How Using a Record Cleaner Keeps Vinyl Collections Sounding Pristine

Vinyl records can sound fabulous when taken care of

01
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Why Clean Your Records?

vinyl record
Taking good care of vinyl records will allow your music to last for decades. JGI/Jamie Grill/Getty Images

So much of today’s audio entertainment is enjoyed through digital media files on mobile devices and/or streamed through the internet. One doesn’t have to give much thought to performing regular maintenance on such music sources. But it’s a different story for anyone who actively listens to vinyl records. Unlike their digital counterparts, vinyl records can suffer from a lack of proper care. Not only does neglecting the cleanliness of this analog format result in directly affecting how music sounds, but it can lead to permanent damage/wear on both the record and the turntable’s stylus (also known as a needle).

The main culprits of filth that eventually find their way into a vinyl’s grooves are airborne particles (e.g. dust, lint, fibers, pollen, etc) and whatever is left by fingers/handling. This can include dirt, oil, grease, and even acids. When you play a dirty record, what happens is that the stylus adds an element of heat (due to friction) as it travels along the grooves. With that heat, the particles and oil combine together to create a hard residue that sticks to the vinyl and/or stylus. This residue becomes the source of all the distracting noise – clicks, pops, hisses – you might hear when playing the record. If left unchecked, the music will sound worse as time goes on, and there’s also no way to repair a damaged record. On top of that, you’ll likely have to replace the turntable cartridge sooner than later.

But the good news is that it’s not difficult to keep vinyl records clean. This is especially important if you plan to digitize your vinyl record collection. You just need to be mindful of the cleaning habit each time you decide to play one. Dry cleaning is good enough to get most all the surface debris – it takes wet cleaning to effectively purify the grooves. There are a number of products/methods to assist this process, ranging from comprehensive solutions – such as a professional record cleaner – to inexpensively effective – such as a vinyl brush. None of them are "perfect," as each has its own pros and cons. So it’s up to you to decide which one suits best. Just remember that any kind of proper cleaning is better than none at all!

Bonus Lifewire.com tip: Here are our thoughts on the best places online to purchase vinyl albums for your collection.

02
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Record Cleaner Machine

The Okki Nokki Record Cleaning Machine Mk II (in black)
The Okki Nokki Record Cleaning Machine Mk II (in black). Okki Nokki

For the all-in-one hands-off approach, a record cleaning machine is the way to go. Simply set a vinyl record down onto the unit and follow the operating instructions. Many of these, such as the Okki Nokki Record Cleaning Machine Mk II, are fully-automated (motorized) and handle both dry and wet cleaning. Vinyl records go through the dry brushing process to remove all loose dust and debris before being washed with a wet solution. These types of machines have built-in vacuums and reservoirs that suck up and store all the used liquid, leaving the vinyl records squeaky clean and dry. The only thing users have to supply is distilled water for the cleaning solution and rinse. While record cleaner machines are fantastic, they’re neither small (approximately the size of another turntable) nor cheap. They can range in price from a couple hundred to several thousand dollars.

Pros:

  • Comprehensive dry and wet cleaning

  • Most are fully automated/motorized

  • Easy to use

Cons:

  • Can be expensive

  • Can make some noise while operating

  • Takes up a decent amount of space

03
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Record Cleaning Brush

An anti-static record cleaning brush, made by Audio-Technica
The record cleaning brush by Audio-Technica uses soft bristles to safely sweep away particles. Audio-Technica

If a record cleaner machine seems a bit much for your collection, nothing beats a vinyl record brush for basic dry cleaning. Most of these brushes use either a soft velvet surface (they look similar to dry erasers for whiteboards), animal hair, or carbon fiber bristles to safely sweep away dust and fine particles. These are great to have, since they don’t cost much or take up a whole lot of space.

Some record cleaning brushes even come with a small stylus brush to help keep your turntable’s needle clean (also very important). It’s considered good practice to dry clean a vinyl record before and after playing to prevent any build up – carbon fiber also has the added benefit of reducing static. Just a few, circular sweeps (following the grooves) is all it takes. The downside is that you will have to take care in handling the vinyl and not leave any fingerprints. Also, these brushes are meant for regular maintenance and not for reaching into the grooves for deep cleaning.

Pros:

  • Highly affordable

  • Compact

  • Effective for daily use

Cons:

  • Requires careful handling of vinyl records

  • Won’t reach into the grooves for deepest cleaning

  • Dry cleaning only

04
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Record Washing Systems

The Spin-Clean record washing system for cleaning vinyl records
The Spin-Clean record washing system operates manually and cleans both sides of the vinyl record at the same time. Spin-Clean

Record washing systems provide a complete, deeper clean that you can’t accomplish with basic dry methods alone. Wet cleaning your vinyl records with a washing system will remove oil, fingerprints, stuck-on grime, and any of the more stubborn bits of dirt that a brush couldn’t get. Most of these record washing systems come as a kit with everything needed (except those requiring distilled water, which you supply): wash basin, cleaning fluid, wet brushes, drying cloths. Some may also come with lids and/or drying racks.

Once the basin has been filled with the cleaning fluid, a vinyl record is set vertically within (typically set on a rolling mechanism), leaving the bottom portion submerged. As you slowly spin the record by hand, the grooves pass through the cleaning solution. Just be mindful to not let any fluid drip down and ruin the vinyl’s label.

Pros:

  • Provides a deep cleaning for dirt, fingerprints, oil, etc.

  • Both sides of the vinyl get washed simultaneously

  • More affordable than record cleaner machines

Cons:

  • Requires manual operation

  • Record labels can get wet if not careful

  • Less affordable than a dry brush

05
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Vinyl Record Vacuum

A hand holding a Vinyl Vac to clean a record lying on top of a turntable
The Vinyl Vac is a special wand that attaches to standard vacuum hoses for easy record cleaning. Vinyl Vac

If you like the idea of deeper record cleaning – especially if wet/solutions are optional – then a vinyl record vacuum makes an ideal choice. Products, such as the Vinyl Vac, are special wands that attach to the end of a standard vacuum hose. Record vacuums like these anchor to the center spindle of the turntable and have a velvet-lined intake that spans across the vinyl’s grooves.

As you spin the turntable platter (best by hand), the wand brushes, loosens, and sucks up dust, particles, and debris. Suction reducers are included to help regulate the flow of air for those who own more powerful vacuums. These vacuum wands also work with wet cleaning, if so desired. Just make sure you use a wet/dry or shop vacuum that can handle liquids.

Pros:

  • More effective than a basic brush

  • About as affordable as a basic brush

  • Can also be used with solutions for wet cleaning

Cons:

  • Requires a vacuum

  • May need adjusting for ideal suction power

  • Primarily designed for 33 RPM LPS (but can work with 45 RPM LPS)

06
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Microfiber Cloth & Cleaning Solution

A crumpled up blue microfiber cleaning cloth
Lint-free microfiber cleaning cloths can dry wipe vinyl records in a pinch. mollypix / Getty Images

Those who want the least expensive wet/dry record cleaning set up can settle for lint-free microfiber cloths and vinyl record cleaning solutions. You can get both for less than half the cost of a record brush, if you shop wisely. Microfiber cleaning cloths are safe (i.e. scratch-free) and effective for sensitive surfaces, such as prescription eyeglasses, mobile device screens, and television/monitor displays. You can take one of these and dry wipe a vinyl record about as easily as you would with a record brush. And if you choose to apply solution to wet clean your records, these cloths gently push and soak up the liquid as it scrubs through the grooves. The trade-off is that you’re doing everything by hand and need to take extra care in the approach.

Pros:

  • Extremely affordable

  • Effective for daily use

  • Takes up the least amount of space

Cons:

  • Requires far more of a hands-on approach

  • Not all microfiber cloths are truly lint-free

  • Wet cleaning can be a little messy

07
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Wood Glue

An 8 oz bottle of Elmer's wood glue
Using wood glue to clean vinyl works in a similar way to facial masks on spa day. Elmer's

Equal parts extreme and thorough, wood glue has proven its vinyl record cleaning prowess over the decades. It may sound bizarre at first, but the squeaky-clean results are hard to dispute. Unlike other types of glue, wood glue won’t bond to vinyl or plastic, but it will remove all impurities from your record (even in the grooves) without leaving any residue. Think of it like a facial mask, but for your vinyl music.

The trick to using wood glue is that it needs to be spread evenly as one continuous, bubble-free piece (a silicone spatula helps). Otherwise, you might have a harder time peeling it off if there are multiple sections. Make sure that the record is on a flat surface the entire time, and take care to not get any glue on the label. The downside is that you’ll need to wait a day for the glue to harden enough to be safely removed. Then you’ll have to flip the vinyl and repeat the process with the other side. But the upside is that a bottle of glue will set you back only several dollars.

Pros:

  • Extremely affordable

  • Proven safe and effective

  • Can be a lot of fun if you like to peel things

Cons:

  • Requires more effort than some other cleaning methods

  • Long drying process takes at least a day per side for each vinyl record

  • Can get messy quickly if you’re not careful (mind the label)

08
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General Tips:

A close up of the vinyl records layered across each other
With regular maintenance, your vinyl record collection will stay squeaky clean. Andreas Naumann / EyeEm / Getty Images
  • Clean your vinyl records (even the brand new ones) before and after playing. This can be as simple as running a brush over the surface to remove any existing particles.
  • Carefully handle records with clean, dry fingers so you don’t transfer any dirt or oil to the vinyl. Also, try to limit contact to just the outer edge and not the flat surface of the record (especially any grooved part, since that’s where the audio information is stored).
  • Keep your turntable’s lid closed whenever you’re playing a record to help prevent the accumulation of dust. If you don’t have a lid, look into finding one made of clear acrylic.
  • Safely store vinyl records in their sleeves when not in use. Leaving them on the turntable platter can result in a thin layer of impurities assembling together in the grooves.

  • Only use clean sleeves. If the sleeve is dirty, it will transfer to the vinyl record. When purchasing new sleeves, look for the acid-free anti-static kind.

  • Do not use any regular household cleaning products on your records. Most of these contain ingredients that can incite a chemical reaction and end up permanently damaging the vinyl itself. Use only solutions/cleaners approved for vinyl.

  • Do not use any kind of cloth (e.g. shirt, towel, napkin) to dry wipe your records. They can leave scratches, lint, or even static (which attracts dust particles). Stick to microfiber (which is soft and excellent at collecting dust, oil, and static) or the types of brushes meant for cleaning vinyl.

  • Keep the tip of your turntable stylus clean, as it often collects dust and fibers as the record plays. You can clear the dust off with an air bulb for camera lenses (or just blow with your mouth so long as you’re careful to not spit) or a small stylus brush.

  • Choose turntable mats made of leather, cork, rubber, or carbon fiber, since they have anti-static properties and won’t shed any material.