My strange and wonderful daughter has an obsession with bones since she was three years old. She even asked me if she could have my bones when I die. I said yes, but since we aren’t at that point yet, right now we are gathering all sorts of animal bones and cleaning them. 🙂
Cleaning animal bones for display is fairly simple. The entire process can be broken down into three steps:
- Start by removing any tissue left on the bones. The simplest way to do this is to bury the carcass or leave it for insects to clean.
- Soak the bones in soapy water to remove grease. Give them a good scrub.
- Then soak the bones in a solution of 12% hydrogen peroxide and water.
Some bones can be a bit tricky though — especially when they are from small animals, very large animals, or greasy animals. Below I’ll get into the details of what to do in each step of the bone cleaning process.
Guess what? I wrote an entire eBook about cleaning bones. It covers a lot more than I could fit in this article, including lots of expert tips and hacks that amateurs can use. You can buy it here (instant PDF download) for $4.99!
- Steps for Cleaning Bones
- Tricks for Cleaning Very Large Bones or Skulls
In order to clean animal bones, you will need the following supplies:
- Buckets or trash cans that can hold the bones being cleaned
- Dish soap
- Scrub brushes
- Hydrogen peroxide
Depending on the type of bones and their condition, you might need some other supplies too, such as as power washer, muslin sack, pliers for removing teeth, and ammonia for degreasing.
Important: Never Use Bleach for Whitening Bones
A lot of articles online about how to clean bones say to “bleach” the bones. You should NEVER use bleach to get bones white. Why? Bleach will destroy the structural integrity of the bones.
Likewise, you don’t want to use any laundry detergents for cleaning or degreasing the bones. These detergents often contain bleach or other harsh chemicals which can destroy the bone. Instead, you should only use hydrogen peroxide to clean bones.
Where to Get Hydrogen Peroxide
Hydrogen peroxide (H2o2) is the safest and most effective way to whiten bones. This is what taxidermists use, including the ones at the Smithsonian and other prestigious institutions.
You can use the 3% hydrogen peroxide found in drug stores to whiten bones. The problem is that this peroxide is very weak. You’ll either need to buy a zillion bottles of it or do multiple soaks to get the bones clean and white.
To get good results, you want 12% hydrogen peroxide.
Unfortunately, not many pharmacies stock concentrated hydrogen peroxide in that concentration. Sales are often restricted to people who work in laboratories.
If you can’t find 20% or higher hydrogen peroxide, you can use hair developer instead. I’ve since lost my pharmacy connection, so now only use hair developer for cleaning bones.
There are two types of hair developer:
- Clear Developer: This is the exact same thing as the hydrogen peroxide you’d get in a pharmacy. It will bubble up nicely and works great for cleaning bones. Get 40 volume clear developer here.
- Cream Developer: This has some emulsifiers added so it is creamy and thick. Some hardcore taxidermists won’t use it, saying the emulsifiers could mess up the bones. It also won’t bubble up like clear H202, so it isn’t as good at getting stains out from deep within bones. However, because cream developer is thick, it can be painted directly onto bones. That makes it great for spot whitening, or for whitening skulls with horns. You can just paint it on around the horns. It does dry quickly though, so you’ll need to cover the bones with some plastic wrap. Get 40 volume cream developer here.
Hair Developer Strengths:
Hair developer is listed in strengths by volume. Don’t think that 10v equals 10% though. The actual concentrations are as follows:
- 10 volume =3% hydrogen peroxide. Don’t get this. It’s too weak for good results!
- 20 volume =6% hydrogen peroxide.
- 30 volume =9% hydrogen peroxide.
- 40 volume =12% hydrogen peroxide.
You can buy 12% hydrogen hair developer (40v) on Amazon here. It’s the cheapest I’ve found and the strongest hydrogen peroxide you’ll likely find unless you happen to have a hookup at a pharmacy.
Steps for Cleaning and Whitening Bones
Cleaning small bones is pretty easy. However, it may take some time -especially if the animal is fresh and has lots of soft tissue on it still.
Step 1: Remove soft tissue
If you have a fresh carcass or rotting animal (like roadkill), you’ll need to use one of these methods to remove the tissue before cleaning and whitening the bones.
*Always remove as much tissue as you can before starting with one of these methods. It will make the process go a lot faster. However, if the animal is already rotting, don’t try to skin and gut it. There’s simply too much risk of contamination. :/
Method 1: Maceration (Soaking)
If your bones have some soft tissue or rotting flesh on them, the (arguably) best way to remove is it is with maceration. Basically, you put the bones in water and let them sit so natural bacteria can remove the tissue. When the water gets gross, you toss it and add fresh water.
The downside is that this can take a very long time, potentially MONTHS. It’s also very stinky and gross. Because I live in a small apartment without a yard, I’ve only done this with small bones. At one point, I had 3 jars with dead animals soaking under our bathroom sink! 😮
Method 2: Burying
Alternatively, you can bury the bones. Bacteria will eat away at the bones (and maybe some worms/bugs will eat it too). But this also takes a long time. It can take 3 months for a large animal to fully decompose.
Note that scavengers might dig up bones that you buried. Even worms/insects can move around bones a lot. To keep your bones safe, I’d recommend putting the bones in a wire mesh (for larger bones) or a muslin sack (for smaller bones).
Small animals can go in Tupperware containers filled with dirt. Poke some holes in the container so insects can get inside. The container should to be kept out of rain so the dirt doesn’t turn into clumpy mud.
Alternatively, you can just leave bones outside. Insects like ants will eat away at the tissue. Microbes will also go to work. Preferably, put the bones in a wire cage so animals don’t carry them off but insects can still get in.
Method 3: Soaking in Biological Powder
A faster method for removing soft tissue from bones is to use biological cleaning powders/enzyme stain removing powder such as Biotex (which you can buy here) These cleaners contain enzymes which will break down the soft tissue. Just soak the bones in a solution of the powder + water until the tissue becomes soft enough to scrape off.
Just like macerating in water, the soaking bones will stink. Yes, you’ll have to dump the water frequently until the bones actually get clean. It will be frustrating and gross.
Method 4: Boiling (NOT RECOMMENDED!)
Boiling bones will loosen soft tissue and cause it to fall off very quickly. However, boiling will cause fat to get trapped inside the bones and they’ll get all white and shiny looking. Don’t ever boil bones which are already fatty. This includes: boars, bears, and possums.
If you are impatient, you can SIMMER the bones. Not as much fat will get into the bones if you simmer instead of boil. Just try to remove as much of the hide and hair as possible before putting the carcass into the water. These have a lot of oils in them which will soak into the bones when simmering. You’ll then end up with gross yellow spots that are difficult to remove.
While boiling is a no-no for cleaning bones, steaming should be okay. The steam will loosen tissue quickly. Since the bones aren’t floating in tissue-filled hot water, the fat won’t absorb into the bones. While I haven’t tried this personally, but Jake of Jake’s Bones uses a baby bottle sterilizer for cleaning tissue from bones. Basically you steam the bones inside the sterilizer. He warns that it will smell disgusting!
A lot of people put additives like OxiClean into the simmering water. This supposedly helps break down tissue and also get fat out of the bones. A lot of people swear by it. But a lot of other people also say that OxiClean will destroy bones, causing them to literally turn to mush. It seems to be okay on deer skulls, but probably not okay on fragile bones. Try this at your own risk! Or, better yet, be patient and just bury the bones to get the tissues off. It will take longer but the results will be much better.
Removing Brains from Skulls:
This is gross. Really gross. I’m still pretty squeamish, so I will bury any animal carcasses that still have all their tissue in them. When you bury the bones to clean tissue, the microbes eat away at everything. Thus, there’s no need to remove the brain. The same goes for if you just leave the carcass out for insects: they’ll eat the entire brain away.
However, if you’ve removed tissue by soaking or simmering, you’ll have to get the brain out. It is really fatty and rubbery, so won’t come out so easily on its own.
Here’s how to remove a brain from a skull:
- Soak the skull to get the brain tissue soft (or give the skull a quick simmer if you aren’t too worried about it turning yellow)
- Take a wire/coat hanger and start jamming it into the skull. The goal is to “scramble” the brains. This is something the ancient Egyptians mastered thousands of years ago. 😉
- Get a power washer and blast into the back of the skull. Brains will shoot out of the nose. WEAR GOGGLES unless you don’t mind getting pieces of brain in your eyes.
- Or use a saw to cut off part of the back of the skull and scoop out the brains. Some skulls (like deer skulls) sit better on their mount when the back is flat anyway.
Hidden Tissue in Skulls
Be warned that there is a lot of tissue hiding in animal skulls – especially big animals. For example, there are often giant nerve endings inside teeth. You will also have nerves going through foramina in skulls. Foramina are holes where the nerves go from the brain to the face.
To remove this tissue, you may need to:
- Carefully remove front teeth with pliers. Wash/poke out nerve endings. Make sure to reinsert the teeth while the skull is still wet. Otherwise the bone shrinkage might make it impossible to get teeth back in. Ideally, you remove morals too but these are really difficult to get out.
- Use wire to poke tissue out of foramina: This is hard to do. One more reason to bury bones for cleaning off tissue. Bacteria can get into those tiny holes and remove it. Soaking bones or simmering won’t get this tissue.
*For more detailed info on how to remove tissue, read this post.
Step 2: Pre-clean the bones
This applies to bones you have found which do not have any soft tissue on them, but are caked with dirt and maybe have moss growing on them.
Use soapy water and the toothbrush to SCRUB the bones clean. The cleaner they are when you start, the better the hydrogen peroxide will work.
Step 3: Soak the Bones in Dish Soap (Degreasing)
If you found the bones in the woods and nature has already “cleaned” them for you, then you can probably skip this step. However, bones which were soaked or simmered must be degreased. Likewise, the following animals and bones are notoriously greasy:
- Pigs and boars
Why do bones need to be degreased before whitening?
Bones actually have a lot of fatty oils inside of them. If you don’t remove the fats, they will eventually start to rot. The bones will turn yellow and start to stink. They might break down completely. Even if the bones seem white and clean, there might be fat trapped in them which will come to the surface later. That’s why badly-cleaned bones will turn yellow over time.
Dawn dish soap works great for degreasing. Just put the bones in warm water with a lot of Dawn. If they are really gross, then you’ll need to dump the water and re-soak.
How long will degreasing take?
Some animals have insane amounts of fat in their bones. You’ll have to degrease them for a LONG time. Professional taxidermists will use tough solvents like acetone on them and it can still take WEEKS.
You’ll know degreasing is done when there aren’t anymore shiny yellow spots on the bones. Also, the water will stop getting cloudy when you soak the bones in it.
- HOT water works best for degreasing. Some people use aquarium heaters to keep the water hot during degreasing.
Step 4: Whiten with Hydrogen Peroxide
Once the bones are completely free of tissue and have been degreased, you are ready to whiten them. You’ll need hydrogen peroxide for this. As I said before, never use bleach for whitening bones. It will destroy them by making them flaky and brittle.
Here’s how to do it:
- Put the bones in your bucket.
- Pour in your hydrogen peroxide.
- Then top it with water.
- The bones will start foaming, which means the hydrogen peroxide is working. Hydrogen peroxide also heats up when it is working.
- Loosely cover the bones while they soak. The H202 will stay active longer this way.
How much hydrogen peroxide to use?
I usually use a ratio of 1:3 hydrogen peroxide to water. However, the higher the concentration of hydrogen, the faster and whiter your bones will be.
Tip: Try to find a container which fits your bones exactly. Then you won’t have to use as much H202 to cover the bones. If you can’t find a suitable container, you can use this pro trick:
- Line the container with a heavy-duty trash bag
- Put the bone in the trash bag
- Fill the container with water. The water will fill the space around the bone in the bag.
- Now pour the hydrogen peroxide into the trash bag.
Remember that hair developer works just the same as hydrogen peroxide. You can buy it in bulk here.
Step 5: Cover and Leave for 24+ Hours
It is important that you cover the bones once they are in the hydrogen peroxide solution. The lid will keep the fumes within the bucket and help it work better. Don’t make the lid too tight though — the bubbling could make the lid explode off.
Check out the before/after of the cat skull below. This was after just one round of soaking in 40 volume (12% hydrogen peroxide) hair developer. If you want your bones to be realllly white, then you’ll have to do several rounds — especially if they were super dirty like this cat skull was (it was half buried in dirt when we found it).
*Note about Cleaning Very Dirty Bones
I once made the mistake of not adequately cleaning a very dirty bone. The hydrogen peroxide went crazy on it! It started steaming and got HOT. I thought it was going to melt the plastic bag it was in!!! You can see in the picture all of the steam coming off the bone.
The message? Make sure you do a really good job of scrubbing dirt off the bones before soaking in hydrogen peroxide!
The hydrogen didn’t go as crazy on the second round, but still bubbled a lot. The bone came out nice and clean. At least cleaner than how we found it. 🙂
Cleaning Very Large Bones
One of the first large skulls I cleaned and whitened was a cow skull. Isabel’s friend found it for her (what other 6 year old is lucky enough to have a friend who saves bones for her?). The skull was free of soft tissue, but was still really dirty and stunk badly. I didn’t realize it smelled so badly until halfway home on the bus. Sorry to all the people who had to put up with the rotting smell on the 30 minute bus ride! 😮
Cleaning such a large bone presented some problems:
- I literally could not find a plastic container large enough for soaking the skull. Not even laundry baskets were wide enough to fit it.
- I would have had to use TONS of hydrogen to immerse the bone. I’m not a rich person and wasn’t thrilled about spending $50+ on peroxide for a skull.
My first (unsuccessful) solution: Soak the skull in a doubled trash bag
Since I couldn’t find a container large enough for the skull, I put the skull into a big trash bag, poured in some hydrogen and water, and then tied off the bag. I kind of propped everything up in a plastic drawer.
Of course the trash bag sprung a leak. The peroxide pooled at the bottom, so only part of the skull got whitened. You can see a line on the skull from the part which was sitting in the most hydrogen solution. It looks terrible!
*If I had a trash can large enough to hold the skull, I would have been able to use this method: Fill the trash can with water, then put the skull in a plastic bag into the water. The water would fill the empty space around the skull so less H202 would be needed.
My solution: Mix the hydrogen peroxide with baking soda
Baking soda is a natural cleaning agent, right? Could I mix it with hydrogen peroxide to form a paste, and then spread the paste on the bone?
I did a small test batch. The baking soda and hydrogen foamed a bit when mixed up, but still formed a paste that could be spread onto the skull. *You can buy cheap hydrogen peroxide here.
The great thing about the paste method is that you don’t have to use lots of hydrogen peroxide and it can be spread in all those weird nooks and crannies skulls have. The only annoying thing is that you will have to do at least two rounds – one for the top of the skull and another for the bottom.
Here you can see what it looked like afterwards. A huge difference!
Yet another method: Paint on cream hair developer
As I mentioned before, cream hair developer has emulsifiers added to thicken it. What’s cool about this is that you can paint it directly onto bones. There’s no need to mix it with baking soda to thicken it! After applying, cover the bones with plastic wrap. Otherwise the cream developer will dry out too quickly.
Like with the baking soda paste, this method also won’t clean the interior of the skull. Make sure your skull is completely clean of tissue before you try to whiten it by painting on cream developer.
Want more tips on how to clean bones?
Have questions about antlers, horns, beaks?
Want to know how to glue together bones?
These are all things I talk about in my eBook. Get it here for $4.99. 😀
And here’s an infographic. Please Pin It! 🙂