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"How does aluminum foil clean silverware"

A discussion started in 2001 but continuing through 2017


Q. A friend of mine has this metal plate that she puts in the sink with some water softener and puts her silver in it. It cleans beautifully and fast. They use to sell it on T.V. Now I can't find it. Does anyone know where I can get this metal plate?


Micheline Fioriti
- Montreal, Canada

Ultrasonic Silver Cleaning Kit

affil. link
Dri-Pak Soda Crystals


You may already have such a magic aluminum plate in your kitchen cupboard that you're using as a cookie sheet or baking pan, Micheline :-)

Please see the entry from Dale Woika on letter no. 4785, "Polishing Silver with Aluminum Foil and Baking Soda".

Ted Mooney, finishing.com
Ted Mooney, P.E.
Striving to live Aloha
finishing.com - Pine Beach, New Jersey


I have used several metal cleaning plates. The safest, and one I like best, can be purchased from a company named Special Metal Cleaners, Inc. It is guaranteed never to wear out and is especially safe for precious jewelry as well as antique silver.

Erin N [last name deleted for privacy by Editor]
- Fairmont Nebraska

Ed. note: For more threads about electrolytic cleaning of silver, please see letters: 14623 and 34314.


Q. Dear Helper,

I am in year 10 at St Pius X College Chatswood. At present I have an assessment task for science which requires me to carry out a scientific investigation. I chose to research and report on a method of cleaning tarnished silverware. The method involves submerging silver items into a bowl lined with aluminum and filled with boiling water and a teaspoon of salt (dissolved). (no baking soda) I have found that the salt is only a catalyst, as the silver and aluminium combo works as well. I am writing this e-mail to ask you if you could explain the process that is occurring and provide me with an equation (words and symbols) Thank you for taking the time to read my posting.

Yours sincerely,

I am sorry if this is inconvenient but I really need a reply.

Please help me.

Patrick R [last name deleted for privacy by Editor]
- Sydney, NSW, Australia


A. The principle behind this is that most metals corrode with exposure to oxygen. For example, iron rusts with time because of its exposure to moisture in the air, oxygen. You may also have noticed that cars in the northeast rust a lot faster because of the salt used on the roads in winter. The whole process involves electrons moving between the metal and oxygen atoms. It happens spontaneously with most metals (gold being a notable exception). Silver does pretty much the same thing, only that tarnish is the combination of silver with sulfur and not oxygen. Silver is special with its more complex reactions, but the principle by which silver tarnishes is the same by which iron rusts.

Aluminum also does the same thing, only it happens more readily than silver...(see where this is going?)

So we need to move the electrons to and from the metals and we need a metal that will take the electrochemical abuse for the silver. The aluminum takes the hit for the silver, and the salt water allows the electrons to move between the silver and aluminum. I would explain more, but this is not a general chemistry article.

This of course raises the question of why airplanes (which have aluminum) don't dissolve in mid flight...

Lisa Robbinson
- NSW, Australia


A. Explanation: Silver tarnishes because it undergoes a chemical reaction with sulfur-containing substances in the air. Silver combines with sulfur to form silver sulfide, which is black, and darkens the silver.The silver can be made shiny again by removing the silver sulfide coating from the surface.

Two ways to remove the silver sulfide are to: remove it from the surface, or reverse the chemical reaction and turn silver sulfide back into silver. The first method involves polishes that remove some of the silver during polishing. The above demo uses a chemical reaction (which is sped up by heating the water) to convert the silver sulfide back into silver, without removing any silver.

Aluminum has a lower ionization energy (energy required to remove electrons from an atom of the element) than silver. As a result, aluminum is oxidized (loses electrons and oxidation number increases), and silver is reduced (gains electrons and oxidation number is reduced). Depending on the amount of tarnish, the silver will be bright and the aluminum foil may be brown with tarnish (aluminum oxide), in a short while. The silver tarnish is "transferred" to the aluminum via reactions, which occur instantaneously, as follows:

3Ag2S(s) + 2Al(s)+ 3H2O(l) => 6Ag(s) + Al2O3(s) + 3H2S(aq)

silver sulfide + aluminum + water => silver + aluminum oxide + hydrogen sulfide
(* Note, this reaction can be done without the baking soda, but it takes longer to see results).

The baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) reacts with the (sulfur-smelling) H2S:

3 NaHCO3(aq) + 3 H2S(aq) => 3 NaHS(aq)+3 H2O(l)+ 3 CO2(g)

baking soda + hydrogen sulfide => sodium hydrosulfide + water + carbon dioxide. The CO2 gas can be observed escaping from the most tarnished parts of the silver.

The silver and aluminum must be in contact with each other because a small electric current flows between them during the reaction.This type of reaction, which involves an electric current (because atoms are charged), is called an electrochemical reaction, and is used in batteries to produce electricity.

Tania R. Chase
- Topsham, Maine

May 1, 2012

Q. I can understand Tania from Maine's equation from my schoolboy chemistry,and it's exactly what I wanted to know.
What I don't understand are the letters in parentheses next to each compound.

Why baking soda^powder? Does it convert the gas from hydrogen sulfide to carbon dioxide -- hydrogen sulfide is poisonous.

david haynes
- wantage,oxon,uk

affil. link
"The Dose Makes the Poison"
from Abe Books


May 1, 2012

A. Hi, David.

Tania is apparently indicating whether the compounds are solids, liquids, gases, or ionized in an aqueous solution.

Baking soda merely supplies conductivity. Similar results can be had with washing soda, Spic 'n' Span, or other conductive salts. Although hydrogen sulfide is poisonous, Paracelsus reminded us that everything is poison; it's all in the dose. Eggs release hydrogen sulfide as well.


Ted Mooney, finishing.com
Ted Mooney, P.E.
Striving to live Aloha
finishing.com - Pine Beach, New Jersey

January 10, 2009

Q. Tania, I do believe you got the reaction correct. Very nice explanation! However, I don't think the silver needs to be in contact with the aluminum because the saltwater acts as an electrolyte.

Susan Ammons
- Bowling Green, Kentucky

January 14, 2009

A. Hi. The silver does need to be in contact with the aluminum. For silver sulfide to be reduced to silver, electrons must flow to it from the aluminum, and there needs to be metal-to-metal contact so the electrons can flow. Ions flow through the liquid, electrons flow through metal.


Ted Mooney, finishing.com
Ted Mooney, P.E.
Striving to live Aloha
finishing.com - Pine Beach, New Jersey

sidebar 2006

Should the aluminium foil be shiny side up or dull side up? SHIV ANAND
- Houston, Texas

December 2, 2008

The aluminum foil should be bright side up. Robert Franklin Kynor
- Newburyport, Massachusetts

March 5, 2009

Q. It appears that foil with salt works, somewhat. Thanks for your help.
What do you suggest I do to bring a sparkle to serving trays? Some are larger than the sinks.

Rod Halvorsen
- Burnaby, BC, Canada

March 9, 2009

A. Hi, Rod. There is no end to the size of containers. Bathtubs or stoppered shower areas can accommodate rather large trays. But I have heard, without verifying, that scrubbing the tray with the aluminum foil wetted with the washing soda will work. Good luck.


Ted Mooney, finishing.com
Ted Mooney, P.E.
Striving to live Aloha
finishing.com - Pine Beach, New Jersey

sidebar March 6, 2009

Can I use the above method for silver with freshwater pearls jewelry as well? Or, do I have to wrap the pearls separately with aluminium foil first before submerging the piece of jewelry in the solution?


Anne Smith
Designer - Chicago, Illinois

February 14,2010

Pearls should only be cleaned with a good quality pearl cleaner barbara fein
- Los Angeles, California

August 7, 2010

Q. About the optimum Water, Salt, Soda, and Foil amounts. I would assume that both Water and Foil are bulk for the reaction, meaning that as long you have enough present, the amount doesn't matter (too much doesn't hurt)

Salt being the conductor (when dissolved) is dependent on the amount of water you use. More Water requires more Salt.

Soda deals with the Sulfur from the Silver so I would assume you only need so much, based on the amount of Silver (and the amount/years of tarnish on it)

I see so many "recipes" around that only have Salt to Soda ratios 1:1, and 1:2 is common, but there are others like 1:12 and 1:24~48 these don't relate to how much Water you have at all. A cup, a pan, and a bathtub worth of Water really do need different amounts of Salt.

Long ago when I first heard of this (pre-internet) it was to add Salt until it doesn't dissolve (a few crystals sit on the bottom and persist). This method adds Salt dependent on the amount of Water. I think it was 2 Tbsp of Soda for a Silver set (8 settings), this adds Soda, based on the Tarnish (Silver).

A Setting is commonly 1 knife, 1 fork, 1 spoon, 1 Salad fork, 1 soup spoon, and the set pieces 1/8 Butter Knife, 1/8 Serving fork, 1/8 Serving Spoon, 1/8 Pickle Fork. So 5-1/2 (~6) tableware pieces per-seat gives a ratio of


1 piece:1/8 tsp

So here is the question,
Is there a better Water:Salt Tarnish:Soda ratios that make sense?

Matt Heyse
- Ludington, Michigan USA

November 23, 2010

Q. Can the chemical reaction be sped up by adding additional electrical current (connect battery to the 'soup')?

Mike Lowe
- San Diego, California, USA

A. Hi. Some people say the reaction is instantaneous in hot to boiling water anyway.
Sure, external electrical power can be used to drive an electrochemical reaction ... it's done in electroplating and other processes ... but it makes a simple reaction more complicated :-(


Ted Mooney, finishing.com
Ted Mooney, P.E.
Striving to live Aloha
finishing.com - Pine Beach, New Jersey

November 15, 2014

Q. Dear chemistry interested

I was wondering, if there exists a similar technique for cleaning brass or bronze items?

Sincerly yours

Soren, brass artist

Soeren Joergensen
- Haderslev, Danmark

November 2014

A. Hi Soren. To my knowledge, brass and bronze don't become sulfided like silver, so the reactions would be different. I believe that copper "bright dips" can be used on brass and bronze. The bright dips are comprised of an acid and an oxidizing agent. Nitric acid is one example, sulphuric acid plus hydrogen peroxide is another. But here we're talking about materials that are far more dangerous and less suitable for home use than aluminum foil and washing soda. Good luck.


Ted Mooney, finishing.com
Ted Mooney, P.E.
Striving to live Aloha
finishing.com - Pine Beach, New Jersey

November 29, 2014

A. For the large serving trays, scrubbing with aluminum foil works for me. For my jewelry, I use an old toothbrush with foil wrapped around the handle end. Use the brush end to soak crevices with solution, then gently scrub with the foiled handle. When possible, I do this with the item IN the solution.

My formula is 1 cup near-boiling water with 1 T each salt, soda, and liquid dish detergent.

I'm no chemist, but when cooking, baking soda can be substituted with baking powder and salt. Both soda and salt may create a reaction with the foil, but they are also mild abrasives, and therefor excellent for cleaning. You can make an inexpensive scouring powder with equal parts coarse salt, baking soda, and borax. (Works wonders on ceramic stove tops.)

For cleaning brass or bronze, try this formula. I use this solution for my bathroom cleaner and it?s simply amazing. Just spray, let sit a few minutes, wipe and rinse. Soap scum, hard water build up, and any kind of "crusties" will start to disappear in just a few days; and it leaves your fixtures bright and shiny. For gunked-up shower heads, just spray and leave. We've also used this for burnt pans, grill grates, car bumpers, and all kinds of outside surfaces.
1 c. white vinegar (dissolves soap scum)
2 T borax (scouring agent)
2 T lemon or lime juice (polishes/makes shiny)
1/4 tsp. bleach (cleans/disinfects surfaces)
1 c. water

Angel Allgood
- LaGrange, Kentucky, USA

December 1, 2017

Q. I have a large punch bowl. I used the plate. It said put salt on it. I rotated the bowl around the plate. It said I will need to do this several times. 2 questions. Can I immerse the punch bowl or do all the surfaces that need to be cleaned have to touch the plate? Also it said to clean pour vinegar on it and scrub with an abrasive pad. It must be shiny and clean. I scrubbed it, but I'm not sure if it is clean. I see darker spots, patches on the plate. I did not rinse the plate as the instructions just said pour vinegar and scrub. Please advise. Thank you.

leslie bacon
- Altus, Oklahoma USA

December 2017

A. Hi Leslie. You should lay the plate under the punch bowl, with the bowl fully submerged in a large plastic dishpan or a fiberglass or Corian sink (not a conductive metal sink). I can't countermand the instructions that came with the cleaning plate, but I'm sure you're supposed to rinse it. Good luck.


pic of Ted Mooney
Ted Mooney, P.E. RET
Aloha -- an idea worth spreading
finishing.com - Pine Beach, New Jersey

December 15, 2017

Q. Would an aluminium saucepan work as well as aluminium foil to clean silver?

Corinna Hatton
retired - Bexhill, East Sussex, UK

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