How to Clean Old Photographs

Old photographs are treasures that can not be replaced. We use them so often that we forget that they require special care to keep them at their best for many years. Moisture, improper storage, and careless handling lead to early deterioration of these often priceless pieces. Here are solutions to some common problems with old photographs.

Cleaning Soiled Photographs

You Will Need:

  • White cotton editing gloves
  • Soft brush or canned air
  • Towel
  • Pec-12 Photographic Emulsion Cleaner
  • Pec-Pads

The Cleaning Process:

  1. Lay the towel flat and place your picture on top.
  2. Use the editing gloves while you handle the picture.
  3. Use the soft brush to gently brush the dirt off of the picture. Start in the center and work your way to the outer edges. You can also use canned air (the kind used to clean computer keyboards) to blow the dirt off of the picture.
  4. If there is residue built up or old adhesives, you will need to continue with great care to remove it without damaging the picture.
  5. Use the Pec-Pads to apply the Pec-12 cleaner to the picture following the manufacturer’s instructions.
  6. When you have cleaned the photographs to your satisfaction, store them in appropriate displays for protection in a dry environment.

Cleaning Old Negatives (Film or Glass Plates)

You Will Need:

  • Pressurized or canned air
  • Soft Brush
  • Lint-free cloths
  • Isopropyl Alcohol

The Cleaning Process:

  1. Lay the cloth flat on a soft surface and place your negatives on top.
  2. Begin by blowing off dust with the pressurized can of air. You can also brush them off with a soft brush, but be very careful not to scratch them.
  3. Wrap a cloth around your finger and moisten with a small amount of alcohol.
  4. Gently wipe the negatives with the alcohol to remove remaining build-up. Start with the least important picture to make sure no damage occurs.
  5. This should effectively remove grease and mildew without damage.
  6. NEVER use water on the emulsion side as it can damage it permanently.
  7. If you are unable to remove the dirt or are concerned with damaging them, do not hesitate to have a professional clean and restore them for you.

Additional Tips and Advice

  • NEVER apply any liquids such as window cleaner or water as they can cause more damage when they mix with the dirt.
  • It’s recommended to make a high quality negative or scan each picture before attempting any cleaning. This provides a back-up should things go awry.
  • Some old pictures can be submerged in water and carefully washed. This method is not intended for delicate photos and should be used only if you are sure the photograph can withstand it.
  • If the picture has great sentimental value or you are unable to remove the dirt yourself, do not hesitate to have it repaired by a professional.
  • If you have the resources, consider scanning the picture and fixing the imperfections with photo software. Many have had success reproducing a quality photo that will last for many years.
  • Always handle prints only by their sides to prevent adding fingerprints to the surface.
  • If your photographs have become adhered to another material (another picture, envelope, etc.), contact a professional for guidance on the best removal procedure.


  1. Scott says:

    Isopropyl alcohol worked for me to clean an old photograph.

  2. Shiva says:

    I have some old glass negatives. How can I take care of them (store and cleaning)? Also, how can I scan them?

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