How to Clean Copper: 3 Methods That Actually Work

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Copper is an excellent conductor of heat, which is why this metal is so prized when it comes to cookware. Plus, its rose-gold hue scores serious points in terms of aesthetic appeal—assuming the copper pots, pans and accessories in your kitchen aren’t tarnished, that is. Alas, tarnish is completely inevitable when dealing with copper, since it can be caused by exposure to moisture, human touch and even oxygen. Yep, copper can go from bright and shiny to brown and dull in the blink of an eye—but we’re happy to report that you can polish it up just as quickly. Read on for a crash course on how to clean copper and get it looking glam again stat.

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copper pots hanging on wall
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A Few Things To Know Before You Start

Fear not, friends: Your copper might be a shadow of its former self, but you’ve done nothing wrong. Copper is a highly reactive metal and it oxidizes (i.e., tarnishes) very easily, which means that even light use can leave a copper pot looking lackluster. That said, there are a few care tips to keep in mind when dealing with this red orange metal.

Water and harsh chemicals are major culprits when it comes to oxidized copper (and the latter can even do permanent damage). As such, if you have copper cookware in your kitchen, you never want to leave it hanging out in the sink for any length of time: Hand wash copper pots and pans and dry them promptly and thoroughly with a clean dish towel. In other words, skip the high heat of the dishwasher and the prolonged exposure to moisture that a drying rack brings and your copper will be happier. When it comes to polishing, tarnish is easy to remove with a combination of mild acid and gentle abrasion. (Note: the key words here are gentle and mild, as harsh chemicals and excessive scrubbing can result in scratches and damage to the metal.)

One more thing: Before you get started, double check to see if your copper has been sealed with either an oil or a lacquer (i.e., it has a shiny finish on it). If it has been sealed, you should not clean it using any of the methods described below as these products could remove the sealant. Instead, clean lacquered copper by using a soft cloth dipped into a solution of water with a drop of mild dish soap. Gently buff to remove dust and grime and then rinse off the soap with a damp cloth. Follow up with a dry cloth, making sure to remove all water from the surface.

OK, now that we’ve covered the basics, you’re ready to tackle that tarnish.

1. How To Clean Copper With Lemon And Salt

Good news: You can easily polish copper with a couple ingredients you likely already have on hand, say the pros at Copper H2O. Here, lemon (i.e., the mild acid) and salt (the abrasive agent) work together to banish stubborn tarnish in a jiffy. For this method, you simply need to mix up a thin paste by stirring together one part salt and two parts lemon juice. Once your homemade copper polish is made, pour it over the item and gently buff away the tarnish with a rag, a soft sponge, or the lemon half itself. You can use either coarse or regular salt depending on the degree of tarnish, but don’t go crazy with the scrubbing and never use steel wool or any other abrasive brush, as this will result in scratches.

2. How To Clean Copper With Vinegar And Salt

Don’t have any citrus on hand? No problem. There’s another copper cleaning solution that you can pull together with common pantry staples—this time with vinegar as a stand-in for lemon juice—and it’s just as easy to work with. First, place your copper item in the sink and sprinkle a generous layer of salt over the surface. Then, drizzle vinegar over the salt—just enough so that the item is wet, but the salt hasn’t been washed away. Finally, add a dash more salt and give the copper a gentle scrub with a rag or soft sponge to instantly buff away the tarnish. Easy, right?

3. How To Clean Copper With Bar Keepers Friend

If your copper is very badly tarnished and the natural methods described above just aren’t cutting it (or you need that last lemon for dinner), you might need to bring out the big guns: Bar Keepers Friend. This product has a cult following because it can handle a whole host of tough cleaning jobs with ease—and it’s particularly effective when it comes to mineral deposits (like the kind that happen in a toilet bowl) and, you guessed it, tarnish. Once you scoop up some Bar Keepers Friend, the cleaning process is easy, the copper experts at Falk Culinair tell us. Here’s what to do: simply sprinkle a generous layer of the stuff over the copper item and start scrubbing with a damp, non-scratch scouring pad to see the surface stains melt away like magic.

How Often Should You Clean and Polish Copper

It’s really up to you how often you polish your copper pieces: For aesthetic reasons, you might choose to do this more often, but because tarnish is almost always possible to remove and doesn’t have a negative impact on performance (in the case of cookware), you can get away with leaving your copper dingy for quite a while. That said, the longer you wait, the worse the tarnish will be—and that translates to a more arduous polishing process. A good rule of thumb is to polish copper pieces once every six months, but if you plan to show them off, you might want to follow the methods described above more frequently.

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Freelance PureWow Editor

Emma Singer is a freelance contributing editor and writer at PureWow who has over 7 years of professional proofreading, copyediting and writing experience. At PureWow, she covers...