I Have Smelly Family Photos. Now What?

By David A. Fryxell

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Q: I’ve inherited a tote of old loose family pictures that have a terrible smell. How do I remove the smell without damaging the pictures?

According to the experts at the Association for Library Collections & Technical Services, start by placing the loose photos in zip-lock bags and tucking them into the freezer. (Photo albums can be wrapped in wax paper before freezing.) If mold is the culprit, this will stop any active mold growth and buy time for you to clean and repair the photos.

Next, remove one batch at a time, unbag, and defrost. If you suspect mold, inspect each batch outdoors while wearing gloves and an N95 mask (so familiar to the general public now, from the COVID-19
pandemic). Use a damp cotton ball or cotton swab to gently clean any suspect areas.

To tackle lingering smells (whether due to mold or other causes), place photos in a small lid-less bin inside a larger bin that has a lid. Spread baking soda, activated charcoal or fragrance-free odor absorbers in the larger bin, close the lid, and wait a month or so. (Note: The baking soda, charcoal, etc., will not directly touch the photos.) Repeat as necessary.


Library preservation experts also recommend MicroChamber interleaving paper. Place these sheets in-between photos in a stack or between every two or three album pages. Again, repeat until photos are stink-free. If all else fails, scan the photos (including the backs, if information is written there) and relegate the originals to a tightly closed box out of smelling range.

A version of this article appeared in the March/April 2023 issue of Family Tree Magazine.

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