How To Clean Zinc Pennies In 6 Easy Steps

If you thought about the filth that gloms onto most pennies, you’d never pick one up! Pennies are exposed to just about every source of muck you can think of, but fortunately there is a way to clean zinc pennies to restore them to their former luster.

The 6 steps to clean zinc pennies are:

  1. Soak the pennies overnight
  2. Clean them by hand
  3. Pick your solution
  4. Soak them
  5. Remove, dry and inspect
  6. Rinse and Repeat

Pennies are covered in germs, bacteria and grime. Cleaning them in soap and water will not do the trick in most cases and may even add to the overall filth clinging to a penny. Keep reading to learn all you need to know about how to clean zinc pennies.

Before You Clean Your Zinc Pennies

Should You Clean Zinc Pennies?

You should clean zinc pennies if they are not particularly valuable. In rare, valuable zinc pennies, cleaning them can detract from their value. Collectors want to see coins that look like they have been in circulation and a newly cleaned penny does not show that.

The rule of thumb is: If your zinc pennies are common and not worth much beyond one cent, clean away. But, if your zinc pennies have value because they are of special, commemorative edition status or rarity, you should leave them alone.

If you are unsure about whether or not to clean you zinc pennies, take them to a dealer and get their opinion. They might also have cleaning suggestions for you that will not affect the value of the coin.

The History Of Zinc In Coins

Zinc has played a unique role in the history of the US penny. The earliest recorded use of zinc in the penny was in 1837. Up until that point, dating back to 1793, pennies were made of copper.

  • 1793 – 1837: 100% copper
  • 1837 – 1957: 95% copper, 5% tin
  • 1858 – 1864: 88% copper, 12% nickel
  • 1864 – 1942: 95% copper, 5% zinc and tin
  • 1943: Zinc-coated steel
  • 1944 – 1946: Brass (95% copper and 5% zinc)
  • 1946 – 1962: Bronze (95% copper, 5% tin and zinc
  • 1963 – 1982: Brass (95% copper and 5% zinc)
  • 1983 – Date: 97.6% zinc and 2.4% copper

The zinc-coated steel penny in 1943 was the result of a copper shortage because of World War II.

Identifying Zinc Pennies

The line of demarcation except for 1943 is really 1982. In 1982 the composition of pennies changed from predominately copper to predominately zinc, but pennies of both compositions were minted.

That has created an identification challenge for some. There are three ways to tell if your 1982 penny is made of zinc or brass.


A copper penny weighs 3.11 grams. A zinc penny weighs 2.5 grams.


Copper based pennies look different than zinc-based pennies. Copper based pennies look a mahogany brown, almost the color of chocolate. It also has an orange hue. Zinc based coins have more uneven coloring and can even look spotted.

The Drop Test

When you drop a copper-based penny, it makes a ringing sound. A zinc penny makes a clicking sound.


Just about every product recommended for cleaning pennies is common in most households. That does not mean, however, that the various cleaning agents are not poisonous. With that in mind, to ensure safety for everyone in your home, follow these guidelines:

  • Always wear gloves when handling chemicals
  • Always wear eye protection to prevent splashes from getting in your eyes
  • When wearing gloves, avoid touching anything not a penny or a chemical
  • Make sure any work areas are well ventilated
  • If you feel dizzy, nauseous, light-headed, disoriented or tired, exit the work area
  • Always have a wash station on hand and easily accessible
  • Wear long sleeved pants and shirts when working with chemicals
  • Wear a smock, if at all possible, to control exposure to your clothes and skin
  • Require all visitors to put on safety clothing and equipment
  • Only handle the pennies during cleaning processes when you have tongs or tweezers

Each of these safety tips applies to anyone cleaning or observing the cleaning of coins.

6 Steps To Clean Zinc Pennies

1. Soak The Pennies Overnight

Grime can be softened and even knocked or wiped off if you immerse the penny in warm soapy water and leave it in there for at least 12 hours. Leaving it soaking overnight is the best option if you have the time.

2. Clean Them By Hand

You have several options regarding how to do this and you may even elect to use more than one. Getting any crud off by hand, before you expose your penny to any chemicals should always be your first step. To do that, use one, or more, of these techniques:

Brush Them

Using a wire brush, lightly run the brush over the penny. The purpose here is not to clean the penny so much as to just rid it of grime. This can also be done after soaking the coin in warm, soapy water overnight.

Cleaning With Water

After soaking coins overnight, you can also clean them with warm, soapy water. Many people feel this is the easiest way to clean a zinc penny. The dirt will be softened by the warm, soapy water and break off easily.

Scrub The Pennies

Another solution is to rub the pennies with common table salt. You can do this with your fingers or with a cloth.

3. Pick Your Solution

You essentially have four choices when it comes to cleaning your penny or pennies with chemicals. There are many cleanser alternatives, but these four choices will all but guarantee that you will be successful in cleaning your zinc pennies.

Hydrogen Peroxide

Available in any department store with a health and beauty department, hydrogen peroxide is very effective and affordable. It will bubble when you pour it on the penny. If there is excess grime on the penny It might bubble significantly. This is not hurting your penny, don’t worry.

Make sure that you rinse the penny off thoroughly after immersion and soaking. You can soak a penny (or any coin) in hydrogen peroxide as much as you want, provided it’s not one of particular value.

Vitrolin Copper Soap

This substance cleans zinc pennies very easily, although in some cases where the dirt is especially bad, it will need to be hand scrubbed. For grime-encrusted pennies, soaking them in the soap paste for up to 10 minutes and then soaking the penny in water overnight can help loosen debris and unwanted color.


Vinegar is a wonder-substance. It can be used in virtually all forms of housecleaning. Soak the penny in the vinegar overnight and then wipe the pennies the next day. Vinegar can also be used repeatedly on a penny.

Sulfuric Acid

This should not be used unless you have the appropriate safety clothing, smock and glasses. If you are a minor, you need to have an adult present. Letting your pennies sit in a diluted sulfuric acid formula is the simplest way to rid them of debris. Let them soak for up to 20 minutes.

Because sulfuric acid can be extremely dangerous, only use it when you have the appropriate safety gear on. You do not want to hurt yourself, your clothing, or others you work with.

4. Soak Them

After choosing how you will clean your pennies, you need to pour whatever solution you chose into a Tupperware container. You then need to wipe off any excess dirt and immerse the pennies in the solution. Make sure that all pennies are covered by the solution. Generally, unless directions say otherwise (see above), plan on soaking your pennies overnight.

5. Remove, Dry And Inspect

Once the soaking period is completed, remove the pennies and place them on a paper towel. Wipe them off individually and inspect them.

6. Rinse And Repeat

In most cases, the combination of soaking pennies in warm, soapy water followed by hand washing the coins and then soaking them will do the job. After that, if your penny is not significantly cleaner with more luster, color and shininess, you should repeat this entire process, starting with soaking the pennies overnight in warm soapy water.

Repeat this step as many times as needed. In rare cases, no amount of scrubbing, soaking or rubbing will clean your pennies. When that happens, consider a stronger solution of whatever you used or opt for one of the other remedies.

Final Thoughts

It’s inevitable for coins that are left open to the elements to pick up grime over time. However, with the right methods and solutions, you can get your zinc pennies back to their original shiny condition!

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