Prevent dust and debris buildup from damaging your vinyl records by following safe cleaning practices.
While listening to your favorite tunes on a phone or CD is undoubtedly easy, for many, no audio format comes close to the rich, warm sounds of vinyl. While the sound is unparalleled, vinyl records can be extremely delicate—even the smallest scratch or piece of dust can alter its quality. To prevent your records from damage, proper cleaning is essential. If you use the wrong technique or abrasive cleaning materials, you risk shortening the lifespan of your vinyl. To keep your collection pristine, here's how to clean vinyl records—and what materials to never use on them.
Meet the Expert
Importance of Cleaning Vinyl Records
Cleaning vinyl records ensures their quality and durability is preserved over time. "Vinyl is a strange format in that it's both incredibly durable (lasting for decades with proper care) and very fragile (the merest scratch in the wrong place can ruin your enjoyment of an album)," says Phil Leigh, director of Norman Records. "Keeping your records clean is essential if you want to make the most of that durability and keep on enjoying your tunes as the artist intended."
When contaminants like dust and dirt accumulate on vinyl records, sound quality takes a toll. "Dirt or dust lodged in the record's grooves can cause your stylus to skip as it passes, disrupting what you're listening to and potentially causing damage to both disc and equipment," says Leigh. Plus, from a collector's point of view, dirty records are not as good of an investment as clean ones.
How Often to Clean Vinyl Records
An inspection of your records—which you should do every time you play them—will typically tell you when cleaning is needed. "If a record is visibly dusty or dirty, then always clean it, whether you intend to play it or whether it's going straight back into its sleeve," says Leigh. A record may also need to be cleaned if it sounds crackly or fuzzy.
Records you play often may require more attention than a quick inspection and dusting. "The more you play a record, the more likely it is that hidden buildup will occur," says Leigh. "For your most-played discs, a proper clean every few months is a good idea even if they pass the visual inspection test." To prevent dust buildup altogether, gently wipe your records with an anti-static cloth or brush before and after every play, says Leigh.
Materials to Avoid When Cleaning Vinyl
Vinyl records should be cleaned with the utmost care to avoid risking permanent damage. Because they're so fragile, there are many cleaning materials you should never use on them.
Abrasive scrubbers: Steel wool, hard-bristle brushes, and other abrasive scrubbers can scratch vinyl records.
Alcohol- or solvent-based products: Acetone and any cleaning products that contain alcohol can degrade sound quality.
Tap water: Only distilled water should be used on vinyl records, as tap water contains various minerals and other contaminants that build up in the grooves of your records, says Leigh.
Common household cleaners: Soaps, shower gels, glass cleaners, and furniture polishes can get stuck in the grooves of your records and affect sound quality.
Paper towels: Paper towels or tissues can leave behind lint that gets stuck in the grooves of vinyl records.
High-pressure air: Pressurized air can push contaminants further into the grooves and damage the record surface.
Make sure you have these materials on hand when cleaning vinyl records.
Cleaner specifically designed for vinyl records (like AM Clean Sound Vinyl Record Cleaner)
How to Clean Vinyl Records
Good handling is essential when cleaning vinyl records. Ensure your workstation is unobstructed and clean before getting started. "If the workspace is dusty or dirty, it defeats the purpose of cleaning the records, as you may introduce new contaminants during the process," says Alicia Sokolowski, the president and co-CEO of AspenClean.
You should also wash your hands before handling vinyl records. "If you handle a record with dirty hands, then it's gonna get dirty, and needless to say, you should avoid touching the surface and inner label—handle by the edges, always," says Leigh.
Carefully remove your vinyl from its sleeve, handling only by the edges.
Use the anti-static brush and cloth to remove any top layer of dust. Work in the direction of the grooves with gentle circular motions, not cutting across.
Once the initial layer of dust has been removed, do a more thorough inspection. Hold your record up to the light and check for buildup, grease, fingerprints, etc.
Lay your vinyl down on a soft, flat surface. On the problem areas you identified, apply a small amount of your chosen cleaning fluid to the area, being extremely careful to avoid the inner label. Work in the direction of the groove with gentle circular motions until the debris is gone.
Do another quick inspection. If any residue remains, dampen a microfiber cloth with distilled water to remove it.
Leave the record to air-dry. If you are in a rush, then you can dry using a separate, clean microfiber cloth.
Once completely dry, give the record a final sweep with your anti-static brush. (This is especially important if you air-dried, as dust will have resettled while you were waiting.)
Slip your record back into its sleeve—ideally into an anti-static sleeve.
How to Store Vinyl Records
To keep your vinyl records protected in between deep cleanings, proper storage is essential.
Keep records stored in the inner sleeve of the cover to protect the record from dust and damage from the outer sleeve, says Sokolowski.
Store records vertically, which minimizes the risk of warping and makes accessing and browsing your collection easier, says Sokolowski.
Never store vinyl near a heat source, be it next to a radiator, in a hot attic, or next to the window during summer. Vinyl can warp at around 75 degrees Fahrenheit, says Leigh.
Don't overcrowd the shelves or crates. "Leave some space between records to make them easily accessible and prevent warping," says Sokolowski.
Place sturdy dividers on your shelves. Wood and plastic are ideal, but suitable metals (avoid anything that rusts or oxidizes over time) are safe, too, says Leigh.
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