How to Clean Your Pet Turtle’s Shell & Skin Safely

Updated May 4, 2022
Man uses toothbrush to clean the shell of a European pond turtle

If you've never owned a turtle, you may not realize that cleaning them regularly is necessary for their good health. Even turtles that spend a lot of time in water need their shells cleaned off to prevent algae buildup. Proper cleaning will help your turtle live a longer, healthier life.

How to Clean a Turtle

The procedures for how to clean a turtle will differ depending on whether you're cleaning a turtle or a tortoise. You shouldn't need to clean your turtle or tortoise often, and your cleaning schedule will depend on your individual turtle. The best time to clean a turtle or tortoise is if you notice algae forming on their shell, if they're shedding, or if you notice a buildup of dirt and debris on their shell or limbs.

Supplies for Cleaning a Turtle

To clean an aquatic turtle, such as a red-eared slider, you will need the following supplies:

  • A bucket or tub to bathe the turtle in (do not clean the turtle in your sink or bathtub because of the risk of salmonella transmission).

  • A supply of lukewarm (not hot or cold) water that has been either boiled and cooled, or treated 24 hours prior with a water conditioner

  • Reptile water conditioners, such as ZooMed Reptisafe Reptile Water Conditioner

  • An unused small soft brush, such as a toothbrush

  • A cup or scoop for rinsing with the water

Is Dawn Dish Soap Safe for Turtles?

You should not use any type of soap when cleaning your turtle. The chemicals in the soap can cause inflammations on your turtle's skin. Gentle brushing and water should be enough to clean your turtle. In some cases, your veterinarian may prescribe a shampoo to you if your turtle has a medical condition but otherwise, do not use anything on your turtle other than chlorine-free water.

Handling Your Turtle to Reduce Stress

When cleaning your turtle, always support them with one hand while cleaning with the other. When you need to get to areas underneath the turtle by the plastron (the shell on their belly), do not turn the turtle upside down. This will be very stressful for the turtle and can lead to suffocation. It is better for the turtle to tip them up at about a 45-degree angle with their head pointing up so they're still mostly upright while you clean underneath their body.

Turtle being held

How to Clean a Turtle Shell Safely

Another important fact to remember when cleaning the turtle shell with your brush is that while it may seem hard and tough to you, a turtle's shell is sensitive to them. They can actually feel the sensations of the brush on their shell through their skin. Always press down with the brush as gently as you can and apply no more pressure than necessary to loosen dirt and algae. Likewise, their skin is also sensitive, so make sure you use your brush with care to avoid irritating their skin.

Man cleaning baby turtle

The Turtle Bathing Process Step-By-Step

Once you have your treated or boiled water ready and an appropriate container, fill it up with the water and gently add your turtle in.

  1. Take the brush and run it over the back of their shell gently until you have loosened any dirt or algae.

  2. Rinse with some of the water in the tub using a cup or a scoop to pour water over the turtle.

  3. Brush the turtle's legs and the crevices between their shell and legs, tail and head. Rinse with water.

  4. Check your turtle over for any remaining algae or dirt. If they still have some spots of debris, repeat the process.

  5. Place your cleaned and rinsed turtle back into their tank when you're done.

Proper Clean Up After the Bath Is Important!

These final steps are critical for preventing salmonella.

  1. Empty the dirty bathwater in your toilet. Do not pour it anywhere that you will be making food or washing hands, such as in your kitchen or bathroom sink, or your bathtub.
  2. Clean the container thoroughly with a disinfectant cleaner or a water and bleach solution and put it away. It's safest to use this container only for turtle cleaning and nothing else.
  3. You should also either throw out the toothbrush or boil it to sanitize it.
  4. Finally, wash your hands thoroughly when you're done.

Cleaning a Tortoise

Tortoises are more likely to have dirt and debris on their shells since they live on land and not in and around the water like aquatic turtles. Bathing them once a month or bi-monthly when you notice a buildup of dirt on their shells can help with improving their shell health, and a bath can keep them from becoming dehydrated. It's also been known to help stimulate defecation.

Supplies for Cleaning a Tortoise

You'll need a few supplies to clean your tortoise and, as with bathing turtles, you want to dedicate these supplies for only cleaning your tortoise to prevent the spread of salmonella to yourself or others in your household:

  • A bucket or tub to bathe the tortoise in. Depending on the size of your tortoise, you might need something the size of a children's or doggie backyard pool or a water trough used for farm animals.

  • A supply of lukewarm (not hot or cold) water that has been boiled or treated with a conditioner

  • Reptile water conditioners

  • An unused small soft brush, such as a toothbrush or an unused cleaning cloth

  • A cup or scoop

  • Cotton swabs and balls

  • Unused cotton towels

Is Dawn Dish Soap Safe for Tortoises?

You can use very mild soap on a tortoise, although it's generally not necessary and should be avoided. In a case where your tortoise may have debris that's difficult to remove, such as oil, using mild dish soap may help, but you need to be sure to rinse the soap residue off them entirely. The soap should never be used near their head, and use the tiniest amount possible. Cleaning your tortoise before they get to the point of requiring anything more than dechlorinated water is important to avoid having to cause more stress than necessary.

Keeping Your Tortoise Safe and Stress-Free During Cleaning

As with cleaning an aquatic turtle, you need to reduce stress when bathing a tortoise by keeping them upright.

  • With a smaller tortoise, lift them up at a 45-degree angle to clean underneath them.
  • With a much larger tortoise, you may have to have more than one person assist you due to their weight.
  • Tortoises will also experience discomfort if you brush their shells and skin too hard, so always apply the least pressure possible.

Tortoise Bathing and Defecation

It's very common for a tortoise to produce feces upon entering the bathing area, as the water temperature will stimulate them to eliminate. It's a good idea to let them move around in the water for a few minutes before you start bathing them to see if they defecate first. If they do, simply clean the feces from the water and then begin the bath.

Water Level for a Tortoise Bath

Unlike an aquatic turtle, a tortoise is not as naturally comfortable being in the water. A tortoise will need to be able to keep their feet on the ground in the container, so fill it only up to their plastron and no higher. You should also avoid splashing water around their eyes and face.

Pet tortoise in a basin

Steps to Clean a Tortoise Shell

The process of cleaning a tortoise is fairly similar to cleaning an aquatic turtle.

  1. With the tortoise in your water container, pour some water on the tortoise's shell slowly using a cup.

  2. Take the brush and move it gently over their shell. Then, lift them slowly at an angle to clean the plastron.

  3. Once the shell is clean, take a few scoops of water to rinse it off.

    Man Cleaning Turtle With Toothbrush

Cleaning the Tortoise Legs and Head

Remember to be gentle when using any type of cleaning item on a tortoise's skin.

  1. Use a cloth or brush to clean their limbs. For small crevices, use a damp cotton swab or ball.

  2. When cleaning the tortoise's face, do not get water near their eyes and avoid their chin, mouth, nose, and the areas under their head, as rubbing these will be very irritating for the tortoise. You can take a damp cotton ball and clean the top of their head and their neck. Use a fresh damp cotton ball to rinse those areas as you do not want to pour water anywhere near the head.

  3. To dry the tortoise off, place them on a cotton towel and take some towels to soak up extra water on their shell and skin. Do not rub them with the towel, but use soft patting motions to remove excess water.

Avoiding Shell Rot

It's important to make sure the tortoise is 100 percent dry before you place them back in their enclosure. If they still have moisture on their shell, they are at risk of developing shell rot. You can gently wipe them off with a microfiber towel to assist in the drying process.

After-Bath Clean Up

Empty the water out in a toilet, or in a backyard area away from your main house. Clean the tub thoroughly with a disinfectant cleaner or a bleach and water solution. You can wash the towels on a sanitizing setting in your laundry and either toss the brush or boil it to sanitize it for future use. To avoid harm from the disinfectants used in the cleaning process, rinse the container out even if it appears clean prior to giving your turtle or tortoise another bath.

Keeping Your Turtle Clean and Safe

Cleaning your turtle or tortoise's shell is all part of being a responsible pet turtle owner. It's important to use supplies that are only for bathing your turtle to keep you and your household safe from the risk of salmonella. Once you get used to it, you'll find bathing them isn't very difficult and avoid using any soaps or rough brushes or clothes that will irritate their sensitive shells and skin.

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How to Clean Your Pet Turtle’s Shell & Skin Safely