How to Effectively Clean a Penny and Other Old Coins

Here's what to do—and not do—when cleaning potentially valuable coins.

coins in a grid
Photo: LARISA NIEDLE

Chalk it up to the excitement of having my own money for the first time, but when I was a kid, I loved cleaning dirty pennies collected in my piggy bank before cashing them in at the real bank. While there was little purpose in cleaning the coins that I was about to hand over to the bank teller, the dramatic transformation of watching dingy, grime-covered coins come out sparkling clean was oddly satisfying.

If, like 6-year-old me, you or your kids are curious about how to clean coins, follow the simple steps below to get dull coins sparkling using a slightly acidic solution that will eat away at the brown oxidation on the coins. Bonus: A perfectly clean penny will be the ideal candidate for pressed penny souvenir machines.

Should Coin Collectors Clean Their Coins?

This article comes with a significant warning from coin collectors and appraisers worldwide. If you're a novice coin collector wondering the right way to clean old coins, you might want to rethink it. According to coin experts, cleaning any potentially collectible coins might cause them to lose value. Using chemical cleaners or scrubbing the coins could leave scratches and marks that will be easy for a skilled appraiser to pick up on.

When deciding whether or not to clean a coin, be discerning, and if in doubt, have your collection appraised first. Collectors consider a coin valuable and collectible when its appraised value is significantly higher than its intrinsic value. For example, a wheat penny can be worth anywhere from 4 cents to $10. Other coins can be worth thousands, and in rare cases, millions. If you're a serious coin collector, you can hire professional services to clean coins in a way that won't diminish the coins' value.

Cleaning Coins for Crafts and Fun

Now that the disclaimer is out of the way, let's get to the best coin cleaning method that you can do at home. If you're collecting just for fun and with no intention of one day selling or trading your coins, the steps below will clean a standard oxidized penny (that is only worth one cent) with ease.

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First, gather your supplies.

supplies for cleaning coins
LARISA NIEDLE

You'll Need:

  • Salt
  • White vinegar (or fresh lemon juice)
  • Shallow plastic container
  • Cloth or paper towel
  • Baking soda (optional)
  • Toothbrush (optional)
  • Dishwashing liquid (optional)
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Step 1:

cleaning coins
LARISA NIEDLE

In a jar, combine 1 cup vinegar (or lemon juice) and 1 tablespoon salt. Stir until the salt is dissolved.

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Step 2:

cleaning coins
LARISA NIEDLE

Pour the solution into the plastic container. There should be enough liquid that pennies lying flat on the bottom of the container will be fully submerged (if not, add more liquid).

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Step 3:

cleaning coins
LARISA NIEDLE

Add the coins in a single layer, so none of the coins are touching. Wait 15 minutes.

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Step 4:

cleaning coins
LARISA NIEDLE

When you remove the coins and wipe them with a cloth or paper towel, they should look shiny. If the layer of brown oxidation doesn't budge, return the coins to the dish and let them soak for five more minutes.

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Step 5 (optional):

how-to-clean-coins-step-5
LARISA NIEDLE

If your kids want a more hands-on approach to coin cleaning, add a small amount of water to a tablespoon of baking soda to form a paste. Let your kids use an old toothbrush to apply the paste to each coin, scrubbing gently. Rinse the coins to reveal the now-shiny surfaces.

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Step 6 (optional):

cleaning coins
LARISA NIEDLE

If your coins are still dirty, you can fill the plastic container with a 1-inch layer of warm water. Next, add a squirt of dishwashing liquid and agitate the water to create bubbles. Add the coins, and rub each one until the surface looks shiny. Rinse with warm water, then dry.

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