The mixing properties of statically stable density interfaces subject to imposed vertical shear are studied using direct numerical simulations of stratified plane Couette flow. The simulations are designed to investigate possible self-maintaining mechanisms of sharp density interfaces motivated by Phillips’ argument (Deep-Sea Res., vol. 19, 1972, pp. 79–81) by which layers and interfaces can spontaneously form due to vertical variations of diapycnal flux. At the start of each simulation, a sharp density interface with the same initial thickness is introduced at the midplane between two flat, horizontal walls counter-moving at velocities
$\pm U_{w}$
. Particular attention is paid to the effects of varying Prandtl number
$\mathit{Pr}\equiv \unicode[STIX]{x1D708}/\unicode[STIX]{x1D705}$
, where
$\unicode[STIX]{x1D708}$
and
$\unicode[STIX]{x1D705}$
are the molecular kinematic viscosity and diffusivity respectively, over two orders of magnitude from 0.7, 7 and 70. Varying
$\mathit{Pr}$
enables the system to access a considerable range of characteristic turbulent Péclet numbers
$\mathit{Pe}_{\ast }\equiv {\mathcal{U}}_{\ast }{\mathcal{L}}_{\ast }/\unicode[STIX]{x1D705}$
, where
${\mathcal{U}}_{\ast }$
and
${\mathcal{L}}_{\ast }$
are characteristic velocity and length scales, respectively, of the motion which acts to ‘scour’ the density interface. The dynamics of the interface varies with the stability of the interface which is characterised by a bulk Richardson number
$\mathit{Ri}\,\equiv \,b_{0}h/U_{w}^{2}$
, where
$b_{0}$
is half the initial buoyancy difference across the interface and
$h$
is the half-height of the channel. Shear-induced turbulence occurs at small
$\mathit{Ri}$
, whereas internal waves propagating on the interface dominate at large
$\mathit{Ri}$
. For a highly stable (i.e. large
$\mathit{Ri}$
) interface at sufficiently large
$\mathit{Pe}_{\ast }$
, the complex interfacial dynamics allows the interface to remain sharp. This ‘self-sharpening’ is due to the combined effects of the ‘scouring’ induced by the turbulence external to the interface and comparatively weak molecular diffusion across the core region of the interface. The effective diapycnal diffusivity and irreversible buoyancy flux are quantified in the tracer-based reference coordinate proposed by Winters & D’Asaro (J. Fluid Mech., vol. 317, 1996, pp. 179–193) and Nakamura (J. Atmos. Sci., vol. 53, 1996, pp. 1524–1537), which enables a detailed investigation of the self-sharpening process by analysing the local budget of buoyancy gradient in the reference coordinate. We further discuss the dependence of the effective diffusivity and overall mixing efficiency on the characteristic parameters of the flow, such as the buoyancy Reynolds number and the local gradient Richardson number, and highlight the possible role of the molecular properties of fluids on diapycnal mixing.