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August 13, 2012

Removing The Musty Smell From Vintage Magazines – An Experiment

By RetroRuth

Recently I bought a bunch of vintage magazines off of eBay. Cheap.

I am sure you already know where this story is going, right?  Gullible girl sees cheap mags, buys cheap mags, then sadly finds out why mags were so cheap. But I didn’t let my previous life lessons stop me this time! Seeing a price that was so good I couldn’t resist it, I gave in  and bought about 75 vintage ex-libris mags for a ridiculously reasonable price. Nothing could possibly go wrong, I stupidly thought, they were library magazines. Can’t get much better storage than that, right? Right?

I am an idiot.

Of course, when the mags arrived, I realized my gullibility.  The magazines I received weren’t even the same ones in the pictures I’d seen. These were torn up, the covers were covered with coal dust and, of course, they stank to high heaven from a lifetime of improper storage.

After a heated exchange of emails between me and the seller, things were settled to where I didn’t get completely ripped off. Since it would have cost me a ridiculous amount to send the mags back for a full refund, I decided to keep them at a discount. Fine. Fine. Life goes on and everyone is happy.

Everyone except for Tom, that is. 

“Why,” he demanded, “Does our hallway stink so much?!?!”

After lots of explaining and gesturing and some protracted sniffing, the magazine story was retold with probably more drama than it warranted. Tom was sympathetic, but also firm.

“Toss them.”

“No!” I looked over the sea of stinky mags. “I want to use them for the blog. They can still be scanned!”

“Are you kidding? These REEK! How are you going to scan them? Look at yourself, you are holding that magazine a foot away from your body.”

“I don’t know what I am going to do. I’ll think of something.”

And so, the Great Magazine De-Stinking of 2012 began. I did a lot of research. I knew what I wanted: A stink reduction, not just a cover-up. So, that left out dryer sheets and Febreeze. I also didn’t want to spray any liquid on them, so that left out solutions of lavender or alcohol. In the end, I decided on a multi-pronged effort that started out with the cheapest de-stinker of all. The sun!


The first thing I did was spread out all the magazines outside in the sun. Even though paper seems dry, sometimes it can still have moisture in it.  All the moisture in vintage paper needs to be removed to stop the smell. After that, you are supposed to vacuum every page to get out all the little spores and things hiding in the paper. I wasn’t about to vacuum every single page, but the sun was an easy enough fix.


It turns out the magazines were damp! You can see the corners of pages turning up, and this was only after about 15 mins in the hot sun.


I left the magazines out in the sun for two days. During that time, you could really, really smell the funk coming off of them.


See what I mean? Phew!

I closed the windows next to the books after I saw this little complaint.


After their time in the sun, the smell was reduced, but not quite at a tolerable level.  I decided to seal them up in totes with kitty litter (the non-clumping kind)…


And a small container of household bleach with holes poked in the top. I snapped the lids on the totes and am going to leave them in a dry spot for about 30 days.  Hopefully this will work!

What about you guys? Do you have any secrets for getting rid of serious old paper funk? Leave a comment and let me know!

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35 Responses to Removing The Musty Smell From Vintage Magazines – An Experiment

  1. thatmidcenturyfella Reply

    August 13, 2012 at 9:02 am

    That is a great idea to put them in with kitty litter. I never thought of that! Let me know how it all turns out!

  2. Desirae Reply

    August 13, 2012 at 9:29 am

    I hope this works. I have a wool coat that smelled musty, but it was such a cute coat (and cheap). I couldn’t pass it up. I took it to the cleaners, which minimized the smell – at first. I have taken musty smells out of other wools that were washable, but I’m so afraid to get this coat wet. I found a product that is supposed to suck out the moisture of rooms and such. I never thought of kitty litter. Right now the coat is tied up in a plastic bag with the product. I might have to use kitty litter next!

    • RetroRuth Reply

      August 14, 2012 at 9:23 am

      Hey Desirae!

      Let us know how the coat comes out! I have also heard for clothing that you can use equal parts water and vodka and spritz that on. At least, that is what I read the Mad Men costume department does!

  3. Eartha Kitsch Reply

    August 13, 2012 at 10:04 am

    I’ve *heard* that kitty litter works! Keep us posted! And that eBay seller needs a swift kick to the kneecaps.

  4. craftlounge Reply

    August 13, 2012 at 12:42 pm

    I have also tried sealing them in bags with baking soda. This helps but the really terrible ones I just keep in plastic bags until I want to scan something from them and then back in they go! Looks like you got a lot of great pictures so it will be worth it.

    • RetroRuth Reply

      August 14, 2012 at 9:24 am

      Yeah, I am hoping it doesn’t come down to the plastic bag thing!!!

  5. Andrea Reply

    August 13, 2012 at 12:43 pm

    I don’t have any tips, but I am definitely curious to see how it works!

  6. Tasha Reply

    August 13, 2012 at 1:22 pm

    Wow! I’m really curious to see how this works out. I’ve never de-stink-ified vintage magazines. But it does seem like if these tactics don’t work, nothing will! Perhaps even a repeat of the whole cycle if you’re not sufficiently pleased with the odor after the kitty litter part?

    My other suggestion would be, if it all fails, to get a long extension cord and move your computer and scanner outside temporarily, scan them there, then chuck ’em. 😉

    • RetroRuth Reply

      August 14, 2012 at 9:25 am

      Ha!! Tasha, you sound just like Tom! 🙂

      If it comes down too it, that is what I will do!

  7. Laura Reply

    August 13, 2012 at 3:43 pm

    Eew. Since I’m highly allergic to the mildew spores that collect in paper, I started wheezing just READING this post. 😉 And I’m also highly allergic to bad sellers! So sorry you had a run-in with someone who was less than honest. You seem to be doing all the right things. The only other thing I was going to suggest is a light misting of Lysol disinfectant, but since you mentioned earlier you didn’t want to apply anything liquid to them, I think everything else you’re doing is as good as anything. I’ve heard of freezing old books as well, but I think that was more to kill dust mites and insect problems than for the smell. Good luck, and I’m looking forward to seeing the digital (non-stinky) version of your treasure! 🙂

    • RetroRuth Reply

      August 14, 2012 at 9:28 am

      Thanks, Laura!! Tom doesn’t do so well with mildew or dust either, so I totally know where you are coming from!

  8. Steph @ Tart Deco Reply

    August 14, 2012 at 12:19 am

    Just curious, why the bleach? Wouldn’t the liquid from the bleach just end up putting moisture into the mags again (especially with a sealed tote)? I wouldn’t chance that one because I would be worried about chemical reactions and such. Also, make sure and wear a face mask when you are handling the mags and change (and wash) your clothes right away as latent mold spores can still make you sick.

    As a librarian, I have heard a few stories of bringing books and mags back to life:
    1. Sprinkling baking soda between the pages and letting it sit will pull the smell out of the pages.
    2. Unscented swiffer dry pads will attract any mold spores (which could be causing the smell) and pull out when you wipe them over the pages.
    3. Do the kitty litter in a tub, but place the mag inside of another open box, don’t let it sit right on the litter (to protect fragile paper and ink)
    4. Use a soft brush to brush away any mold spores
    5. I found this in a library forum- find paper containing
    Zeolite molecular traps, also known as MicroChamber AE products. We suggest placing a sheet of the fine, 100% cotton interleaving tissue between the front board and the endpaper, every 50 pages throughout the volume, and again between the back board and endpaper. Close the book and set it aside until the odor is reduced (can work for mags too)

    Good luck!

    • RetroRuth Reply

      August 14, 2012 at 9:20 am

      Thanks, for the tips, Steph!

      Actually, bleach is mostly salts and not really enough liquid to damage if it evaporates. Plus, the kitty litter is sucking out all the moisture, I hope! Tom is a chemist, so I quizzed him first before I did anything. I was kind of hoping the bleach would inhibit growth of more mold if I hadn’t gotten all of the moisture out?? Not sure if that would work, but as I said this is experimental, so we will see!

  9. Onyx Reply

    August 17, 2012 at 3:45 am

    I’m watching to see what you find that works, I’ve got a stack of old Popular Mechanic magazines from the 50’s that certainly have an aroma.

  10. Kimberly Lindbergs Reply

    August 20, 2012 at 10:49 pm

    Good luck! I’m curious to find out what the results are. I’ve got a huge stack of musty old magazines in the garage at the moment that I want to “de-stink.”

    I tried keeping them in tightly sealed plastic containers with baking soda for weeks – even months! – but that didn’t seem to work very well. They just ended up smelling like stinky/musty old magazines with baking soda on them. It was a different kind of stink but just as awful in its own unique way.

  11. jenna ancion Reply

    April 22, 2013 at 12:44 pm

    Hi there RetroRuth.
    I know it’s been a while, but how did it go last year with the magazines in the catlitter & bleach?
    I regrettfully just through out a bunch of sewing patterns, magazines, and embroidery transfers that were very musty smelling. In the past I’d try spraying them wit Lysol, alcohol, dryer sheets, and even placing pieces of newspaper in between each page.
    Sometimes it worked, but mostly it didn’t.
    I live in Florida where it is very humid. I’m just getting to the point where I’m throwing them all out, because it definately will spread to other items, and it does so quickly.
    I wish I could afford to purchase one of those UV wands and see if that does the trick. Let me know how the kitty litter & bleach idea worked. Thanks.

  12. RetroRuth Reply

    April 22, 2013 at 12:50 pm

    Hey there everyone who wanted an update! It is now many months later, and the de-stinking worked to a degree. The thinner magazines seemed to improve somewhat, but their scent is not completely gone. The thickly bound mags still stink to high heaven. I am continuing the de-stinking with fresh litter and bleach and a few more months time. I will keep you updated!

    • Lora Reply

      October 19, 2014 at 8:07 pm

      Hi there, just wondering if your repeat kitty litter worked? If not, did you try the freezer solution? Did the sun fade your pages? I just got home from flea market where I got several Women’s Day and Better Homes and Gardens that I want to give as gifts, but boy do they smell! ;(

  13. SusanD Reply

    September 14, 2013 at 8:18 pm

    Hi: I must have bought my vintage magazine from the same seller because I am running into the same problem! And these were library copies as well.

    It would break my heart to have to throw them away (how sad is that!?!) so I am trying your method to de-stink them.

    By the way, there was an ad from jello in one of them with desserts of a circus theme. They were sweet and one idea was to cut out cheese (I know!) with an animal cookie cutter as decoration in the mold. And there was a card inside with ring jello molds you could buy for $1.50. Wish that were true now!

  14. hank jacobi Reply

    October 3, 2013 at 9:13 am

    I am a sucker for old magazines . The older the better . I recently bought magazines from 1932 to 1946 . I really got the sniffles just reading them . Since I live in an apt without a balcony setting them in the sun is not a practical solution . My main concern is the health risk verses the smell . I have them in a plastic bag in my storage locker . Seems that could only make that worse . As I sold my car and can only get around by bicycle I can only take about 5 magazines to the park at a time . Could set them in the sun for maybe 4-5 hours at a time . I’m 65 . Could I get this done within my life expectancy ?

  15. eido-uk Reply

    December 20, 2013 at 9:40 am

    i’ve been doing similar. i found an old school bag full of 80’s/90’s comics and magazines buried underneath junk in my cellar. Some of them i knew i still had somewhere, and had been extensively searching fr in the main house.mixed bag, so glad to find them, but they were really damp, and smelly, with some rusted staples. They’ve been sealed in a box with cat litter for just over 2 months, and they seem dry now. But i haven’t been able to shift the smell. Any more ideas? I need to wipe them over to remove mold, and bag them afterwards to prevent spore escape. I have to do it outside, which means waiting till spring as the weather’s so bad. I also found a lovely big rug, but it was riddled with nasty black mold. sane problems as the magazines, but also need to find a way to shift the black staining…?

  16. Quinn Reply

    January 12, 2014 at 9:35 pm

    I like your suggestions. I bought a bunch of old National Geographic Magazines today at an estate sale and some have a slight stink of mold. In the past for my old Model Railroad magazines I have heated them in the microwave. Only do this if they have no metal in the like staples. I am researching other ways in case they have staples. Lot’s of information in the old magazines.


    January 19, 2014 at 4:28 pm

    at this very moment I have a bag full of old national geographic magazines sitting in baking soda, every time I walk by that bag I wonder how they smell…..but I found this site that explained how do get rid of that musty smell. I am also addicted to old magazines. My children do not understand and they know when I die they are going to have to decide how to distribute, clean out, donate, my many collections of ‘things’. But my greatest buy was from an auction of an original Sears catalog from 1900. It is such fun. But since I retired I prowl the yard sales etc. looking for ‘old Ladies Home Journals’and old catalogs. I have found they have the best covers by harrison fisher and I have used many advertisements that I frame etc. in my home. People are amazed that they are originals. I think I will head out to the garage and sniff that bag of musty smelling magazines again…..

  18. george stringe Reply

    March 10, 2014 at 8:51 pm

    I did the baking soda thing in a plastic bag. Not with a magazine but an old electronic service manual that was in the same state of mold smell.It worked amazingly well and totally destinkified the paper. I just today received an old magazine that I will try it on and see what happens. I used to have a ton of old magazines that I loved to browse through but I couldn’t because just opening the mag up would make my eyes burn and breathing the stuff made me wheeze etc.

  19. Loree Reply

    March 15, 2014 at 4:16 pm

    I’m reading this because I bought some old Family Circle magazines from the 40’s and couldn’t hardly breathe after looking through a couple. I want to give them as a gift in the summer – thanks for the advise… think I’ll try kitty litter & soda & the sun.

  20. Donna Reply

    May 1, 2014 at 6:27 am

    Get Rid Of The Smell By FREEZING THEM !!! Place two or three books/magazines into a large 1 or 2 gallon zip-lock type plastic bag. Kind from the dollar store are fine. Sprinkle 1/2 cup baking soda over them (even work some into the pages, this wont hurt them, and can be brushed away afterwards.) Close up the plastic bag. Place in a very, very cold freezer, 0 degrees or less is best. (Chest or upright kind.) This has to be very cold to kill the mildew spores. If it is not very cold, the mildew spores wild only go dormant and not be killed, and the smell will still be there. Leave the bag with the books in freezer for 3-4 days to one week. It may take several repeats of this to get rid of a heavy mildew smell, but this works excellent, because it kills the “Spores” that cause the “Smell”. No Spores, No Smell !!!
    You can use this technique on stinky tennis shoes (without the baking powder) Place shoes into plastic bag, seal, place into freezer for at least 24 hours or longer, No more stinky shoes!!! It Works.

    • Lora Reply

      October 19, 2014 at 8:05 pm

      Hi there, just came from a flea market and got several Better Homes and Gardens and Women’s Day magazines from the 40’s and early 50’s that I want to give as gifts. I want to try this freezer solution, but only have the freezer I use for food that goes to 0 degrees. Does this make the food in the freezer smell, or the freezer itself?

  21. Barbara Rubio Reply

    September 10, 2014 at 2:51 pm

    I’m glad I found this column. I’ve had about 40 or more Life Magazines from the 1940’s till 1980’s that smell bad, so today a few at a time will get the sun & baking soda treatment. Thanks for the tip.

  22. JIll Farmer Reply

    March 26, 2015 at 7:32 pm

    I have heard of the freezer business working. I have also been told to try putting them in the microwave – eeek! Can you imagine deliberately putting mold in where you prepare food? I am in your same situation right now and am trying OdorZout that I found in the hardware store. I sprinkled it around in the loose bag where I put the 3 magazines. Keep us posted!

  23. Tara Reply

    April 21, 2015 at 9:05 pm

    I have some musty old mags, and was reading through the posts here. I am thinking of trying activated charcoal capsules put into an upright container, (in case of an accidental meltdown), with just a few magazines in the bag in the freezer at a time for a few days. Haven’t tried it yet but that is what came to mind as I began to read. I will try to post the results. Happy Summer!

  24. Neville Reply

    May 5, 2015 at 1:25 am

    I am in West Australia where even in the winter we have hot days.
    I have had 24 old musty Smelling model Railroaders that I bought of ebay lying in the sun with a slight breeze occasionally blowing the pages open and the smell is going slowly and this is day one!

    • Anonymous Reply

      May 30, 2015 at 7:27 pm

      Is your last name Brandon by chance Nev?

  25. shirley campion Reply

    August 14, 2016 at 4:45 pm

    I had some old papers and photos that I wanted to keep but they were rather niffy so I used baking powder after I had left them out in the sun do not ge to much of that here in England then I had a brain wave dried lavender which I put in the bottom of an old filing cabinet and then forgot about them. when I opened the draw several month later they were smelling so much nicer. I have never taken the lavender out and use it quite often seems to work. cannot improve on natural remedies. Hope this helps. Shirley campion Good Luck

  26. Mark Reply

    November 16, 2016 at 7:14 pm

    As someone who deals with lots of old periodicals for research, I should warn everyone that old magazines with cheap, newsprint-like paper often contain formaldehyde, and that when the paper begins degrading it can release this chemical into the air. Inhaling it can make you woozy and lead to a sinus infection. I learned this the hard way about 20 years ago. If you must collect these old pulp-type magazines, wear a contractor’s breathing mask. I keep mine in archival plastic bags. They are worth the few extra pennies for your health.

  27. Julie Ann Reply

    July 9, 2017 at 7:21 pm

    I inherited a lot of old LIFE magazines from the 1960’s to the 1970’s. I laid them out in the sun all day today to get rid of any silver fish (I have no idea what THAT is, but was told they could be in the pages…ugh) they still smell. I am going to try baking soda and Damp Rid in a sealed box. My ex left a brand new ($500.00) portable drill out in a hurricane once and he put it in Damp Rid for a week and it worked perfectly afterwards. I am hoping it works because I want to READ these magazines without a respirator!

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