Preserving Photos in an Album

Dear Donia,
What is the best way to remove the mildew odor from old photos and the best option for preserving them in a photo album?

photo album


Q. Dear Donia,

I just discovered hundreds of old photographs inside of my closet. They are in great shape, but many of them have a mild mildew smell. How can I  get rid of the smell? Will it make any difference or cause any damage to my photographs if I preserve them in a photo album? I would like to preserve them for future generations, and show these pictures to my family members without getting finger prints or scratches on them. Thank you, Jonathan

A. Dear Jonathan,

Thank you for your excellent question! There are several ways to reduce or remove the mildew odor from photographs. We will start with simple and inexpensive. Put the photos in a clean plastic storage container with bowls of baking soda and then put the top on the container. This process will take at least a year. A question that usually comes up with this method is how often to change the bowls of soda. Frequency of change and the overall length of time to reduce the odor is all based on how much baking soda you are using, how much surface area of the baking soda is exposed (shallow bowls expose more soda and work more efficiently), how many photos your have, and just how smelly they are. In any event, I would follow the guidelines on the box which is to change the soda every 30 days. This should help to absorb odors more efficiently to help you complete the project more quickly.
You can also use activated charcoal that you can get at pet stores. Activated charcoal is used in fish tanks to keep the water clean and it is also great at absorbing odors. You would use it in the same manner as baking soda but don't need to change it as often (about every 2 months). You can also try the Gonzo Odor Eliminator rocks that you can find on Amazon. If you purchase a couple of these, you can be recharging one while you are using the other. Again, change out every 1-2 months. I would avoid the odor absorbers you can find on Amazon or in the stores. These often have chemicals that release "pleasant" odors and these can be damaging to your photographs.  It is best to stick with baking soda or activated charcoal.
A more expensive but more efficient (and gives overall better results in my experience) is MicroChamber paper. If you get some MicroChamber interleaving paper and place as many photos on each sheet as you can without overlapping making a stack as you go along you can put this stack in a plastic storage container with its lid on. Change the paper out after one month and each month after that until the odor is gone.
In terms of storing in a photo album, either get an album with paper pages that are acid-free, lignin-free, and buffered and use polyester photo corners or you can get a box album and photo sleeves. All these items can be purchased from our sponsor, Hollinger Metal Edge or from other preservation supply vendors. I would use caution purchasing from Amazon unless you read the descriptions carefully and be sure any paper is acid-free, lignin-free, and buffered and the plastic polyester or polypropylene. The box album in particular will protect the photos from light and dust and the sleeves from fingerprints and scratches.
Good luck with your project and if you have any new questions, please don't hesitate to ask!