelry to moisture has the potential to create tarnish through the process of corrosion, so be aware, and avoid exposure, if possible.

Use a Protectant Spray

Commerical protectant sprays can help prevent metallic surfaces from becoming tarnished. The downside? These can cause reactions, too—not in the jewelry, but in people.

If you have sensitive skin or tend to break out, a protectant spray might not be the right option if you are planning to wear the jewelry. Spraying your jewelry before storing it might be a good extra step toward preventing unwanted chemical reactions.

What To Do If Your Jewelry Is Tarnished

If you are reading these tips a bit too late, all is not lost! There are ways to clean your jewelry and reverse tarnish, which can restore your jewelry!

You can purchase a natural tarnish remover in stores or online, which can restore shine to tarnished pieces without exposing you to any more chemicals or causing unwanted reactions.

You can also clean most metal jewelry using lukewarm water and dish soap. Simply soak for ten to fifteen minutes and then buff with a soft toothbrush to remove corrosion from tarnished metal.

If you are nervous or unsure, a professional jeweler offers cleaning services that can remove tarnish without causing any damage.

Tarnished Metal is Avoidable

If you have beloved jewelry, these steps will prevent tarnished metal from taking away its luster.

Interested in other fashion tips and tricks? Check out other fashion posts on the blog, and learn to style that tarnish-free jewelry!

What Causes Tarnished Metal?

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