5 Ways to Clean Your Pennies

Jar full of pennies

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Cleaning pennies can be a fun activity for kids of all ages. You can get Lincoln pennies by the roll at your local bank, or check with your parents or grandparents if they have a big-old-jar full of pennies and spare change sitting on top of their dresser. While there are other ways to clean pennies that involve the use of chemical cleaners that contain acids or other harmful chemicals, these three are effective and safe for children.

Pennies are made from copper or copperplated zinc. Copper is a highly reactive metal that will oxidize or discolor quickly. When pennies are first minted they have a bright orange-red color. As time passes, the copper reacts with the different impurities in the air. As the coins circulate they encounter oils and acids from people's hands. This turns that bright orange-red color into a dull brown but can be removed from the surface of the coin. If a coin has been severely damaged by the environment, it will turn green. Green is an indication of corrosion that cannot be fixed.

Before You Begin

It's essential to know that some pennies are collectibles worth quite a bit of money, and cleaning them can reduce or destroy their value. Therefore, before you clean any coin, be sure to determine if it is a valuable coin. If you're not sure, your local coin dealer should be able to give you a free appraisal. However, rolls of pennies that you get your local bank are almost certain not to contain any valuable coins. Enjoy your time cleaning your pennies and making them shine once again.

  • 01 of 06

    Vinegar (or Lemon Juice) and Salt

    Directly Above Shot Of Lemon Squeezer On Table

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    This method is the best way to clean your pennies, and it will produce a very bright orangey-copper color on your pennies. It does this by using the low levels of acids that are contained naturally in vinegar and lemon juice to remove the patina (brown oxidation) on the penny.

    Start by adding a quarter cup of white vinegar, or lemon juice, into a cup or glass. Mix a teaspoon of salt into the liquid by stirring until it is dissolved. Place your pennies at the bottom of the cup or glass so that they are not stacked on top of each other. Wait about five minutes and check your pennies. If they are not as bright as you would like them, let them sit for another five minutes. It may take as much as fifteen minutes to achieve the color you desire.

    Remove the pennies from the solution and rinse under warm running water. Dry your pennies with a soft cloth. If you would like to add a little bit more shine to your pennies, follow up with the Bon Ami Cleanser or baking soda method described below.

    This method will restore the bright orange copper color to your pennies. However, it will not give them a mirror-like shine. You can polish your pennies with a polishing cloth from a silverware set to give them a polished surface.

    Materials Needed

    • 1/4 cup of white vinegar or lemon juice
    • 1 teaspoon of salt
    • Spoon for stirring
    • Cup or glass (plastic or glass, but not metal)
    • Clean water
    • Soft dry cloth


    • Liquids can spill and make a mess
    • Can take up to 15 minutes (not good for impatient children)
    • Removes the brown oxidation and produces a bright colored copper penny
    • Can do more than one penny at a time


    • Liquids can spill and make a mess
    • Can take up to 15 minutes (not good for impatient children) 


    Be patient. Although this is using acid to clean your coins, it is a very low-level acid that is safe to use. The trade-off is that the process may take a while for this low-level acid to work. The dirtier and deeper brown color your pennies are, the longer it will take to bring out the orange-red color.

    Bonus: Put a couple of new steel nuts or bolts in the pan with your pennies. As you clean more and more pennies, the acid will dissolve some of the copper on the pennies. The copper that is dissolved in the vinegar will be attracted to the steel nuts and bolts. They will start to turn a copper in color as they sit in the solution. It may take several batches of pennies in order to put enough copper into the solution.

  • 02 of 06

    Pencil Eraser

    closeup of a pencil eraser

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    This technique is extremely easy and involves no liquids that can spill and make a mess.

    First, lay your dirty penny on top of a piece of paper or clean cloth. While holding the penny on a flat, stable surface with one hand, use the pencil eraser to rub the dirt and brown oxidation off of the penny using a small circular motion. When it is clean and shiny to your liking, flip the penny over, and repeat the same process on the other side. Old pencils with erasers that are rock-hard will be difficult to use and may leave deep scratches in the penny.

    Materials Needed

    • One or more new pencils with soft erasers. Alternatively, you can use a large pink eraser purchased at an office supply store.
    • Paper or clean cloth to work on


    • No liquids to spill
    • You probably already have everything you need


    • Small, physical, and repetitive motions (may be difficult for grandma or grandpa to help)
    • Eraser crumbs may make a mess
  • 03 of 06

    Tomato Ketchup

    White dip cup filled with ketchup on white background

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    This technique is very similar to the pencil eraser technique except that we add a little bit of ketchup to the process to help remove the oxidation.

    This natural process begins by putting about a quarter cup of tomato ketchup into a small container. Pick up a little ketchup on an old toothbrush by dipping it in the ketchup. While holding the penny on a flat surface with one hand, use the old toothbrush to work the tomato ketchup into the surface of the penny using small circular motions. In about a minute, your penny will turn from dull brown into bright copper color. If you would like to add a little bit more shine to your penny, do the "Bon Ami Cleanser or Baking Soda" method described below. Rinse the remaining ketchup from the surface of the penny under warm running water. Dry the penny with a soft clean cloth.

    Materials Needed

    • A quarter cup of tomato ketchup (or three ketchup packets from your favorite fast food place)
    • Small container
    • An old toothbrush
    • Clean cloth


    • Brings out the copper color on the penny
    • Physically easier than the pencil eraser method


    • Ketchup can splatter on people and things
  • 04 of 06

    Soap and Water

    cleaning a sink with yellow sponge

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    If your pennies literally have soil or some sort of unidentified gunk on them, you will need to remove that before trying to make your pennies bright and shiny. If you know how to wash dishes, you will be able to perform this task quite easily.

    First, mix a small amount of dishwashing liquid and water together. Dip your old toothbrush into the soapy water so that it is thoroughly soaked. While holding the penny with one hand, use the soapy toothbrush to scrub the dirt and gunk off the surface of the penny. Rinse under warm running water and dry with a soft clean cloth.

    Materials Needed

    • Dishwashing liquid
    • Warm water
    • An old toothbrush
    • Soft clean cloth


    • Materials are readily available
    • Easily removes dirt and gunk


    • Does not bring out the bright copper color on the penny
    Continue to 5 of 6 below.
  • 05 of 06

    Bon Ami Cleanser or Baking Soda

    Close-Up Of Baking Soda Spilled From Measuring Spoon On Table

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    For this method, you will use a commercially available cleanser called Bon Ami. If you can't find this exact brand name, you can substitute baking soda. In our experience, the name-brand cleanser produces the best results.

    This fun process begins by taking the powdered cleanser (or baking soda) and placing it in a small bowl or container. Start mixing small amounts of water into the powder until you have a paste-like consistency.

    Pick up a small amount of the paste on your thumb and forefinger by dipping them into the container. While holding the penny with your other hand, rub the mixture onto the front and the backside of the penny at the same time. Using small circular motions produces the best results. Rinse the penny and your fingers under clean running water and dry with a soft cloth.

    While this method will remove surface contamination, it may not make the copper penny bright. You may want to use one of the above methods such as lemon juice or ketchup to brighten the surface of the copper.

    Additionally, be careful how many pennies you do at one time. The constant scrubbing of the cleanser or baking soda may cause abrasions on your fingertips.

    Materials Needed

    • 2 tablespoons Bon Ami cleanser (or baking soda)
    • Small bowl or container for mixing
    • Water
    • Soft dry cloth


    • Produces bright and shiny pennies
    • Kids love this one the best


    • Very messy
    • May have to go to the store
    • Small, physical, and repetitive motions (may be difficult for grandma or grandpa to help)
  • 06 of 06

    Goo Gone

    8 ounce bottle of goo gone adhesives remover

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    If your coins have glue, adhesive, tape residue or any unidentified gooey substance on the surface, this is your best bet to remove it. Depending on the type of metal that your coin is made out of, Goo Gone may also restore the shiny surface to the coin. If the shine is not restored after you use Goo Gone, use the soap and water, or the pencil eraser method as described above.

    Pour a small amount of Goo Gone into a small bowl. Dip a corner of the paper towel into the liquid. While holding the coin on a flat surface rub the Goo Gone onto the surface of the coin. If the foreign substance on the coin is not easily removed, place the coin in the small bowl and let it soak for a bit. Then try rubbing the foreign matter off the surface again.

    Finally, wash the coin using the soap and water method mentioned above to remove any Goo Gone residue left on the surface of the coin. If the residue is difficult to remove, some rubbing alcohol purchased from a drugstore can be used to remove stubborn residue.

    Materials Needed

    • 8 oz. bottle of Goo Gone brand adhesive remover
    • Small bowl
    • Paper towel
    • Soft dry cloth


    • Easily removes glue, tape residue, and adhesives
    • Will not damage the surface of the coin


    • Messy
    • May have to let the coin soak for a while
    • Will have to go to the store