Should You Clean Coins Or Not? (Hint: NO!)

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People entering the hobby of coin collecting (and those who’ve found a coin that might be valuable) usually want to know how they can clean their coins.

Questions like “Which way is the best way to clean my old penny?” or “How do I brighten up my tarnished silver dollar?” normally lead to one, impassioned answer from me: “Don’t clean your coins!”

It seems logical to some people that a bright and shiny coin would be favored by coin collectors.

While that may be true to a certain extent, what is also true is that coin collectors prefer coins that display normal, natural color.

If a coin is bright and shiny because it was well preserved or just came from the Mint, that is a good thing!

However, if a coin is bright and shiny because it was just dipped in vinegar and baking soda or was scrubbed with an abrasive like toothpaste, then coin collectors will shy away.

Why? Again, most coin collectors prefer coins that possess natural color — regardless of how “ugly” it might look.

Coins Should Be Treated As Delicate Collectibles

It is true that, in many hobbies, a “cleaned” or “restored” item usually fetches a higher price than an unkempt version.

Yes, it is often the case that a cleaned and newly restored 1957 Chevy may get a higher price than a junked version of the same car.

Many times, you will hear of old paintings and linens on “The Antiques Roadshow” that appraisers say would fetch a higher price if holes were repaired and grime was washed away.

However, in coin collecting, numismatists tend to take the “old, fine wine approach.” That means, collectors value and appreciate coins that show their age.

So, again… here is how NOT to clean coins!

Experts Can Tell A Coin Has Been Cleaned

A true coin collector would rather have a deep, chocolate brown-colored penny that is 100 years old than a penny of the same age that has been cleaned to look new.

Coin cleaning can lead to drastic results, as seen here in the before and after shots of this copper British half penny coin.

What also happens when a coin is cleaned is that it usually displays an unnatural color.

Some examples:

  • Pennies that have been cleaned often take on an unnatural, orange color. Sometimes cleaned pennies will show streaks or blotches of color.
  • Silver coins sometimes take on uniform grey colors that are otherwise unnatural for silver coins.
  • Any coin that has been heavily cleaned will have an unnatural, uniform reflectivity that coins would not normally show.

Here’s how to tell if a coin has been cleaned or not.

Values For Cleaned Coins vs. Uncleaned Coins

Here are a bunch of old, dirty, and damaged coins. See how to properly clean old coins.

So you’re probably wondering… what are cleaned coins worth, compared to uncleaned coins?

Like many aspects of coin collecting, there is little science in valuing cleaned coins versus uncleaned coins. Many aspects of judging a cleaned coin’s value are based on eye appeal. That is, how “nice” does the coin look?

  • A coin that has been so abrasively cleaned that it now has scratches or hairlines and has lost its luster will rarely be worth anything more than half its original, uncleaned value.
  • A coin that has been only lightly cleaned (and is not scratched and doesn’t have much evidence of impaired luster) may be reduced in value by as little as 10% or as much as 30%.

However, there is no “rule” for such values. The pricing of cleaned coins is often done on a case-per-case standard.

The percentages mentioned above are the more common price discounts that I have seen over the years for cleaned coins being offered from dealers.

Here’s how to get money for your cleaned or otherwise damaged coins.

Is There A “Safe” Way To Clean Coins?

There are relatively few occasions when it is considered recommendable to clean a coin.

Normally, coins that are encrusted in dirt can be safely cleaned with simple, clean water. It is usually okay for your coins to sit briefly in water — to give the dirt time to gently dissolve.

Then, pat — don’t rub! — your coins dry individually with a soft towel.

This is the safest way to clean coins... simply hold them under a stream of water to remove debris. Then, pat each coin dry, one by one.

Removing loose debris is acceptable in coin collecting.

The controversy about cleaning coins usually comes into play when a person is attempting to remove the natural color or patina that a coin has taken on.

For example, rubbing just about anything on a coin will leave scratches and fine lines on the surface of the coin. While to the novice eye, these lines may resemble the luster and shine seen on new coins, the lines actually represent irreparable damage to the coin.

Here’s a video I made showing the only two ways that you can safely clean coins yourself at home:


What About Cleaning Pennies?

Regarding pennies…

All of those coin cleaning methods you’ve heard so much about — from vinegar to baking soda to erasers — actually strip away the natural toning (tarnish) that your pennies have taken years to develop.

The deep browns seen on most older pennies are colors that most coin collectors actually desire. So when a penny with even, brown or chocolate colors comes your way, leave it alone!

What About Corroded Coins?

See how to clean corroded coins.

If your coin has suffered damage from polyvinyl chloride (PVC), the coin will usually have green residue on its surfaces.

The green residue is a sign that the metal in the coin has begun reacting to the plastic. This reaction is usually dangerous for the coin and progressively can get worse. In time, the coin can become irreparably damaged.

Professionals can safely handle the removal of most PVC damage. There are also ways you can remove PVC on your own. I do stress, however, that trying to remove PVC damage can be inherently dangerous for 2 reasons:

  1. You may further damage your coin while trying to clean the residue off; and
  2. The chemicals involved in removing PVC can be harmful to handle and can be flammable.

Here’s how to remove PVC damage on coins.

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40 thoughts on “Should You Clean Coins Or Not? (Hint: NO!)”

  1. Hi! I was given a bunch of old US-Philippines circulated coins and I cleaned them. So, now I have ruined these coins. what is the best way to restore it back to its old state? Time? Any input will help. Thank you!

    Reply
    • Hi Jennifer —

      We all learned the hard way — including me — about cleaning coins. Unfortunately, once a coin has been cleaned, it will always “be cleaned.”

      Time will help restore a patina that will help the coins look less harsh.

      If you’re looking to “do” something to the coins to make them appear less shiny and planning to keep the coins for yourself, you could impart some artificial toning. Place the coins in a paper envelope and leave them in direct sun (such as on an indoor window sill) to help restore some color to the coin (sulfur and heat are two methods of toning coins).

      Reply
  2. Uhhmm…the only coins collectors are looking for are dates, where it was minted, what the silver amount, etc. They don’t care about average silver coins…All Silver coins are primarily sold for their silver content based on the silver market..so cleaning and polishing a silver coin makes no difference to the value. Again…Unless its a special coin..

    Reply
  3. What’s wrong with soaking them in water and wiping them with a soft cloth? Many of the coins circulating have been thus treated?!

    Reply
    • It’s true that many coins have received worse treatment in circulation, but the credo in coin collecting is to leave coins as they have been found, for even the slightest rubbing can further wear a coin down or impart further damage.

      Reply
  4. A customer sent me a coin to be wire wrapped that she had cleaned. The coin is an 1896 Morgan Dollar. It looks like the silver has rubbed off and left spots of copper showing. Is there any way to restore it to its rightful silver color? I do not know what the owner cleaned it with.

    Reply
    • Hmm, even though most U.S. silver coins have a little bit of copper in them, it shouldn’t really appear as you have described. Usually, coins that are 90% silver appear silvery all the way through. It may be that there was some type of environmental damage to the coin that would cause the spotting you describe. Plating the coin with silver might restore the silverish color that you desire.

      Reply
  5. Thanks for the info Joshua. I contacted the customer and asked what she had cleaned the coin with and she said it was a “silver cleaner” and that she had scrubbed the coin vigorously. Anyway, she still wants it made into a pendant so all is not lost. Once again, thanks!

    Reply
    • Hi, Carlos –

      It depends on what you mean by “really bad,” but without seeing the coins I can with confidence say that it is probably better off leaving them in the “original” condition by not cleaning them than to try and improve their appearance by washing them in some way. If you would like to post pics here of your Mexican coins to this comment board so I can see them and render a specific opinion, please feel free to do so!

      Reply
  6. I have an expensive high grade Australian florin, it has a small dark ugly patch which looks like a scorch mark. Can I clean it safely?

    Reply
    • Hi, Mark –

      If it is a scorch mark, then the extreme heat would have quite possibly reworked the chemical structure of the penny anyway and caused discoloration below the surface of the coin. Therefore trying to remove the discoloration will mean having to remove the metal on the surface of the coin, damaging it. I would personally forego cleaning the coin altogether.

      Reply
  7. Hi there. I inherited a bunch of old US coins and one in particular, an 1833 silver half dollar is almost black from tarnish. The detail of the coin is quite striking. Even the sides writing is very visible. I know the recommendation is to not clean, but it is SO dark, that I cannot see anyone taking the time to consider it just for it’s color. I did try someones suggestion to use acetone, which did nothing. I do not want to do anything to hurt the coins value as I do intend to sell it and the others (I am a guitar player/collector, so the coins will be better appreciated somewhere else 🙂 Any suggestions? Thank you! Franz.

    Reply
    • Hello, Franz —

      Great question! Yes, doctoring the coin is a very sensitive subject and one that I’m glad you asked about. While there are ways to lighten the coin, they’re generally all very abrasive and will ultimately hurt the details of the coin and the value of your piece.

      Most 1833 half dollars (and old silver coins in general) are very dark anyway and collectors not only know that, they appreciate the original patina on those old coins.

      I suggest the best thing to do is to sell your coin as-is. Your best bet to get the most value will be selling it on eBay, followed up with selling it to a coin dealer if you can’t sell it on the auction site.

      I hope this helps!
      Joshua @ TheFunTimesGuide

      Reply
      • Thank you Joshua! That helps a lot! I am awaiting some proper coin holders and will then put them out there. I am glad I asked!
        If I didn’t have such a love of guitars I could definitely get into coins. They are quite striking and such a piece of history.

        Reply
        • You’re most welcome, Franz! I know guitars are also similarly collectible works of art and tell a story about the evolution and history of music. So, it makes perfect sense to me that you also appreciate the history and artistry of coinage!

          All the best to you, and play on!
          -Josh

          Reply
    • Notice that Joshua calls it the nice word patina- he will buy it off you cheap later because of the miss-coloring. I call it the crap of age- clean to your desire.

      Reply
      • I don’t buy coins from anybody on this forum, and no — you should not clean coins! It strips away their metal on a microscopic level (leaving behind countless striations on the surface) and permanently ruins their value. Original patina is preferred by virtually all numismatists, and I — as well as virtually any coin collector you would talk to — strongly advise against cleaning any coins.

        Take care,
        Josh

        Reply
        • As somebody who randomly stumbled upon this on a google spree:
          I see people talking about the “value” a lot when it comes to cleaning. So if somebody doesn’t care about selling, but rather about learning about the history of a coin, why wouldn’t you want to clean it as well as possible? The more detail you find, the more information you get right?

          sorry for necroposting

          Reply
          • Hi, Tillus —

            Cleaning can actually remove the minute bits of metal on the coin, so in effect a cleaning permanently damages the coin. In most cases there is always a way to study a coin with its original surfaces intact, which can also help collectors better understand wear and toning patterns, too.

            Just my two cents!
            Josh

  8. Do not clean a coin if there is a selfish coin collector in front of you that wants only his way to be done. Always put a sparkle on a coin when giving the coin to a child if you are hoping to see a sparkle in his eye.

    Reply
    • Coin collectors are numismatic custodians for the next generation, and thus they should not clean their coins. This is advice that virtually any other coin collector would also offer. Cleaning coins automatically cuts their monetary value in half and permanently alters their surfaces, as exhibited by countless striations on the surface (especially in the case of cleanings performed with abrasive cleaning methods such as toothpaste, baking soda, and jeweler’s cleaner).

      Best,
      Josh

      Reply
  9. Here is my dilemma. ive got a Chinese coin that at first glance looks like its made of copper but has been water damaged or sonething and has thick green crap over dark brown crap and I cant even see the symbols on the coin however on the other side in the center i can clearly make out the face body and scales of an open mouth dragon but again around the edge of the coin is this green dark brown sludge that I cant read what it says but i can see the dotted center circle around the 4 symbols in the middle of the obverse side. i cant see a date or anything!

    Reply
  10. So Josh, if I have a penny let’s say, that is highly BU (a 2010 with no spots on it), with the exception of what appears to be a a small piece of dirt near the edge, it is OK to soak this coin in distilled water and lightly pat it dry to try to get the dirt off? I really think this could get a very high grade from PCGS, it is a really nice coin, it looks better than the MS66 that PCGS has up on its website for a 2010.

    Reply
    • Hi, Michael —

      Hmm… The distilled water should be OK, but what concerns me is the soft pat, which could — remarkably — be enough to impart some lines that could appear at 5-10X magnification, which is the type of scrutiny coins going through PCGS evaluation will experience. As you may know, PCGS is especially conservative on surface ticks. I’d say try the rinsing if you’d like at your own risk, but do so as cautiously as possible!

      Good luck,
      Josh

      Reply
      • Well I wonder if it’s a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation……am I assuming incorrectly that PCGS will be equally as conservative (if not more) on grading if I leave the dirt on the coin? So I guess I just need to make sure that the distilled water soak won’t affect the luster on the coin, which is really nice….also, if I do decide to soak, what’s the amount of time I should soak it for?

        Thanks.

        Reply
        • Hi, Michael —

          I believe soaking the coin for just a minute or two should dislodge any dirt that will come off the coin. I like your idea of using a blow drier on cold setting to dry the coin. I don’t see why that would hurt it.

          Good luck with this! I hope you score a nice MS-66 or MS-67 — or higher!

          Cheers,
          Josh

          Reply
      • One more question…..if I decide to risk soaking the dirt off, would blow drying it with cold air be better than a soft pat?

        Reply
  11. Firstly, thanks for taking the time to help folks in comment threads! That’s really a labor of love.

    My desire-to-clean-coins is on some ~1950’s-vintage British pennies and shillings. I truly only want them for the fun of it, and/or possibly for adding ridiculous verisimilitude to a play or a costume someday, and not for any inherent or future collectible value.

    I lay down for a bit as suggested in a comment on the how_to_clean_coins page, but the urge didn’t go away. And yet, the more I read your pages, the less I feel I can justify cleaning anything ever. These coins aren’t particularly old now as common coins go, but if I still have them in thirty years, they might be vaguely respectible.

    Is there anything you would recommend for making these coins better-defined and somewhat less dull — so that perhaps they look like they might have in the ’60’s or ’70’s in normal circulation — without committing an actual numismatic no-no? The greenish bits particularly “offend” me; it makes them “look old”, which wouldn’t be appropriate in a reenactment or theatrical setting. Thanks! 🙂

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/b0aeb09554ff8023b5d5bba5ed108b36fd3d6fb829ecdae6ebb0d41a0b6b95ac.jpg https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/480695c46f6e0bf42b0b9063ad04986d942328583d03d7c924fd0d6e2780430c.jpg

    Reply
    • Hi, Godbassist —

      The only safe way to restore those coins is with professional conservation services. NCS is one of the most popular, and they have restored coins from floods, fires, etc. it’s worth the money to do this the right way rather than try cleaning them on your own, especially if they are valuable or rare coins. FYI, I have no connections in any way personal or professional to NCS, I just know them and recommend them from my decades in the hobby. Here’s their link: https://www.ngccoin.com/ncs-conservation/

      Good luck!
      Josh

      Reply
  12. What if you had a large bucket with maybe $40 worth of everyday loose change that got extremely tarnished because your cat though the bucket was a nice place to pee?

    Reply
    • Hey, Always —

      Sounds like an awfully specific hypothetical… Ha ha… If this were the case, I’d suggest running some tepid water through to remove the surface residue, pat the coins dry with a soft cloth, and start looking through for rarities or errors. If there are any coins worth holding aside, submit those to a coin conservation service to safely remove the tarnish.

      Good luck,
      Josh

      Reply
  13. I have a 1957 Denver wheat penny, and it is in fantastic condition. The front looks like it just came from the Denver mint! But the back looks almost the same, but the edge is has this dark residue all around the edge of the back. Is it safe to clean it?

    By the way, does 57 d’s always have the motto touching the edge and having extra space at the bottom?

    Reply

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