Why Old Photos Fade (and 5 EASY Ways to Prevent It)

Why Old Photos Fade (and 5 EASY Ways to Prevent It)

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A fundamental truth in life is that things naturally deteriorate with age (as if we need reminding!🙈) And our photographs are no exception.

The fading of photographic prints is caused by a variety of factors, including:

  1. Prolonged exposure to UV light
  2. Fungus and mould growth
  3. Water damage and oxidation
  4. Household pollutants
  5. Acidic archival conditions

In this article, we’ll explore in detail these five main reasons why old photos fade and show you five easy ways to prevent it (or at least slow it down).

And for photos that have already faded there is still hope!

Using digital photo restoration techniques, such as our photo restoration service, old faded photos can usually be restored to their original, full-colour beauty.

Let’s get started!

What Causes Old Photos To Fade?

1. Exposure to ultraviolet light (UV light)

The primary cause of fading in photographs is sunlight. This is because sunlight is the biggest natural source of UV light.

The reason UV light causes colour photos to fade is because it breaks down the chemical bonds in the dye and pigment molecules.

3 older women golfers on a golf course in a sun faded photograph
Colour photos from the 60s and 70s often severely fade because the inks used were less stable than modern day prints.

This is the reason why colour photos are more susceptible to fading than black and white photos because they naturally contain more colour dyes and pigments.

Black-and-white photos utilise tiny silver crystals embedded in gelatin to create the tones. These crystals are far less sensitive to light than the inks in colour photographs. Black and white photos will fade under some conditions due to oxidation of the silver but it takes far longer.

2. Fungus and mould (also known as foxing)

The next most common reason for the deterioration of our old photographs is from attack by fungus and mould.

“Foxing” is the form of mould or mildew that attacks paper, characterised by a spread of brown spots

Fungus and mould spores are everywhere and they need only a small amount of moisture to start growing. Once they take hold, they can quickly spread across a photograph, eating away at the surface causing discolouration and dark stains.

You can see the affects of fungus or mould attacking your old photos by a spread of brown spots over the image. In the business, this is called foxing.

Did You Know? “Foxing” is the most common variety of mould found on paper. This “foxing” mould gets its name from its affinity to Ferrous Oxide (iron), which is found in the wood pulp used in the photo paper.

3. Pollutant exposure

House hold chemical pollutants all contribute to the early deterioration of your photos.

An example of household pollutants that damage photographs are:

  • Smoke from tobacco and cigarettes
  • Smoke and soot from the fireplace
  • Household chemicals (such as cleaning products and sprays)
  • Dust
  • Perfumes
  • Kitchen grease

Pollutants can also cause a chemical reaction with silver in black and white photos causing them to fade. The fading is usually blotchy or mottled brownish discolouration that spreads across the surface of the photo.

4. Moisture or water damage

If photos are left in a damp place, or get wet, they can start to fade and the colours will begin to run. Old photographs fade even if merely left in a damp, humid atmosphere for an extended period of time.

Not only can this encourage fungal growth (as explained above) but can also cause the acceleration of oxidative damage.

What’s more damaging is if water causes the photo paper to swell and warp, making it difficult to restore the photo. If not treated quickly, photos that have been exposed to water can become permanently damaged.

WW2 soldiers cricket team showing water damage
Unlike foxing, there isn’t much that can be done about water damaged photos – typically the most feasible solution is digital restoration

5. Improper photo storage and contact with acidic materials

Unfortunately, even if we store our images safely away in a photo album or box, they may still be at risk of fading! This is because the photo albums or archive materials themselves may be acidic.

Did you know? Most paper is acidic because it contains lignin. Lignin is a natural compound that causes the wood pulp to darken over time as it reacts with oxygen and light. This reaction makes paper acidic in nature, which then damages photographs placed on top of it or stored inside it.

If left in contact with our photographs for a long period of time, these acids will start to eat away at the photos surface, causing fading and discolouration, typically by turning yellow.

Here are some examples of common acidic archival materials that, over time, will damage your photographs:

  • The printing paper itself (the worst offender!)
  • Masking tape or adhesive tape
  • Photo mats (that aren’t acid-free)
  • Albums and frames (ones not made from acid-free materials)
  • Scrapbooking materials
  • Many types of inks (especially fountain pen ink)

It’s hard to believe that something as innocent as paper in an old photograph album might harm your pictures.

Old yellowed photograph of 3 schoolboys with tape marks and coffee stain
Acidic paper can cause yellowing of photos as well as from the acid in masking tape glue

So if your old family photos are yellowish in hue or have areas of localised yellowing where masking tape once stuck, this is almost certainly the reason.

Why do old photos turn orange?

Dyes in old photos fade with time (and are accelerated by exposure to UV light). One of the dyes in particular (cyan) fades faster than the others which causes the orange hue.

You see, colour photographs are made using 3 coloured inks. The colours of these inks are cyan, magenta, and yellow (represented by the letters CMY). These three colours are used in various proportions during the printing process to produce the full rainbow of hues.

Diagram illustrating the 3 colour inks used in a photo next to cyan, magenta and yellow overlapping circles and the secondary colours made in the overlapping sections.
Colour printing typically uses the CMYK colour model. The K represents black ink which can optionally be added to prints to get a true black.

Cyan fades the most rapidly, followed by yellow. Magentas and reds endure the longest, which is why old colour photographs can appear to have an orange or red tinge as a result of the premature fading of the cyan ink.

This can be seen most commonly in colour photos taken in the 60s and 70s. This is because the inks used in this period were not as stable as inks used today.

How to prevent old photos from fading

We’ve now seen why old photos fade so let’s now look at what can be done about it.

Luckily, there are ways to slow down the fading process and even restore an old photo back to its original colours.

I’ll discuss ways to restore old faded photographs at the end of this article because, as with anything in life, prevention is the best solution.

Therefore, below are five preventative measures you can implement today to start looking after your old photos and slow down the fading process.

Key Points:

  1. Display old photographs in UV light resistant frames
  2. Store old photos using acid-free archival materials
  3. Display a copy of the original photo
  4. Store old photos somewhere dry, dark and cool
  5. Switch household lighting to LED bulbs

Let’s look at each in more detail.

1. Display old photographs in UV light resistant frames

The best of the best when it comes to displaying your old photos is to use museum quality photo frames. These are expensive but may be worth it if you’re prepared to spend top-dollar on premium photo frames to prevent old photos fading.

The benefits of museum-quality photo frames are:

  • They provide 99% UV protection
  • Barely have any reflection
  • Typically have a spacer (so the photo doesn’t come in to contact with the glass)

The only slight downside to these frames is they may come with an orange tinge to the glass. And because they’re glass they are still liable to smash!

A cheaper alternative may be photo frames with UV filtering acrylic glazing. These are more durable and less liable to smash if knocked over. They commonly offer 97% UV protection.

If you can’t find frames that already have UV filtering acrylic glazing, you can use your original photo frames and buy UV filtering acrylic in sheets to fit.

Which ever type of UV protection you use, we still recommend that you never display the original photographs in direct or intense sunlight.

A common question we get asked is: Does indirect sunlight still cause photographs to fade?

The answer is yes, just not as quickly.

So even if you’re not displaying your photos in a window, we still recommend using UV resistant photo frames.

2. Store old photos using acid-free archival materials

Photo albums are commonly used as stores for our old photos. But you can also use heavy duty storage boxes that are air tight and water resistant.

Here are our top photo storage tips:

  • Remember the end goal. Our ultimate goal is to preserve our memories and photographic heritage for as long as possible so it can be passed down to future generations to enjoy and treasure. So invest in storage solutions that are built to last! It may cost a little more now but it’s an investment in you and your family history.
  • Always buy acid-free. If using a photo album make sure the pages are acid-free. Over the years this will help prevent your photos fading and turning yellow. Similarly, if using photo matts or storage dividers, make sure all archive materials are acid free.
  • Supplement with individual sheets. You can also purchase individual pages to insert into a non-acidic album if you want the ability to remove, rearrange or replace old photos whenever you like. Also, the heavier the dividers, the flatter your photos will be kept.
  • Avoid masking tape. Apart from the sticky residue it leaves behind, acid can also be found in the glue.
  • Take a backup. It’s worth taking the time to systematically digitise your most treasured photos. This way, should the worst happen, you always have a backup to fall back on. Stay tuned for more posts on the best ways to do this.

It doesn’t really cost too much more to buy durable, acid-free archival materials. In the long run, it’s worth investing the extra time and care to use albums and archive materials that won’t harm your pictures over time.

3. Display a copy of the original photo

It’s a good idea to display a copy of your old photo. This way, you can keep the original safe and secure. This is a fantastic method to safeguard your old photos especially if you don’t have the original negatives.

man scanning photo on large flatbed scanner
Make a copy of any photographs that you’d like to display and display the copied version instead of the original

To do this, you’ll need to make a high-quality scan of your original photo and then print it out on photo paper. Once scanned into your computer or phone it’s easy to replace if it gets damaged and cheaper to replace if it fades – simply print out another!

This way you can still enjoy your photos without having to worry about them deteriorating or troubling with the expense of repeatedly having them restored.

4. Store old photos somewhere dry, dark and cool

The ideal temperature  for storing old photos is around 60 degrees Fahrenheit which sits roughly at just over 15 degrees Celsius. And the darker the better.

Cool and dark ambient conditions are great for preserving old photos for the following reasons:

  1. Helps to avoid photo fading due to UV light exposure (ie. the sun)
  2. Prevent oxidation from excess moisture in the air
  3. Deter growth of fungus and mould spores (they love warm and humid conditions)

For example a basement or outside garage may not be the best place. A better place might be a dry attic or closet.

Tip: If you’re going to use a storage container, make sure it’s airtight and water-resistant. I know it sounds obvious but you’d be surprised at how many people store old photos in a shoebox!

5. Switch household lighting to LED bulbs

Household lighting can cause your photos to fade because it still contains UV lighting, albeit far less than the sun. It will take much longer for household lights to cause photo fading compared to sunlight but it will still happen eventually.

My opinion is why take the risk when it’s an easy switch?

The benefits of domestic LED lighting are :

  • They don’t produce UV radiation
  • Last longer than traditional light bulbs
  • Emit less heat (meaning they’re safer to touch and won’t damage your photos over time)
  • Save you money on your energy bills

Quite simply LED lightbulbs are great for your photos, great for your household energy bills and ultimately great for the planet.

Restoring old faded photographs

The preventative methods listed above are great to protect photographs over the long term. But what if you have photos that have already faded or have foxing or sticky residue left over from tape?

Don’t worry – there are ways to restore them back to their former beauty.

Ideally this is a job for a professional photo restoration service. But if you’re feeling adventurous or love to DIY, here are a couple of other restoration options you might like to try first.

Lightly cleaning your old photographs

If you have old photos that are covered in dirt and grime, the first thing you can try is to lightly clean them. This will remove any surface dirt and is the recommended first step before you apply any strong cleaning solutions.

Follow these tips to gently remove light dust and dirt from old photos:

  • Lightly dust. If the photo is simply dusty or has light surface dirt, you can try to gently brush it off with a soft paintbrush or use the nozzle attachment on a vacuum cleaner set to ‘low’.
  • Don’t use water! It’s important to use a dry, soft cloth and NEVER USE WATER. This can lead to water damage and warping of the photo, making things worse!
  • Wear gloves. Try to avoid touching the glossy surface of photos or prints as this can leave stubborn fingerprints and oily residue from our hands. A simple way to do this is to use a pair of cotton gloves when handling your old photos.

For anything other than light dust and dirt, you will probably need to get some professional photo cleaning solution. Read on for our recommendations.

Professional photo cleaning solution

For stubborn dirt and residues on old photos that can’t simply be wiped away, there are powerful photo cleaning solutions available.

Bottle of PEC-12 photograph cleaning solution

A great product we use is called PEC-12. It’s a powerful cleaning solution used by photo archivists to clean old photographs. As well as dirt and grime, it can also clean non water-soluble stains from film or print surfaces, including ball point ink, most permanent ink, finger oil and sticky residues left over from stickers or tape.

PEC-12 is available to buy on Amazon here

Here are some important things to note when using PEC-12:

  • Test first! It’s best to test on a small, inconspicuous part of the photo to ensure the solution isn’t too strong so as to damage your photo.
  • Backup the original. We strongly suggest scanning the original photo BEFORE using the photo cleaning solution. Then, if the cleaning procedure goes well, re-scan the cleaned photograph one more time to replace it with the cleaned-up version. It takes a little longer but it’s better to be safe than sorry.
  • Use non-abrasive swabs. It’s worth buying the specific PEC*PAD non-abrasive wipes, which are lint-free and incredibly smooth. If not, a cotton-bud or Q-Tip works well.
  • Multi-purpose. In addition to cleaning colour prints, PEC-12 is particularly effective cleaning silver-based films (slides and negatives)

Warning: If using on very old albumen or gelatin emulsions it can potentially remove the whole photograph! Try it on a very small area first before cleaning the whole photo.

Digital photo restoration (DIY)

For extremely damaged photographs, including photos that are water damaged or have significant mildew growth, digital photo restoration is probably the most feasible solution.

There are many photo restoration services (try ours here). However, if you’re feeling adventurous and have some time on your hands, you could try digitally restoring old faded photos yourself! You can restore old faded photographs by using photo editing software on your computer, tablet or phone.

Some great pieces of software we recommend to restore old faded photographs:

  • Photoshop CC
  • Affinity Photo
  • GIMP

Future blog posts will contain step-by-step tutorials on how to use these tools to digitally restore your old photographs. Consider subscribing to our email list to be alerted as soon as we publish them.

Professional photo restoration services

As mentioned, if the photo is severely faded, stained or has pieces missing, then a professional photo restoration service is your best option.

There are many professional photo restoration services available that will be able to restore your old photos quickly and expertly.

We are one such company!

Here at Robin’s Photographs we lovingly repair and restore old faded photographs and bring them back to life for families all over the world.

We can change and fix almost anything to do with a photograph, including:

  • Fixing fading photographs
  • Repairing damaged photographs (tears, rips, missing pieces)
  • Colourising black and white photos
  • Restoring old sepia toned photographs
  • Fixing scratched or damaged prints (including water damaged)

You simply upload your scanned photos and let our digital photo restorers handle the rest. Our photo restoration service is one of the most affordable in the world starting as low as £29 per photo

Learn more about our photo restoration services


So there you have it! We’ve outlined why old photos fade and deteriorate and our pro tips on how to protect them as much as possible.

Following these simple tips can do wonders to keep your photos looking fresh for years to come.

And if you have existing photos that have already faded, photo restoration is always an option. Whether light DIY cleaning or digital photo restoration, don’t worry too much if you have faded photos because there is a good chance they can still be repaired and restored for future generations to enjoy.

We hope this article has been helpful and inspires you to preserve your family’s photographic heritage.

Thanks for reading! Please feel free to share this post with anyone you know who might find it useful. 🙂