The successful dinner party is over and it's time to clean the silverware, but the silver is actually silver plate -- and its thin, electroplated outer layer must be handled with more care than its pure-blooded cousin requires. Hard scrubbing or harsh detergents--even baking soda--will remove the thin surface layer, revealing a copper or brass base material. Clean silver plate with care so you don't erase the silvery finish of your shiny tableware.
How It’s Made
A very thin layer of silver is electroplated onto a copper or brass base, creating what has been known since the 1840s as silver plate. Unlike sterling silver, which is almost 100 percent silver, plate is not considered silver. The coating is so thin that scrap metal merchants don't even bother scraping the silver off. The markings EP or EPNS designate that the pieces are electroplated. Authentic sterling silver is never referred to as layered or sterling plated.
Daily Care of Silver Plate
Do not put your silver-plated tableware into the dishwasher. Fill the sink with warm -- not hot -- water, adding a splash of mild liquid dish soap. After soaking, gently clean the pieces with a soft, 100 percent cotton cloth or a sponge. Rinse and dry the tableware promptly with a cotton towel. Don't use abrasive cleaning tools. Treat silver plate as if it's a baby's bottom.
Choosing the Right Cleanser
All cleansers are abrasive when used on silver plate. The electroplated silver finish is extremely thin, with loss of silver a given when you clean it with any cleanser. Daily use keeps tarnish, the silver's reaction to sulfur-containing substances in the air, at bay. Avoid citrus-based detergents containing acids that will also eat away at the thin finish, and find a gentle liquid that's phosphate-free. Hand sanitizer and window cleaner with vinegar do less damage than powdered cleansers.
Occasional Cleaning of Silver Plate
If you don't use your silver plate often, it tarnishes. Paste and liquid cleaners remove the tarnish, but also remove thin layers of the silver plating. A silver cloth, or silver cleaners that go on as a paste and must be washed off, cause the least amount of damage to silver plate. Don't scrub intricate detailing with a nylon toothbrush. Instead, use a horsehair brush on the design, and scrub gently. Some blacking is intended, to offset the design.
Storing Silver Plate
As with sterling silver, preventing the finish from coming into contact with the sulfur in the air is the goal when you store silver plate. Store your silver plate in a plastic bag and throw in an anti-tarnish strip to alleviate the effects of humidity. Silver flannels are also effective, because they slowly absorb the tarnish during storage. Don't worry about the flannels getting dirty -- it may take more than 20 years before you'll have to replace them. If you store the silver plate in a flannel-lined silverware box, an anti-tarnish strip helps prevent buildup.
Silver Plate Warnings
While quick solutions for cleaning silver plate are advertised frequently, the chemical reactions created when silver meets aluminum foil and is covered with baking soda are extreme. It does clean the silver, and fast, but can be damaging to the thin silver-plate surface. You'll soon be eating with brass or copper tableware if you use this method.