As an aspiring or avid shell collector, properly cleaning your seashells is a skill you must learn. While it takes some effort, it’s worth it when you can proudly display your collection without the bad odors or dirt. Fortunately, shell cleaning can be a simple and enjoyable process.
To clean seashells, you must pick the correct shells, remove the encrustations, remove the organic layer, clean out any bacteria and algae, and remove the dead animal tissue inside the shell. You may also need to dip the shell in muriatic acid for the final touch.
While cleaning sea shells is time-consuming and sometimes tedious, the finished product is worth the effort. This article will give you a complete breakdown of how to clean your sea shells so you can use them in certain crafts or put them up in your home.
1. Choose the Right Shells
Before cleaning shells, you should pick those worth cleaning. Do you want hundreds of average-looking shells or a few gorgeous pieces you’re motivated to clean up and put on display? Quite likely, the latter.
That’s why it’s worth spending extra time on the beach scouting for those pristine pieces worth your cleaning efforts. Unique shells can bolster your collection and create something you can be proud of.
If you don’t want mediocre colors and quality, you’ll want to focus on getting the best and brightest sea shells on the beach. Finding the right pieces is extra work, so you may want to stay on the beach longer to find the right shells.
But you’ll be happy you invested the extra time once your collection is sparkling clean.
Look For Dead Shells
How can you tell whether a shell is dead?
Pick it up and wait a few minutes to see if a living creature emerges. In most instances, you’ll see something stick a limb out to check its surroundings. If you find a shell with a live creature, be kind and toss it back in the water.
Aside from kindness and compassion, allowing these living creatures to stay on the beach is the best way to prevent ecological disruption. The mollusks on the beach are part of a healthy and balanced ecological environment.
Removing them from the area risks disrupting the natural order of things. Also, if you remove a live animal from its habitat, you risk killing it.
Never bring live shells home, considering the consequences it can have on the animal and its environment. Instead, scour the beach for dead shells, and you’ll find plenty of beautiful specimens lying around.
When collecting shells, you don’t want to do it unethically and damage live creatures.
2. Separate Your Shell Collection
After spending a few hours on the beach and gathering as many beautiful pieces as possible before heading home, you’ll want to separate your sea shells before cleaning. Set aside the shells that can be cleaned from the ones that can’t.
For example, you may find squeaky clean shells lying on the beach. In this instance, the shell may not need additional cleaning, so a quick rub with vinegar solution should do the trick.
However, you may also find shells with abrasion marks or white scratches on their surfaces.
In some cases, these shells are tossed around by the ocean, and the combination of salt water and rocks causes these abrasions on the surface. Unfortunately, you can do nothing about these marks, even using the best cleaning methods.
So, in this case, you may want to set aside the pieces that don’t need cleaning or can’t be cleaned and focus on the rest of your collection. These shells also can be used for unique art projects where it doesn’t matter if there are scratches or abrasions.
For example, if you want to create a mosaic where you only need pieces of shells rather than whole shells, these would be perfect.
Another effective way to begin the cleaning process is to separate shells that require deep cleaning from the ones that don’t require much effort. For example, sand dollars are pretty easy to clean, so you don’t want to spend an inordinate amount of time cleaning these pieces.
Shells split in the middle with only one intact shell are also easy to clean, considering you can easily access all the surfaces.
On the other hand, conch shells or shells with multiple swirls, ridges, and crevices will take more effort and a variety of techniques to clean properly. So, you should set these aside in a different pile and spend time cleaning them separately.
By separating your shells, you can focus exclusively on each batch and employ the cleaning techniques best suited to each group. It also allows you to clean the dirtiest ones first so that you’re not risking bringing contaminants and vermin into your home.
3. Remove Encrustations
Once you’ve separated your shells, you can begin the first phase of the cleaning process. In fact, you can use this step to decide how to separate your sea shells.
Many shells, especially ones that have spent more time on the ocean floor, get covered by encrustations, like barnacles and other materials. And to effectively clean up the shell, it’s best to start by removing the encrustations on the surface.
These encrustations are 3D bits that stick out from the shell and cause bumps and raised points along the surface. The most effective way to clear up these mounds is to use scraping tools to help you through the process.
A nail filer, screwdriver, or blunt knife should do the trick if you lack the tools.
Sometimes, you can simply get the encrustation off with a blunt knife. However, it’s best to use thinner tools, like a nail file or screwdriver, for pieces attached more tightly to the surface. These tools will help you pry the pieces loose from the surface and easily remove them.
You want to be careful with this step because too much force on the fragile surfaces can cause the shell to crack.
You can apply coconut oil to certain areas to make the prying easier. However, if you find spots where the encrustation isn’t coming off, avoid using excessive force, so you want to leave these pieces alone and continue cleaning.
4. Remove Dead Animal Tissue
This step is probably the most important in the entire shell-cleaning process, as dead animal tissue is the number one reason shells release certain odors after you bring them home.
A sea shell is the home of a mollusk, which is an animal that lives and grows with a hard exterior. If you find a shell with a living creature, returning it to the water is best to prevent harm and preserve the ecosystem.
However, when you find an empty shell, it could mean one of two things:
- The animal living in the shell has deserted it for a new home.
- The animal that made the shell its home has died.
Let’s take the hermit crab, for example. This creature isn’t actually a mollusk but looks for empty shells it can inhabit as a home.
On the other hand, clams, scallops, snails, and other mollusks have a shell that forms a part of their being. When these creatures die, they often die in their shells, and the dead body begins to decay in the shell.
In most cases, this isn’t noticeable when you pick up the shell and only find out when you bring it back home. Even if you don’t notice anything, it’s best to take steps to rid the shell of dead animal tissue.
Some shells have too many crevices and inner regions to fully clean using other methods, and reaching every nook and cranny can be hard.
Aside from releasing odors, dead animal tissue will attract insects, rats, and other pests in search of food. As such, it’s best to clean out any animal remains before using the shells.
Here are a few ways to get rid of dead animal tissue.
Boiling the shell is perhaps the most straightforward way to eliminate dead animal tissue, as this method requires little effort and can effectively clean up the shell. However, it’s best to have tweezers or a dental pick to scrape off stubborn pieces of tissue that cling to the shell.
- Pour lukewarm or room-temperature water into a large vessel when boiling the shell. It’s best to use a large bowl to accommodate most of your shells at once.
- Before you drop the shells in, ensure the water is warm or at room temperature and starts boiling only after the shells have been submerged. This setup is essential to ensure the shell doesn’t crack from exposure to sudden heat.
- When the water starts boiling, turn the heat down so it starts to simmer, and allow the shells to stay inside for half an hour or so. Leaving them in too long may cause the shells to crack or get discolored.
- Once you remove the shells, place them on a warm towel for 5 minutes to cool down. After this time, shake them out to loosen up any residue of animal tissue stuck on them. You may have to use a tool to scrape off loose bits.
This method is highly effective because the warm water dislodges the bits and pieces from the shell. You should find most of these bits floating around in the vessel but look over the shell to ensure you get everything.
You can also use a microwave to achieve the same effect. However, you may want to avoid this if there’s too much animal tissue, as the heat could diffuse nasty odors.
Freezing is another effective way to get rid of dead animal tissue. Most shell collectors advocate this method because, unlike boiling, freezing won’t leach the colors from the shell. Instead, freezing the shell can remove organic matter from deep within the shell’s ridges.
- You can start by filling a zip lock bag with water and placing the shell inside. Ensure the shell is fully submerged in the water, filling the insides.
- Place this bag with the shell inside the deep freeze zone and leave it there for a few days. Remember, the shell should be completely frozen when you remove it from the refrigerator.
- Once you remove the bag, let the shell defrost slowly without exposing it to any heat source. As the shell defrosts and the water comes out, the animal tissue bits and pieces should flow out of the shell.
- Once the shell has defrosted, clean any remains using a tweezer or metal pin. This may be necessary if you’ve got a shell with deep indentations.
This method of cleaning animal tissue works well because often times there may be thick, hardened pieces of tissue stuck on the inner regions of the shell that are difficult to reach by hand or dislodge just through bleaching.
By freezing them completely and allowing them to melt, you turn them into liquid matter that can easily flow out of the shell. Freezing your shell is a great option if you’re stuck with hard-to-remove animal tissue.
Burying your sea shell is the most effective way to completely clean up animal tissue. However, this method is also the most time-consuming, and you may need to leave your shell buried for a few weeks before you retrieve it.
Shells with dead animal tissue tend to attract pests in search of food.
By burying the shell in rich soil, you can get these pests to leave it squeaky clean. And fortunately, insects like ants do a fantastic job cleaning up dead animal tissue without leaving a trace.
Additionally, they aren’t strong enough to damage the shell itself, so you can rest assured that your shell is in safe hands. The only trouble here is finding a spot rich with the right insects that won’t attract pests like rodents, who may steal the shell, assuming it’s food.
Here’s how to do this:
- Dig a small hole in the soil and gently place your shell inside.
- Cover the shell with sand without burying it completely, as bits of the shell should stick out of the ground.
- Ensure you mark the spot with a market like a flag or a twig so you know where to find your shells.
You’ll want to protect this area from rats, other rodents, and vermin. Leave the shell inside for at least two weeks to come out squeaky clean. You may want to check the shell periodically and only remove it when you see no insects inside.
This method works best because ants can get to the innermost regions of the shell and remove the dead animal tissue lodged there. While boiling and freezing will mostly do the trick, there may be instances where these methods don’t fully clean the shell, and burying can add the final touches.
5. Get Rid Of the Periostracum
When you pick up seashells at the beach, you may notice a slimy, loose outer skin on the shell that usually latches on to the encrustations. This layer of the shell is called the periostracum, and it must be removed before you can do anything with your shell.
The periostracum is a part of the mollusk, and this organic skin is secreted continuously throughout the animal’s life. This organic layer comprises a protein called conchiolin, which is secreted by oysters to form pearls over many years.
Fun fact: Did you know that you can actually collect a pearl without killing the oyster it’s from? Check out my article to learn more: Is It Possible to Get Pearls Without Killing the Oyster?
Now, back to the periostracum. Its organic outer layer is vital in the development of the mollusk while it is alive.
It holds the outer shell together, creating a tight space within which the process of crystallization occurs. This organic layer protects the mollusk’s shell from abrasion or elements that may decalcify and wear away the hard exoskeleton.
In most species, the periostracum is simply a yellowish or transparent outer skin through which the shell patterns can be seen. However, the periostracum can be more opaque in some species, preventing us from seeing the intricate patterns on a shell.
However, removing the periostracum is crucial to properly clean a shell and ensure it’s hygienic and safe to display.
If you don’t remove this layer, the shell may continue to emit a foul smell once it has dried completely. Additionally, this layer will attract germs and pests, making it difficult to place the shell anywhere.
To remove the periostracum, the most effective method is to place the shells in a bleach solution which will loosen up the skin so you can get it off easily.
To get started, fill a bucket with half parts water and bleach. You want to ensure a decent mix of the two liquids, as a strong bleach solution may remove colors from the shell and cause it to smell like bleach.
Once you have this solution, place as many shells as possible in the bucket and allow them to soak in the water for a few hours.
You might move the shells around occasionally, so the loose skin comes off eventually.
If they need more cleaning time, leave the shells soaking in the bleach for a few days to ensure they’re properly cleaned. However, it’s best to do this with shells that are white or have dull colors, so the bleach doesn’t affect them much.
For example, putting sand dollars in bleach is a great idea because you want them white before use. However, if you have a brown or colored conch shell, it’s best to leave it in for only a few hours so the color doesn’t fade.
Remember to wear gloves when performing this step because raw bleach can cause your hands to burn. Once the shells have been bleached for a few hours, remove them and place them on a warm, dry towel.
6. Clean Up Bacteria and Algae
After you’ve taken the shells out of the bleach solution, you’ll need to remove the organic outer layer. For this step, you will need a dental pick, much like the one dentists use when checking for cavities, as it has a much thinner tip and will ensure the shell stays safe while you clean it.
To remove the periostracum, start by scraping away parts of the shell surface where you see discoloration or loose skin. Once you’ve cleared a spot, it will become easier to tell which parts of the shell are covered by the periostracum.
Ensure you perform this bit as gently as possible.
Remember, the shells have just been removed from a bleach solution and may be softer and more fragile. So scrape the surface carefully to avoid damaging the shell. You might find that a cotton swab works well at this stage, as it’s soft, yet you can apply enough pressure to get the bacteria and algae off the shell without damaging it.
Aside from removing the periostracum, you must spend this time getting rid of bacteria and algae that get deposited on the shell surface. The dirt can be easily spotted across the surface, forming discoloration or green patches.
The bleach should considerably free up the bacteria and algae so you can remove them. However, it’s best to spend additional time and effort cleaning up this bit.
After you use the dental pick and get rid of most dirt, allow the shell to dry for a while. Once the surface has dried completely, you want to remove the bacteria and algae using a clean dry cloth and vinegar solution.
The vinegar solution must be adequately diluted, or the acid will eat away at the calcium in the shell and cause discoloration or breakage. So ensure you mix two water parts with one vinegar to prevent damage.
Take a clean dry cloth or cotton swab, dip it in the vinegar solution, and gently rub the shell surface with this mix. Focus exclusively on dirty spots and avoid scrubbing the whole shell unless necessary.
Once you’re done cleaning up the bacteria and algae, wash the shell with running water, so the extra vinegar is removed, and set it aside to dry.
Note: Never soak a sea shell in vinegar solution, even for a few minutes. The acidic properties of vinegar will cause the shell to deteriorate quickly and may permanently damage the surface.
Another effective way to clean up bacteria is using hydrogen peroxide to eliminate germs.
You must soak the shells in a hydrogen peroxide solution and allow them to sit for an hour or two until a thin white film covers the shell. This solution will rid the shell surface of harmful bacteria that may be invisible to the naked eye.
7. Use Muriatic Acid
You’ve followed all the steps, and your shell looks cleaner already. However, you might notice stubborn algae spots or pieces of barnacle that just won’t come off. Scrubbing won’t help, and if you do try scrubbing it at this point, you could risk cracking it.
Alternatively, you may not want to go through the entire cleaning process of the shells so methodically. Or perhaps the shells you brought back are clean and don’t need a thorough cleaning process.
In these cases, the quickest and most straightforward method to clean your shells is to use muriatic (hydrochloric acid). This liquid is a powerful solution that instantly dissolves the organic outer skin, peels off encrustations, and kills bacteria on the shell’s surface. Additionally, muriatic acid will allow the colors of the shell to shine through instantly.
Here’s a video of someone dipping shells in hydrochloric acid so they come out looking new and radiant:
You want to be extra careful when working with muriatic acid because it’s a powerful solution and can cause skin burns if you aren’t taking the right precautions. As such, it’s best to use gloves and a pair of tongs for this method.
Here are the steps for this method:
- Gather two buckets to clean your shells.
- The first bucket should contain a solution with ¾ water and ¼ muriatic acid solution. When adding these liquids, pour the water into the bucket first, followed by the muriatic acid solution. Pouring them this way will ensure the acid doesn’t spurt.
- The other bucket should contain only water, but you may add a dash of salt.
- Now, gently clasp the shell you want to clean using the tongs and submerge it completely in the muriatic acid solution.
- Hold the shell here for about three to four seconds before taking it out and dipping it in the bucket of water.
- Once you’ve dipped the shell in water and ensured the acid has washed off, place it on a towel to dry.
The acid should dissolve the dirt on the shell’s surface and allow its real colors to shine through.
Remember to practice caution when working with muriatic acid and to always hold the tongs and shell away from your body.
8. Polish Your Shells
If you’ve followed all, or even most of the steps mentioned above, your shells should be sparkling clean. And while they’re ready to put up at home or use on an art project, you can go further and make them stand out.
If you want the colors on your sea shells to really pop, consider using mineral oil to polish the surface of your shells till you see a fine glow.
You can also use baby oil or pure coconut oil to create the same effect. And the best part is that these oils will cause the natural colors of the shell to pop rather than painting the shell with colors that will eventually fade.
While you can paint the shell, allowing the natural color to shine through can make it look magnificent.
All you need to do is dip a cotton swab or cloth in any of the oils mentioned above and gently rub the surface of your shell with it. Set the shells aside for 1-2 days and wipe off any remaining excess oil.
If you want your sea shells to shine even more, consider using a polyurethane spray to sparkle the surface.
For this bit, you might want to cover your table with a plastic sheet or trash bag to prevent the polyurethane from staining. Spray a coating over your shells, wait an hour or two, flip them over, and spray the other side.
Once the coating has dried, your shells should be ready to use.
What To Do With Clean Sea Shells
Now that you have a clear idea of how to clean your sea shells, what do you do with such clean natural works of art? Well, make more art!
Considering their unique colors, designs, and shapes, sea shells are a great accessory for art projects. And fortunately, there are plenty of ways to use shells in your art projects and put them up as decor in your home.
Here are a few ideas to get you started.
A shadow box is an excellent way to display your clean sea shell collection while protecting the shells from dust, grime, ad the external environment. It also lets you showcase your collection directly and without too much work.
A shadowbox with seashells also adds a dimension of depth for those viewing it, especially if you’ve filled the space with shells. It can be difficult to distinguish where the shells end if you look at the box from the front, giving viewers a different perspective.
To create a shadowbox, it’s best to use as many different shells as possible. The greater the variety, the more the visual pleasure of viewing it. Place the shells in the arrangement you prefer before sticking them on the surface and covering it with glass.
People enjoy decorating their backyards as it adds to their homes’ look and aesthetic appeal, and you can create plenty of backyard decorations out of sea shells. For starters, you can stick certain sea shells to your birdhouse, elevating its look and bringing the ocean into your garden.
However, if you’re an artist, or at least a self-proclaimed one, you can get creative with shells and build something more complicated, like a sea shell dreamcatcher or a wind chime. Use uniform shapes and colors on certain projects to keep the aesthetic appeal.
However, you still want to mix things to ensure the design retains dynamism.
Seashell jewelry has been in vogue for years now, and the best part is that it’s easy to create. Before you begin, consider the different kinds of jewelry you can create with shells and tackle them one at a time.
You can start with earrings, which are perhaps the easiest to make and require only two of the same shell. You’ll need some additional equipment, like pliers and metal wire to get the job done, and you can find these items at any art store.
Creating shell necklaces is a bit more complicated. Here’s how to go about it:
- Take a metal wire and gently fold one end to turn the tip upwards. You can also create a tiny loop with this bit. Ensure the loop isn’t too noticeable, or the necklace will turn ugly and excessive.
- Pass a bead through the wire, which should stop at the folded tip. This bead will ensure the shell doesn’t fall off the metal wire even when you wear the necklace.
- Create a tiny pin-sized hole in the shell to pass the metal wire. The best way to create a hole in the shell is by using a drill bit with a tiny drill to cut through the shell. Do this part gently and cautiously, as the shell will likely crack with too much force.
- If the shell surface is too thin and fragile, avoid using the drill bit and use a small sharp stone instead. The stone should create a hole without cracking the shell.
- Scrape away at the shell’s surface with the stone. You’ll eventually wear it down to the point where you can pierce a hole.
- Once you’ve created this hole, pass the metal wire through the shell. This allows the shell to drop to the bottom, on top of the bead.
- Do this for two or three different shells, depending on the kind of necklace you want. You could create a minimalistic necklace with two shells or a string full of shells.
- Place an empty metal chain on a table and line up the shells in the order you want to see them on the necklace. This is where you can get creative and create a colorful and beautiful necklace.
- Create a small loop near the top of each metal wire so you can easily slip them onto the empty chain. If you’ve done the other steps properly, this shouldn’t take you too long.
While the process may seem tedious, it shouldn’t take too long. In fact, it’s quite enjoyable once you get into it. Additionally, you also come away with a unique necklace that gives the wearer beach vibes.
A shell candle is perhaps one of the most beautiful arts and crafts ideas to create with a sea shell and the easiest. For this idea, you can buy a DIY candle-making kit or simply use any old candles lying around at home.
To make this work, you’ll need to use the shells of bivalves, like oysters or clams. Small shells won’t work for this project, so you need a big shell to hold the wax. Additionally, the shell cavity must be deep enough to pour sufficient wax into it.
Here’s how to make a seashell candle:
- Place a wick in the hollow part of the shell you plan to turn into a candle.
- Heat the candles, so the wax starts melting and liquifies to be poured into the shell.
- To heat the candles, create a double-boiling setup so the wax doesn’t burn or melt too quickly.
- Place a large vessel with water over the stove and heat it until it boils.
- Then place a smaller vessel or pouring jug into the boiling water and place your candles in this vessel.
- The candles will immediately begin to melt, and you’ll soon have a bowl of wax ready to pour into your sea shells.
- Pour the wax around the wick you placed in the shell and allow sufficient time to cool. You now have a shell candle.
The best part about making a seashell garland is that you can hang it anywhere to bring a bit of the beach into your home. These garlands go together with curtains and can be hung from the curtain rods in your living room.
Here’s how to make a seashell garland:
- Create tiny holes in your shells by following the method mentioned in the sea shell necklace section. Take your time making these holes, so you don’t damage the shells.
- Place the shells in a line in order of how you want your garland to look. Be sure to intersperse the garland with shells of different shapes and sizes.
- Once you have the shells lined up, pass a thread through the length of the shells. You also want to create a tiny knot after the string passes each shell to ensure the shells don’t slip down and collect at the bottom.
- Be sure to use a thick or robust string so the weight of the shells doesn’t tear the rope.
- You also want to ensure no more than four or five shells per garland so the string isn’t too crowded.
Collecting seashells can be a great hobby, but you’ll need to learn how to properly clean them so your home doesn’t smell of decaying bacteria or dead animals. And when you’re collecting them, leave the shells with live animals on the beach to not upset the ecological balance.
You can use your shells for several art projects when you are clean. While the ideas presented here are great, you can also use them as is for paperweights, door stops, and perhaps, jewelry holders if they’re large enough.