How to Clean VHS Tapes

Mold, dirt, and debris can build up over time in VHS tapes. If your old VHS tapes need cleaning, it's best to use a mechanical tape cleaner. It can be somewhat tricky to find a tape cleaner, but you can try looking online or in secondhand stores in your area. In the event you cannot find a tape cleaner, you can gradually remove film from a tape to clean it manually. However, a tape cleaner is usually the safer option. After cleaning your tapes, store them in a safe place and minimize handling to keep them clean over time.

Using an Electronic Tape Cleaner

Insert your VHS tape into the machine.

You should begin the cleaning process with your tape fast-forwarded all the way to the end. Press the button to open your cleaner. You should be able to easily slide the VHS tape in. Close the cleaner and press the clean button. Allow the cleaner to fully rewind the tape, cleaning the film as it goes.

  • The precise directions for tape cleaners vary, so refer to your instruction’s manual to make sure you’re using your cleaner correctly.

Run the machine for a full cycle.

Close the cleaner and press the clean button. Allow the cleaner to fully rewind the tape, cleaning the film as it goes. Most cleaners will have a button you press to run a cycle. If you’re unsure how yours works, refer to the instruction’s manual.

Use a screwdriver to open the casings.

Once the tape has run one cleaning cycle, remove the tape from the machine. Use a Phillips head screwdriver to remove the screws from the casing that houses the film. After removing all the screws, separate the casings so you can reach the reels and film found inside.

  • Sometimes, tapes will have a sticker or seal on the side to keep the casing together. If your tape is sealed, use a small knife to gently slice open the seal to open the tape.
  • The majority of tapes can be opened with a Phillips head screwdriver. However, if a Phillips screwdriver does not work, use a flathead screwdriver instead.
  • Store the screws in a safe place as you’ll need them later to reassemble your tape.

Remove mold and dirt from the casings with alcohol.

Dip a Q-tip in a small amount of isopropyl alcohol. Swab the sides of the casing and around the empty reel to remove mold, dirt, and debris.

  • Avoid cleaning near the reel that the film is currently wrapped around. Only use your tape cleaner to remove mold from the film itself.
  • You can purchase isopropyl alcohol at most drug stores.

Place the casings back together.

After running the tape through the cleaner again, you will clean the other reel. Therefore, do not screw the tape back together yet. Simply place the casings together again so they’re loosely secured.

Use the cleaner to fast forward your tape.

Place your tape in the cleaner as you did before. This time, allow the tape to fast forward completely to remove any mold remaining on the film. Simply place the tape in the cleaner and then press the cleaning button.

Clean up any lingering mold manually.

Once the tape runs through the cleaner again, remove it and open it up. Again, dip a q-tip in isopropyl alcohol. Use this to clean the empty real and around the interior of the casings. Remove any lingering mold, dirt, or debris.

  • Remember not to clean near the reel that contains the film.

Screw the casings together.

Place the casings back together. Place the screws back in place. Use your screwdriver to securely screw the tape back together.

  • If your tape had a sticker in place as a seal, it is not necessary to reseal your tape after cleaning it.

Rewind the tape again.

You should always end the cleaning process with a rewound tape. Pop the tape back in the cleaner one last time. Rewind it to the beginning. When you’re done, your VHS tape should be clean and ready to watch.

  • Keep in mind, no method is ever 100% successful. Very dirty or damaged tapes may not come completely clean. You may need to consult a professional if your tape remains dirty or will not play after using a tape cleaner.

Cleaning VHS Film Manually

Allow tapes to dry if they’re wet.

Never attempt to alter a dirty VHS tape when it’s wet. Handling wet film can cause damage. If you find an old VHS tape that’s been damaged by water, place it in a clean, dry space. Allow it to dry completely before attempting to clean it manually.

Put on cotton gloves.

Never handle film with your bare hands. This is an easy way to damage a VHS tape. Put on a pair of clean cotton gloves before attempting to manually clean VHS film.

  • Make sure the gloves are clean. Dirt and debris on your gloves can easily rub off onto your film.

Pull out about a foot of tape.

Lift open the side of the tape where you can see the film running from one reel to another. Very carefully pull out about a foot of film. Do not pull out more than a foot of film at a time, as this is likely to cause tangling.

  • It can help to place one hand in the holes of the casing near the reels. Manually twisting one reel while pulling at the film will help the film come out slowly and gently, preventing damage.

Wipe down the tape.

To manually clean the film, wipe down both sides with a tissue or cotton cloth. Be very gentle when cleaning film and avoid using chemical cleaners. Try to remove dirt and debris without the use of liquid-based cleaners.

  • Remember, this method is best used as a last resort. An electronic tape cleaner works best to clean VHS tape film.

Continue until you’ve cleaned all the tape.

Once one foot of tape is clean, twist the reels to pull the clean tape back in place. Then, gently pull out another foot of tape. Again, clean both sides of the tape with a tissue or cotton cloth, wiping off any obvious dirt and dust.

Twirl the reels to get the tape back in place.

Once you’ve finished cleaning the last foot of tape, gently twist one reel. This should pull the tape back in place. Keep twisting until the film is secured snuggly in the casing.

  • Which reel you twist depends on whether the film is fast-forwarded or rewound. You should be able to figure out which reel to twist based on which reel pulls the film inward.

Maintaining Your Tapes

Be careful when handling VHS tapes.

In general, the less you handle VHS tapes, the better preserved they’ll be. VHS tapes can become damaged from being dropped or handled roughly. Be very carefully when moving your VHS tapes and only handle them when completely necessary.

Store your VHS tapes in a cool, dry place.

VHS tapes should be stored in a cool, dry place. This helps prevent the build up of mold. Keep them away from direct sunlight and do not store them near windows. A comfortable room temperature is usually safe for VHS tapes.

  • Magnets and speakers can erase VHS tapes. Keep your tapes away from these devices when storing them.

Rewind VHS tapes each time you watch them.

Leaving a tape paused in the middle can stretch out the film. Make sure to completely rewind VHS tapes after each use. This will preserve your VHS tapes over the years.


  • Libraries, especially those that contain film, may have tape cleaners. See if you can rent one or schedule time to use one to clean your old VHS tapes.
  • It’s always best to use a tape cleaner. Only attempt to clean your tape manually if you cannot secure a tape cleaner or find professional cleaning services.

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