Down and Dirty: How to Clean Animal Bones

Down and Dirty: How to Clean Animal Bones

Have you ever wondered how they prepare bones and skulls for decoration? Get out your gloves, we’ve about to dive deep into the art of taxidermy and learn how you can clean and bleach animal bones safely at home!

How to Clean Bones

We have all seen the brilliant white bone of a decorative skull in a rustic living room or admired the smooth brilliance of white bone in an artful taxidermy display. This organic material is dynamic and alluring while reflecting the fragility of life. But the smooth, bright, white material we think of doesn’t ever happen naturally. Taxidermists like the ones who prepare bones for display in museums like the Smithsonian have to clean and prepare the bones so that they look pleasing and don’t smell or rot away. Whether you want to aid your nature studies or try your hand at taxidermy, cleaning bones can create a unique and eye-catching display.

Whitening and cleaning animal bones is a simpler process than you may think! Not only will the bones have a smoother, whiter surface after proper cleaning, but they’ll also be less greasy and odorless. In a few simple steps learn how to clean bones and take them from gruesome to gorgeous.

Cleaning bones is a straightforward and fairly simple process for small bones. It may however take a bit of time and patience if the animal is fresh or still has soft tissue on it. Before we dive into how to clean bones you’ll need a few supplies:

  • Gloves (This is very important as we will be using harsh chemicals that may be rough on your hands)
  • Bowl, bucket, or trash can (Make sure you choose one that’s big enough for you to fully submerge your bones. Small animal bones can easily fit in a bowl or bucket, but for larger bones keep reading for instructions on how to clean a cow skull)
  • Dish Soap
  • Scrub Brushes
  • Hydrogen Peroxide H2O2

Depending on the condition and type of bones you may need additional supplies like:

  • Power washer
  • Pliers (for removing teeth)
  • Ammonia (For degreasing)

Choosing the Right Hydrogen Peroxide

Some articles online will recommend bleaching your bones. NEVER use bleach on bones to get them white. Why you may ask? Bleach undermines the structural integrity of the bones, so they won’t last. Try to avoid using any cleaning products or detergents that may contain bleach in them when degreasing your bones. (We’ll talk about how to properly degrease your bones a bit later.)

How do I get my bones bright and white you may be wondering? The answer is H2O2 or hydrogen peroxide. This everyday chemical works to safely and efficiently whiten the bones. There are many types of hydrogen peroxide out there, the most common that you’ll find in your local drug store is 3% and not strong enough to get the bones clean and white. For best results, you need to find 12% or higher hydrogen peroxide.

Luckily, hydrogen peroxide is lurking in another common product: hair developer. Who knew your peroxide blonde would come in handy for DIY! Hair developers come in higher concentrations of hydrogen peroxide and work great for cleaning bones. Hair developers are sold in strength by volume, but it isn’t as straightforward as 10v equals 10%. You’ll need at least 12% hydrogen peroxide so look out for a 40v hair developer. If you aren’t sure, make sure to check the active ingredients.

Strength isn’t the only thing you need to watch out for when choosing the right hydrogen peroxide for cleaning bones. Clear and cream are the two most common types of hair developers and both can be used to clean your bones. Clear developer is a liquid and will bubble up nicely leaving your bones bright and white. Cream developer, like it says on the can, is a cream emulsifier. Because of this, it won’t bubble up in the same way as a clear developer will and can’t get stains out from deep within the bones. It is however great for painting directly onto bones in all of those hard-to-reach places. You can find both types of hair developers in larger sizes at beauty supply stores or online.

“We've all got stardust in our bones…”
- Ben Harper -

Step 1: Remove Soft Tissue

Depending on where you find your animal bones, they could be pretty gross. Whether it is fully or partially decomposed most bones need to be thoroughly cleaned before we can start the process of bleaching bones. If your specimen has lots of soft tissue remaining there are a few ways to remove it. The first method is through soaking the bones in water for several weeks (or months). Over time the water and microbes in it will eat away the tissue. This is a very effective way of removing tissue without damaging the bones.

The second method to remove soft tissue is burying the bones, either directly in dirt or in a box. If you opt to bury your bones in a box, make sure to leave holes so that the microbes living in the soil can make their way to the bones and do their work: eating away at the soft tissue. If your specimen has lots of remaining tissue you can simmer or steam it. This will loosen the soft tissue allowing you to scrape it off. DO NOT BOIL BONES. Like bleaching, boiling the bones will undermine their structural integrity. As well, the process of boiling traps fat inside them so they will rot and smell.

Step 2: Clean & Degrease Animal Bones

Cleaning and degreasing your bones is one of the MOST important steps when learning how to clean animal bones. Why do your bones need to be degreased? Degreasing your bones will not only give you better results when cleaning bones but will also help them last longer without any smell or residual oil that can leach out. Some bones will need more degreasing than others. Certain animals like pigs, boars, bears, or possums naturally produce more oils and will most likely need to be degreased. If your bones smell even after all tissue has been removed, or are yellow, clear, or shiny, you will probably need to degrease your bones. Fat leaches out slowly, so repeat the process below until you are satisfied and the bones are thoroughly degreased.

Fill a container with water and dish soap. Use a scrub brush to gently clean your bones. If you’re working with smaller bones a toothbrush works well. The cleaner the bones, the better results you’ll have, so scrub well. Depending on the condition of your bones, small teeth or other bits may fall off in the process. Hold onto these as you can glue them back again once everything has dried. Soak your bones for 24 hours in a container of fresh water and dish soap. If lots of grease collects on the surface, change the water and soak the bones until they are fully degreased.

Step 3: Bleaching Bones with Hydrogen Peroxide

Now that you know how to clean them, it’s time to start bleaching bones. Remember to NEVER use bleach when cleaning animal bones as it will destroy the bones leaving them flaky and brittle. In this example, we’ll be using clear 40v hair developer which has 12% hydrogen peroxide in it. Make sure to wear gloves and clothing you don’t mind getting dirty or bleached. In a few simple steps let’s walk through how to clean animal bones with hydrogen peroxide to get them bright and white.

First, put your cleaned and degreased bones in your container. Make sure you choose one large enough to hold your bones. We will discuss options for submerging larger bones like cow skulls further down. Once you are sure your bones will fit in your container you can begin to submerge them in a 1:3 mixture of hydrogen peroxide to water. You’ll know it’s working when you see the bones starting to bubble, foam, and may generate a bit of heat. This means the H2O2 is doing its job and deep cleaning the bones. Loosely cover the bones and leave them to soak for up to 24 hours. After a 24 hour dip in the hydrogen peroxide pool, check your bones. You can repeat the process until the bones reach your desired color and finish.

A woman is sitting on a chair in the garden and is holding the carved cow skull Golden Mandala.
A carved ram skull is displayed on a coffee table next to some plants.
A man is sitting on a chair and is holding the carved horns cow skull Tribal #2.

How to Clean a Cow Skull

Small taxidermy displays can be artfully created, but if you’re looking to use your bones as a centerpiece or wall art, you will probably want to opt for a larger specimen, like a cow skull. Once you know how to clean a skull, you can mount it directly on your wall or add a few finishing touches by decorating it like our carved skulls or decorated skulls.

You may be wondering how to clean a cow skull. Unlike smaller bones, it may be difficult to find a container large enough to submerge your skull. If you find a large enough container you will probably need a LOT of hydrogen peroxide to fully submerge your skull. Fear not! There are some clever tricks to get your skull gleaming white.

Option 1: Paint H2O2 Directly on Your Skull

One method you can use if you are trying to learn how to clean a cow skull is to paint a mixture of hydrogen peroxide directly onto your skull. You can do this in two ways. The first (and easiest) way is by using 40v cream hair developer. As we mentioned above, cream hair developer is an emulsifier, so it is already in a paste or paint-like consistency. This means you can brush it directly onto your cow skull, even in those hard-to-reach cavities inside the skull. Make sure your skull is completely clean and free of any tissue or debris before painting on the cream developer. Once you’ve applied the cream, wrap your skull in plastic wrap. This will prevent the cream developer from drying out and being less effective. Like the submersion method, you may need to repeat this process to reach your desired effect.

If you don’t have access to a cream developer, you can make your own hydrogen peroxide paste. Like H2O2 baking soda is also a natural cleaning agent. You can mix your liquid hydrogen peroxide with the baking soda until it’s the consistency of toothpaste. Use a brush to apply the paste liberally on the skull. When you see the paste beginning to foam you’ll know the H2O2 is doing its work. This method may need several rounds so you can apply the hydrogen peroxide paste to both sides of the skull.

Option 2: The Trash Bag Trick

If you don’t want the hassle of painting hydrogen peroxide and don’t want to spend lots of money on H2O2, there is another way to clean a skull. This clever trick uses water to fill the negative space, so you won’t need an excessive amount of H2O2 to submerge your skull. First, find a large container, like a trash can, and fill it with water. Place your skull in a sturdy plastic bag and place it in the water. Make sure no water gets into the bag with your skull! Then pour your solution of 1:3 hydrogen peroxide to water into the bag. The water in the trash can will fill the empty space around the skull allowing you to use less hydrogen peroxide. Tie off your bag and let the skull soak for 24 hours. After soaking for 24 hours you can check your skull and repeat the process until the bones reach your preferred color and finish.

Now that you know how to clean a skull, you can create your own taxidermy art. Show off your DIY creation by hanging it on a wall or creating a display with interesting rocks, other cleaned bones, crystals, and dried flowers. Whether you’re looking to create a moody Gothic vibe or appealing to a modern boho aesthetic, a skull accent will add character to your home decor. If you want the look without the hassle, explore our collection of carved skulls. We have a wide selection of carved and decorative skulls to perfectly compliment your home.