Are Antique Teacups Safe To Drink From? 7 Things to Know

Collecting antique teacups can be a great way of appreciating history. Through the years I’ve collected quite a few of them and I strongly believe that antiques should not only be appreciated for their beauty.

Antique teacups should serve a more practical purpose, too! But to stay safe with antique teacups you need to keep a few things in mind.

SHORT ANSWER – Is It Safe To Drink From Antique Teacups?

As a general rule, antique teacups are safe to drink from as long as there are no cracks in the glaze. Paints and glazes that were used to create these artistic teacups sometimes contain radioactive oxides or lead oxides, which may cause issues. It’s common for teaware to be tested to ensure safety.

In the following article, you will learn everything about the most common safety concerns with antique teacups. This will ensure that you know how to deal with your antiques and be safe, too. As long as you follow these simple tips, you’ll know that it’s safe to drink from your antique teacup. 

1. What To Look Out For With Antique Teacups

There are paints and glazes that I would rather not let my tea come in contact with. For that reason, I heavily avoid teaware that has cracks, chips or has been broken at some point. The most important thing is for the glaze to be intact.

I’ve found that the following points are what I look out for when buying antique teacups:

  1. Cracks Or Chips (Especially With Colorful Glaze)
  2. Broken (Or Fixed) Pieces
  3. Porcelain Quality and Thickness
  4. Manufacturer Of The Teacups
  5. Matching Teaware (Saucer, Possibly Teapot)
  6. No Colorful Glaze On The Inside

You should avoid teacups with (large amounts of) paint and colorful glaze on the inside. If the inside of the teacups is plain porcelain, then there is a better chance that there are no harmful materials that could leak into the tea.

2. Understanding And Identifying Lead Glaze In Teacups

Sadly, lead glaze has been used in pottery a lot in the past. Sometimes it can be hard to even identify lead glazes, because the glaze can be colorless and transparent or of varying color.

What’s problematic with lead glaze ist that chemicals containing lead can leach into the tea. Some acids and molecules contained in the can even help with this process, as they can “hold” the lead in solution.

Drinking from lead glazed teacups can result in lead poisoning. Over time, this has the potential to lead to serious health consequences. For example, you might start to feel weak or get headaches. Over the long-term, it can cause damage to your brain and liver.  

There’s no way to tell whether a teacup uses lead glaze just by looking at it. However, there are a few signs that you might want to look for. First, a lead glaze is associated with vibrant colors. Often, this will produce a glass-like finish. Also, you might notice that there are some chalky signs on the glaze after you have washed it. If the decorations are starting to wear away, the lead can start leaching into your tea at a higher rate. 

It’s also important to take note of where the design is. If it’s only on the outside of the cup, while the inside is clean, it’s likely safe to use.  It should also be noted that tea is an acidic drink. Because of this, it can help increase the rate that toxins will leach. 

There is no safe minimum level of exposure to lead. If it’s in the teacup, stop drinking from it. 

3. How To Test For Lead Glaze In Antiques

You can test whether there is a lead glaze inside the cup yourself. You’ll just need to take a sample of water from inside the cup. You should be able to find this test at most hardware stores. 

Many testing kits at the hardware store will be designed for test for lead in the drinking water. However, the same principles apply when testing lead in a teacup. In most cases, you’ll want to pour water into the cup and leave it for a few minutes. This will give the lead a chance to leach into it. 

Then, come back and test it. In some cases, you’ll need to pour the water into test tubes. In others, you’ll need to put strips into it. Monitor whether the strips change color. Compare this to the results on the test. This will give you a good indication of whether there is lead in the cup. 

A more thorough version of this test is known as digestive testing. This will test the amount of lead in the cup, rather than just the leach rate. In this case, you’ll need to send the cup into a lab. Then, they will demolish the cup and test all the components for lead. 

But this often isn’t practical. This test is a lot more expensive than testing the leach rate. It will also destroy the cup. 

4. How To Properly Clean Antique Teacups Before Use

Secondly, you will often need to handwash antique cups, even if they are dishwasher safe.  This ensures that they will be able to last for a long time. It will also ensure that you’ll be able to get into every crevice and crack. When washing, use a soft cloth. 

You’ll need to make sure that you’re drying them thoroughly before you put them away. This will stop things like mold and bacteria from accumulating in the cracks in the glazing. They can grow anywhere there is a damp environment and organic matter.  Taking the time to dry out teacups properly is a great way to make sure that they won’t develop mold. If storing them for a long time, you might want to put some tissue paper inside. This will absorb any excess moisture while protecting them from damage.

5. The History Behind Tea And Lead Poisoning

As we mentioned, it’s important to check the teacup for lead glazing. While we know the dangers of lead, it wasn’t always the case. It was once a very popular material, used for hundreds of purposes. This included everything from ship-building to cooking utensils. Romans used lead glazing frequently when producing teacups. 

The widespread use of lead continued into modern times. As recently as the 1970s, lead-based paint was still being encouraged and used. Because of this, lead has produced a long history of poisoning people. Because it was such a common material, you should always check the teacup for lead glazing. 

Sadly, the use of lead glazing has continued into modern times.  There are still plenty of countries around the world that have inadequate laws around the levels of dangerous materials, like lead and cadmium, that can be placed into cups. For example, the United Kingdom has no maximum limits

Because of this, a study from the University of Plymouth found that 70 percent of mugs contained dangerous levels of lead. As you can imagine, the proportion of mugs with lead glazing will be higher, as people were unaware of the health consequences. 

6. Why Some Antique Teacups Are Radioactive

Today, there are limits on what can materials can be used when making products that are designed to store food. Because of this, antiques might contain some potentially dangerous materials. One of the most common is lead. However, they might also contain uranium. 

Uranium oxide was used to form a glaze. This has been found in cookware like Fiestaware. Over time, this material will produce radiation. This can seep into your tea as you drink. You might also be breathing it in. 

Thankfully, uranium oxide glaze produces very low levels of radiation. While you should still avoid drinking from the teacups that use this material, it’s unlikely to cause any serious harm.

7. How To Prevent Your Antiques From Cracking

Cracks in the glaze, also known as crazing, is a natural process. It’s caused because the cup expands slightly when hot water is added and contracts when it cools. However, this process can make it easier for chemicals, like lead, to be released into your tea. 

The best way to slow the rate of crazing or cracking is by limiting the temperature gradient. You can do this by running the hot water over the spoon first. It’s also a good idea to keep teacups and antique teapots away from sources of heat. Even something like a candle might apply enough heat to cause it to start to crack. 

It’s also a good idea to consider where you are placing the teapots. Dust them regularly. Also, keep them away from direct sunlight. This will help slow the aging process, reducing the amount of crazing that occurs.