Why You Should Always Put a Used Book in the Freezer Before Reading It

Photo: Stocksy / Lauren Lee
Much like shopping for secondhand clothes, buying old books at stoop sales, online, or at used book stores brings its own brand of excitement. There’s the thrill of happening upon a book that you’ve been wanting to read or letting spontaneity take over, choosing whatever calls to you. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that it saves money and a perfectly readable tome from ending up in a landfill. The one thing you might have to contend with is removing the dust, dirt, and grime that has built up on the covers and between the pages of an old book. Fortunately, learning how to clean old books is often easier than removing the inscriptions left behind by previous readers.

Experts In This Article

How to clean old books to get rid of dust, dirt, and grime

“To remove dust, dirt, or grime, my best advice is to use a paper towel,” says James Fraser, manager of The Grolier Poetry Bookshop in Boston. Alternatively, you can opt to use a microfiber cloth to dust off books. This method should work when you want to clean old paperback and hardbound books.

1. Wipe down the whole book, cover to cover, being careful when you clean the book’s pages.

2. If there are stubborn smudges and stains on the cover of the book, wet the paper towel or microfiber cloth with a little water and revisit those bits. Bear in the mind that books—particularly old books—can be fragile. “Any attempt to fix past wrongs may end up damaging the book even more,” says Fraser.

Optional: Handwritten inscriptions left by others often come part and parcel with buying used books. If they aren’t scribbled in permanent ink, an extremely soft eraser used with extra care can remove pencil marks or hand smudges.

How to disinfect used books

A good thorough clean can make old books look new again, but if mold, mildew, or insects have taken up residence in your book, you’ll have to disinfect it. If not, you might want to disinfect a book for your own peace of mind.

The difference between cleaning and disinfecting books

Indeed, there’s a difference between cleaning and disinfection, as Karen Hoffman, RN, immediate past president of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC), told Well+Good. Cleaning removes dirt off surfaces while disinfecting actually kills germs. It’s also important to note that if you want to disinfect an old book—or any object, for that matter—you always have to start with a clean surface. “Disinfectants don’t work if there’s a visibly dirty surface,” says Hoffman.

The best ways to disinfect old books

When disinfecting old books, “you can probably get away with using disinfectant, like 70 percent rubbing alcohol,” says Jason Tetro, microbiologist and author of The Germ Files. If you don’t want to apply rubbing alcohol to book covers, you can use mild soap and water as an alternative. “A mild soap will kill the majority of microbes,” says Tetro. “If you want more oomph, you could use ultraviolet light,” he says, adding that “the sun is the best disinfectant.”

Another disinfectant according to Tetro? Time. “You can just let books sit because the majority of microbes can’t last without food and water for a long period of time,” he says. “If you just leave a book very, very, very dry and you leave it very, very, very dry for a week, you are reducing probably 99.9 percent of the problems.”

Make sure you are disinfecting your hands, too

Whether you’re disinfecting a book for a specific reason, or just because, Tetro says that the greatest risk that’s going to happen to you from a book isn’t the book itself, but indirect transfer to your hands.

“If you find yourself in a situation where you are unsure about the microbiological quality of a book, you always have to have a measure to be able to keep yourself safe,” he says. It can be as simple as using a hand sanitizer or washing your hands. “While there’s a great deal of possibilities for being able to make sure that your book is safe, there’s always the ability to make sure that you are safe.”

Disinfecting mildewed or moldy books

If mildew or mold has taken hold of a book, the process will likely be more involved. Books stored in dark, damp environments for extended periods of time are often susceptible to the issue.

Freeze the book

If you spot some telltale growth—like white, gray, or black spots that are flat or fuzzy—the first thing you might want to do is place it in a resealable plastic bag and freeze it for at least 24 hours. “Freezing the book is the best way to combat it,” says Fraser.

Disinfect the book with alcohol

Fraser also suggests removing mold or mildew with alcohol—a method that also come with the recommendation of Tetro. “A disinfectant will bring down the microbial load and quite possibly stem the growth,” says Tetro. “I would suggest a cloth dampened with 70% alcohol might be the best option as this is a decent disinfectant and quickly evaporates.”

Tetro adds that if you’re tackling mold or mildew on the page of a book as opposed to the cover, you’ll want to keep waxed paper underneath it to prevent the disinfectant from migrating to other pages.

Don’t forget to protect yourself

In any case, you might want to wear an N95 mask, gloves, and protective goggles during the removal process. Mold can cause many health effects that range from mild to severe, particularly for people who are asthmatic or allergic to mold. As an extra precaution, consider working outside while attempting to remove mold from your book. That way, you prevent spores from spreading in and around your home.

Keep the book in a dry place to prevent future mold growth

However, Fraser says mold is hard to get rid of after it makes its way into a book, which is to say, there’s no guarantee that it won’t come back. To prevent mold from returning, he recommends moving the book to a “dry place with lots of air circulation.” Tetro echoes this sentiment: “For protecting against future growth, UV rays and low humidity are best.”

How to get rid of insects from old books

Put the book in the freezer

If insects have found their way into the pages of a book, you can also use the freezing method to get rid of them. “When you’re dealing with insects, then the cold is all that’s necessary to kill them,” says Tetro. “They can’t survive under a particular temperature.” Leaving a book in the freezer overnight should get the job done.

Whether you want to get rid of insects or inhibit the growth of mold or mildew, you want to try and avoid any humidity from getting into that book if you’re putting it into the freezer. “The minute that you get any of that humidity from the freezer, the book is going to wrinkle,” says Tetro. “It really has to be hermetically sealed.” For this reason, you want to place a book in a zip-top bag before placing it in the freezer.

Keeping old or used books in pristine condition

Knowing how to clean or disinfect old books is one thing, but keeping it in pristine condition is a whole other matter. If you want to prolong the lifespan of a book, Fraser recommends storing it in a dry place, and just as importantly, away from the sun. “It’s remarkable how much the exterior of a book will fade if you keep it in direct sunlight over time,” he says. “I left the same books on display in the Grolier window for maybe six months, which gets lots of direct sunlight and the colors on the covers faded substantially.”

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