Does Stainless Steel Jewelry Tarnish?
Stainless steel is a common metal used in jewelry for its strength, durability, and sleek appearance. But many wonder, does stainless steel jewelry tarnish over time like other metals? The short answer is, it can, but not as easily or quickly as sterling silver or other types of metal jewelry.
Tarnishing occurs when a metal reacts with substances like air or water, causing a darkening effect on the surface. Stainless steel is designed to be corrosion and tarnish resistant, though no metal is 100% immune. With proper care and maintenance, stainless steel jewelry can retain its original shine for many years.
How Stainless Steel Resists Tarnishing
Stainless steel is an alloy, meaning it is composed of a mixture of metals. Most stainless steel contains iron, chromium, nickel, manganese, and carbon. The metals are combined in varying amounts to create different grades of stainless steel.
The key ingredient that makes stainless steel resistant to tarnishing is chromium. When exposed to oxygen, chromium forms a thin transparent layer on the steel's surface called a passive layer. This prevents corrosion and tarnishing. As long as the layer remains intact, the metal is protected.
Stainless steel jewelry contains at least 10.5% chromium to provide tarnish resistance. Higher chromium content above 18% further enhances the protective passive layer. Other alloying elements like molybdenum and nitrogen also help improve stainlessness.
Factors That Can Cause Stainless Steel to Tarnish
Though stainless steel has excellent anti-tarnish properties, some factors can break down the passive layer over time and allow tarnishing to occur:
- Chlorine bleaches: The chlorine in bleach or chlorinated swimming pools can interact with and corrode stainless steel. This leads to pitting and discoloration.
- Saltwater exposure: The high salt content found in seawater or from sweat on skin can start to break down stainless steel's protective layer.
- Acids: Strong acids like vinegar, citrus juices, or tanning solutions can wear away the passive layer and expose the reactive metals underneath.
- Abrasive cleaners: Harsh scrubbing with abrasives strips away the smooth passive layer and underlying chromium. This allows oxidation and tarnishing.
- High heat: Excessive heat from sources like ovens can discolor stainless steel jewelry and cause it to turn blue, brown, or gray.
With routine care and by avoiding prolonged exposure to these elements, stainless steel jewelry can maintain its untarnished appearance.
Also read: How to clean stainless steel jewelry?
Does Black Stainless Steel Jewelry Tarnish?
A popular variety of stainless steel jewelry has a deep, dark black finish. This is achieved by applying a physical vapor deposition (PVD) coating to the stainless steel. Common PVD coatings used are titanium nitride, zirconium nitride, or diamond-like carbon.
Black stainless steel jewelry resists tarnishing just as well as regular stainless steel. The PVD coating provides its eye-catching black color but does not reduce the stainless steel's natural corrosion resistance. However, abrasive cleaners or activities causing excessive wear over time could scratch through the coating and expose the stainless steel underneath.
Does Gold Stainless Steel Jewelry Tarnish?
Another decorative variety of stainless steel jewelry features a rich gold tone. This gold appearance is created through a different coating process called electroplating. The stainless steel is coated with a thin layer of gold applied by electrodeposition.
The layer of real gold improves the jewelry’s tarnish resistance even further. Gold stainless steel jewelry does not tarnish as it relies on gold’s natural anti-corrosion properties. Gold is extremely non-reactive and will not oxidize or discolor. However, wear over time can rub away the gold plating and expose the stainless steel below.
Signs of Stainless Steel Jewelry Tarnishing
Though resistant, stainless steel jewelry may eventually start to show signs of tarnishing, including:
- Visible corrosion spots or pitting
- Discolored patches turning gray, brown, or blue
- Cloudiness instead of a clear polished shine
- Iridescent rainbow coloring from thinning passive layer
Tarnishing begins gradually in isolated areas then spreads from the point of corrosion. Deep pitting or extensive tarnish may indicate a problem with the quality of the stainless steel. Higher nickel content can lead to more rapid breakdown of the protective surface film.
Also read: How to clean brass jewelry at home?
How To Clean Tarnished Stainless Steel Jewelry
Tarnishing not only dims the appearance of stainless steel but can also progress to irreversible damage if left alone. At the first signs of tarnish, take action by gently cleaning and restoring your jewelry’s original shine.
- For mild tarnish, use a jewelry polishing cloth lined with a fine abrasive like calcium carbonate. Gently rub in the direction of the grain lines.
- Make a paste with baking soda and water and apply with a soft cloth or toothbrush. Let it sit briefly before rinsing.
- Soak in a solution of warm water mixed with dish soap or ammonia for 15-30 minutes. Scrub away tarnish with a soft brush.
- For stubborn spots, use a jewelry polishing product containing a mild abrasive like aluminum oxide.
- Avoid immersing in chlorine or acidic cleaners which can exacerbate tarnishing.
Be patient and take care not to scrub aggressively which could damage the protective passive layer. With proper periodic cleaning, stainless steel’s anti-tarnish abilities can be preserved.
5 Frequently Asked Questions About Stainless Steel Jewelry Tarnishing
Does stainless steel jewelry tarnish?
Stainless steel can tarnish but is highly resistant compared to other metals. Its chromium content forms a protective passive layer to prevent oxidation. With care, stainless steel jewelry keeps its original shine.
How long does it take for stainless steel jewelry to tarnish?
It could take 3-5 years or longer for stainless steel jewelry to show signs of tarnishing in normal wear. Factors like salt exposure, chlorine, and abrasion shorten its tarnish resistance. Quality also affects how long it retains its untarnished look.
Why does my stainless steel jewelry look discolored?
Discoloration or cloudiness signals the passive layer has broken down in spots and early tarnishing is taking place. Blue, brown or rainbow hues point to thinning and oxidation. Gentle cleaning can often restore the original shine.
Can you reverse tarnish on stainless steel jewelry?
In early stages, tarnish can be removed by gently scrubbing with baking soda, ammonia, or jewelry polish to restore shine. Deep pitting may be irreversible but regular cleaning helps maintain the integrity of the protective layer.
How do you clean tarnished stainless steel jewelry?
Use non-abrasive cleaners like dish soap and water or jewelry cleaner with aluminum oxide. Gently scrub with a soft brush or cloth in direction of the grain. Avoid harsh chemicals like bleach or acid which further degrade the passive layer.
Stainless steel is cherished in jewelry for its strength, affordability, and ability to resist tarnishing. But it is still susceptible to breakdown over time when the surface is disrupted. Following care guidelines and promptly removing any buildup preserves stainless steel’s integrity and original pristine appearance. With routine maintenance, stainless steel jewelry can shine indefinitely.