How to Clean Pearls

Closeup of pearls.

When I was about ten years old, my friend and I stole his mother’s pearls from her jewelry box so that his older female cousin could put on a fashion show. Unfortunately, it had been raining a lot lately, and she fell into a giant mud puddle in the process. Nothing was irrevocably damaged, but the pearls were a mess. One of us got the bright idea to employ the prodigious cleaning power of Coca-Cola. (I’ll admit it: It was me.) We put the entire pearl necklace into a vat (and I do mean a vat: four two-liters and one 24-pack of Coke went into this thing) and left it there. Well, we kind of forgot about it until the next day. And when we came back, all we found was a badly stained string—the pearls had dissolved completely. Horrified, we went to my friend’s mother and tearfully spilled the entire truth. She listened sternly until we were finished, stood, and left the room. We were mystified. Where was the yelling? Where was the grounding for life? A moment later she came back into the room with a cardboard box that featured a string of pearls on the cover. She showed it to us: It had a couple of different languages on it, including several rows of Japanese or Chinese characters. We still didn’t get it, until she pointed out the single minor detail we had missed initially: It was a string of sugar pearls. We still got grounded, however, for wasting all that Coke.

Tips and Tricks for Cleaning Pearls

  1. pearls on a pink clothKeep pearls clean. Cleaning pearls can be a long and tedious process, so the best way to clean them is to keep them clean in the first place. For example: With pearl necklaces, don’t put them on until after you’ve applied any makeup or hair product. Remove any pearl bracelets or rings to put on any lotion, hand sanitizer, or to wash your hands. Every time you remove them, wipe them off one-by-one with a clean, lint-free cotton cloth. These are just a few easy ways to keep your pearls clean for longer, and all it takes is a couple of minutes at the end of the evening.
  2. rolled up wash clothsGather your pearl-cleaning materials. When it comes down to it, even if you take extra care of your pearls, sooner or later, you’re going to need to clean them. You can take them to a jeweler to have them cleaned, but that can be expensive. Fortunately, you can clean your pearls at home relatively easily, though it can be a bit time-consuming. First, you will need the following: A mild detergent (Seventh Generation has just come out with a hand-washing detergent that works perfectly!); a bowl; a strainer or colander; soft cloths; and a soft towel (cotton is preferable because it absorbs).
  3. bowl of cleaning solutionMake your pearl-cleaning solution. Fill the bowl with warm water from the tap. Ultimately, the water should be at room temperature. If the water is too hot or cold it makes it uncomfortable to work with and could potentially damage the nacre (that’s the coating on your pearls that makes them all shiny and pretty). Commonly, extreme temperature can cause fracturing and cracking of the nacre (though to be fair, you’d have to have the water near freezing or boiling for it to be truly detrimental). Add a few drops of the mild detergent and mix it together.
  4. pearl pendantClean your pearls. Dip the soft cloth into the solution and squeeze it out so that the cloth is a little more than damp and gently wipe off each pearl. You should never let a pearl necklace soak in your solution lest they dissolve . . . just kidding. But seriously, don’t soak a pearl necklace. Most high-end pearl necklaces are strung with silk string, which has the tendency to stretch as it dries—and pearls are a pain to restring.
  5. A word of caution. Be warned that if your detergent or cloth is too abrasive, you risk rubbing the nacre right off the darn thing, and then where will you be? Soft cotton works best for this. As for detergent, most hand soap is mild enough, though I strongly recommend the Seventh Generation product mentioned above. Also, hard scrubbing will damage the nacre, so be gentle.
  6. Rinse and dry your sparkly clean pearls. Have another cloth waiting that is damp with clear water and gently wipe the solution off each pearl as well, then place them on a soft towel to dry. Terry cloth is fine so long as you let them air-dry. Air-drying pearls is perfectly fine. Pearls generally come from an all-water environment, so they can stand the wet. Let them dry overnight.

A Word or Two On Cleaning Pearls

Pearls are awesome feats of nature. It’s amazing that a grain of sand can become something so perfect and beautiful. This is part of the reason they’re so valuable. So if you have them, take very good care of them. You can take them into a jewelry store to have them cleaned (and please, take them to where you bought them, or at least the same company, if you can. It’s tacky and rude to bring pearls to a different store than where you purchased them.), and most will do it for free. But every jewelry store I contacted in researching this article told me that the above method will work, and likely just as well as anything they could do in the store.

Natural Pearl Cleaning Products

Bottle of Seventh Generation Hand WashSeventh Generation Natural Hand Wash. Comes in Fresh Citrus and Just Clean, it is all natural, and very mild. Perfect for keeping those pearls pearly. You can find it at most major retailers (Target, Walmart, grocery stores, etc.). Or, you can order Seventh Generation Hand Wash from Amazon.

jar of Gemcare Jewelry CleanerGemcare’s Natural Diamonds and Pearls Jewelry Cleaner.Commercially available, it comes in a handy little packet and is environmentally friendly. A word of warning, however, compared to the other suggested methods, this one is fairly expensive.

Red Circle around VinegarWarning: DO NOT use vinegar to clean pearls.Urban legend has it that vinegar melts pearls. This is not true. However, the acidic nature of vinegar does dissolve the nacre (or mother-of-pearl, the coating that makes pearls pretty) and renders them bead-like and worthless.