Put the Lysol Down: How to Fix Mold on Photos

how to deal with mold on photos

Put the Lysol Down: How to Fix Mold on Photos


The word makes you want to bathe in bleach. It’s bad enough you have to battle the mold growing in your shower, but what do you do when it appears on your great-grandmother’s face?

That’s right. Believe it or not, mold can grow on photos and documents. It can pop up in your frames, albums, and loose photos. It’s tragic and horrifying but not uncommon. Even the cleanest homes can get moldy photos and documents.

So, how do you fix mold on photos? The first step is to learn how mold appears.

How Does Mold Happen?

Recipe to make moldy photos: Mix one part moisture with one part cellulose. Bake at 70 degrees F (or higher) for a long time.

This is a tried and true method to curate your own brand of fungus. Moisture can be introduced easily through improper storage (i.e. damp basements or hot attics), spraying glass cleaner directly on framed photos, or having humidity in your home. If the water can’t evaporate, it stays wet and creates problems for your art. All it takes is a few drops of liquid to get trapped in your frames, albums, or boxes, and you have the base to create mold.

We live in the Mid-Atlantic region where temperatures are unpredictable and humidity is constantly in the air. With rising energy costs, it’s easy to tell yourself you can sweat it out and forgo air conditioning. We are right there with you. However, art can’t self-regulate temperature like the human body does. It needs a stable environment.

Mold and mildew can grow easily on rag matting, antique prints, and cellulose base prints. Quality art materials are made of things of the earth–cotton, plants, even animal skin. It will react and feed off of its environment, unlike today’s plastic RC prints. A quality print will absorb humidity, smoke, grease, and other harmful environmental substances. When it comes to mold, your best offense is a strong defense–prevention.

mold square

How Do I Prevent Mold?

The easiest step to take is to remove moisture from the equation. You can combat moisture and humidity by:

  • Keeping art in living spaces. The walls, drawers, bookshelves, and closets in living spaces are usually more temperature controlled than your basements and attics. Keep art out of damp basements, hot attics, and garages. Constant temperature fluctuation is one sure-fire way to harm your photos and documents.
  • Run your air conditioner or heat to keep the environment dry. Invest in a good dehumidifier, and place small humidity readers on every floor of your house. Stability is essential to image preservation.
  • Protect art hanging in bathrooms and kitchens. You can combat steam and condensation with a professional conservation seal. A pro will use conservation materials to create a microenvironment with an air-tight seal. However, even with this seal, we suggest placing the art you truly love in a safer space.
  • Spray glass cleaner on a cloth, not on the frame itself. Spraying the cloth controls excess liquid from the spritz. You won’t have any liquid running down into the frame and under the glass (unless you’ve totally saturated the cloth).
  • Use albums with air-tight slipcovers. The slipcover provides more than a pretty presentation. A tight-fitting case helps keep out bugs, dust, and other environmental damage, including moisture.
  • Place silica desiccant packets in storage boxes to absorb moisture. Do you know the little packets that come in your shoe boxes and purses? Don’t throw them in the trash. Save those packets for your photo storage containers.

These are a few small adjustments you can make to protect your art. So, what do you do if you have mold?

How Do I Fix Mold on Photos?

First and foremost, put the Lysol down. Do not try to clean photos yourself. A quick internet search showed a dozen or more pages dedicated to helping people clean their photos at home. Remedies included using a Q-tip with water, a dry paintbrush, and a bleach/water solution to clean the mold. Others suggested freezing the photos to stop mold growth. 

These methods may treat the mold, but they stand a greater chance of destroying the photo completely and spreading mold into the air.

We have had a few clients try at-home photo restoration techniques, and most of their attempts caused more harm than good. Each photo has a different type of chemistry. A hand-colored crayon portrait will need a different treatment from a modern RC print. If you use a dry paintbrush to clean away mold, you will wipe away your great-grandfather’s face. A bleach and water solution could burn through photo emulsion on a different format. DIY-ing a simple fix by a pro just turned into a full-blown restoration. 

When it comes to mold, you want to act fast, not rashly. If you find mold on your photos and documents, don’t panic. Call a professional straight away. A pro will ask you a few questions about your photos, determine the damage, and advise you on your next steps. While there is no one way to treat mold, a pro can often save or at least stabilize your images. 

The best way to fix mold on photos and documents is prevention. If you find mold on your art or have any questions, contact us immediately. We’ll help you out.