How to Clean Shells you Find on the Beach or in the Ocean

Collecting seashells along Long Beach Island is fun all year round. The fun does not last long though if you don’t know how to clean them and care for them. The fun will start to stink, quickly. Here are some suggestions on the best ways to clean seashells.

Step 1: Start Immediately

The best time to start cleaning your shells is when you find them. Inspect them when you pick them up. Remember, shells are the homes of creatures. Things live in them. You might think it would be obvious if something was living inside the shell but it’s not. I have literally seen collected shells start walking away from a pile in the garage (marine hermit crabs can hide deep in the belly of a shell and will appear hours later after the trauma of you “collecting” their home has subsided)

The moon shell (street name: shark eye, home of the moon snail) is a top shelf find on Long Beach Island. Any LBI shell collector values a good moon shell, so let’s use that as our example shell.

If an actual moon snail is living in the shell it is obvious. Also, you would pretty lucky to see one of these elusive creatures washed up the shore (unless you were here for Mussel City) so we’ll skip that. More likely you will find one of these.

  • Baby Mussels
  • Baby Slipper Shells
  • Marine Hermit Crabs

Now, before we continue, take a moment to dig deep and find that line inside you that will define which creatures it is OK to “relocate” or kill and which it is not. I suppose that is a personal decision. Personally, I will clean a moon snail of attached mussels, but if it has slipper shells inside I will throw it back. It’s extremely uncool to kill hermit crabs. One thing that I don’t consider debatable: if you find a live moon snail please put it back in the ocean.

So, once you are ethically clear that you have a keeper, bang the shell in your hand to make sure it’s empty. Shake it. Rub. Smack it up, flip it, rub it down, oh no, and then rinse it vigorously in the ocean until you are sure it is empty. If you are the type of person who kills mussels, make sure you get them all out of there before you put it in your pocket.

Don’t forget to smell your shells! Your nose will tell you a lot. It’s OK and natural for seashells to smell a bit like the ocean, but if they smell like death, throw them back.

Step 2: Don’t Use Bleach

Don’t bleach sea shells. Bleaching your seashells is not necessary. You will destroy the color and your shells will forever reek of bleach.

Step 3: Soak Your Shells in Water for up to a Week

Put them in a big pot or bucket and let the water work its magic. Periodically flush the water. If you are really into it, change or flush the water once a day. In just a few days you will notice the difference. Ahhh, the miracles of nature. When your all done, boil them. That’ll kill whatever is left in there.

Step 4: Dry Well & Use Sandpaper

After letting the shells dry thoroughly they will probably look a bit dull & faded. You will start asking yourself, “why did I pick that dull, lifeless seashell in the first place?” They just faded a bit. We’ll get the shine back in Step 5, but for now, let’s make them look worse with sandpaper. Take some coarse sandpaper and rough up the shell. Use the sandpaper to remove depositis and gunk, but also give the whole shell a good roughing up.

Step 5: Mineral Oil

Mineral Oil will restore the color and shine, plus will help preserve the shell. Note: mineral oil is not usually found in the grocery store, but is easy to find in the pharmacy. (It’s in the poo-poo problem section)

That’s it. If you are as obsessive-compulsive and germaphobic as my family is, then you are a happy Long Beach Islander with clean, eco-freindly shells that look great and will last a lifetime. Best of all, you just found a great project for the kids.

58 thoughts on “How to Clean Shells you Find on the Beach or in the Ocean

  1. wendy martin says:

    thanks for the great tips, ventnor,nj

  2. nikki says:

    what grit sandpaper do u use?

  3. Heather says:

    I’m just reading your post after a trip to San Diego where my 4-1/2 year old went to town on shell collecting. We’re from Colorado so, yeah — not many shells here. :) Thanks!

  4. judy carlisle says:

    How do I get the sand out?

  5. I keep my shells in a bottle and would like to add a liquid – was thinking a water and bicarb solution – would this work or make them rot? I have already cleaned all.

  6. ada262729 says:

    i use bleach before and need help restoring the color to the shell

  7. rachel.beard says:

    Thanks for the great info! I collected a bunch of shells on LBI this weekend and noticed the were dull after soaking. I googled for help and found your blog. Your photos are gorgeous. Thank you very much for sharing! I’m gonna get some sandpaper and mineral oil and get to work!

  8. Colene says:

    My moon snail shells seem to have a thick coating of white mineral over the shell. Do you know of a way to remove that so the pretty shell beneath shows?

  9. Stacy says:

    Perfect, did NOT want to use bleach, and of the 5-6 guides I opened after googling, yours was the only one that didn’t. Thank you so much!

  10. I have to say that I agree with the informaation provided here.
    As a

    professional cleaning consultant I have some knnowledge in
    this area. Nice read – thanks for sharing.

  11. Nelda says:

    Thanks for this info. So many say to use bleach & water..DONT! I did now I’m trying to get them all shiny again.

  12. Nelda says:

    My Shells that were faded & dull with a film over them for 4 yrs. now look GREAT! Dont think twice about using & the mineral oil did a great job.

  13. veronica baulch says:

    how do you get the smell of dead animals out of your shell.

  14. says:

    Just back from Sanibel and I read the water and bleach 50/50 idea. HORRIBLE. Shells smell awful as in fishy and bleachy. Anyone have a solution for this? Really want to keep them but they are outside right now. It’s still cold here (46 degrees) but I can’t have them in the house until they don’t smell. H E L P

  15. Soul-Body says:

    Thank you!

    I am in the process of trying your technique out (Step 1 actually). I totally agree with you, patience often receives the best reward – I was about to use the bleach but after further research I came across your advice and I want to do it right the first time around.

    I’ll try to remember to update this post to let everyone know how it went. I can’t wait to see the results – first shelling experience and I found a wonderful button shell!

    Fingers crossed,


  16. ronald says:

    is it applicable for the golden apple snail?

  17. Jessica says:

    Will this make them hermit crab safe? I need to make sure that the shells are safe for my little babies, and all the pet stores that are around me only sell painted shells, and the craft stores sell their shells for a very high price.

  18. Michele says:

    What would soaking them in vinegar do?

  19. Ann says:

    I collected miniature shells on the trash line on Sanibel Island. You can collect as many as you want and have room in your suitcase to take them home. Too many and too small to sand and apply mineral oil so I sprayed them with acrylic clear coat. It restores the shine and beauty of the shell. They will look lovely in the ship shaped wine bottle we had with our Thanksgiving dinner.

  20. Wow!! I have just come across this site and the information on cleaning shells is brilliant. My daughter and I collected some beautiful shells but I was unsure how to clean them as some recommend bleach, others don’t. Can’t wait till shop’s open, (It’s Sunday) to get started. I want to use them for crafting to help raise money for our Scout Explorers, (7th St Georges) to complete their Gold- D 0f E and Young Leaders awards. A BIG thanks.

  21. How do i get the smell out from a shell that I got at a Restaurant? The shell is already cooked. and the abalone is gone as far as i can see. Just leave out in the air for a while or still soak them? Thank you

  22. rosie says:

    I have lots of shells I got from holiday have been washed and dryed and don’t really smell so is there any need to boil them before I sand them please ??

  23. Jean Langeland says:

    how long do you boil them (after I have soaked thrm)

  24. Lisa Ulf says:

    Why do you use Sand paper ?

  25. Cindee says:

    I am also curious as to how long to boil?

  26. […] How to Clean Shells you Find on the Beach or in the Ocean … – Collecting seashells along Long Beach Island is fun all year round. The fun does not last long though if you don’t know how to clean them and care for them…. […]

  27. Rachel says:

    We accidentally ended up with a live hermit crab-in-conch shell after checking extensively (even held it up to light to look for shadows) . He kinda survived 3 days out of water and a flight back to the states. Any suggestions on what to do with the little guy? I think freezing might be the nicest way to kill it?

  28. Andrea says:

    I found some moon snail shells and have not cleaned them yet, is there any possibility a hermit crab could be living inside one? I checkrd as best as I could it’s been about a day.

  29. Doreena Cook says:

    I wondered if baby oil would work also?

  30. izzy says:

    is baby oil okay to use in place of mineral oil? that’s what I’ve been using and it seems to do a good job

  31. Nani says:

    I have many cone shells with sand stuck in them. How do I get the sand out??

  32. Jess says:

    Thank you for these tips! I had some really scummy scallop shells and this worked beautifully. Everyone is clean and vibrant now without smelling like beach! I wish I could pay a picture.

  33. carmen says:

    great idea its working with the steps you gave

  34. sammyk says:

    do you soak in mineral oil? i have left my shells soaking in mineral oil for a couple days now. also what’ do you suggest i use to rub the mineral oil off?

  35. Sasha says:

    Is using sandpaper essential? I have many small shells and it seems so tedious…..and i don’t think they look much different after.

  36. Carrie says:

    I have a TON of shells I have collected over several vacations. Some are several months old, other a few years. I always soaked them in water for a few days then dried them when I found them before storing them in plastic bags. Now they stink. REALLY bad. What do you reccomend for shells (and a few starfish that I found dried out) in terms of getting rid of the stench before I go on to restore their shine?

  37. zach says:

    I need to know how to clean queen conch shells found in Turks and Caicos and keep the color and clean them at the same time thanks!!!

  38. Valerie Reisetter says:

    Definitely make sure there’s no crabs in them found a few after I’d already had them in my coffee can and brought them back to iowa

  39. Valerie Reisetter says:

    Definitely make sure there’s no crabs in them found a few after I’d already had them in my coffee can and brought them back to iowa. That my trip to the golf was awesome

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