There are two types of musty smell in books:

  1. "Ah, this book has probably been in this library for 50 years. Just imagine the information it contains."
  2. "Hm, I probably shouldn't have left this book in the garage that long."

Unfortunately, I'm afflicted with the latter, and I can't exactly throw the books in the diswasher or give them a good scrub with steel wool.

How do I get rid of or reduce the musty smell? (Answers which involve masking the smell are fine, so long as the old smell goes away, and the books don't just end up smelling like Lysol mixed with old garage.)

3 Answers 3


The musty smell of paper is very hard to remove. You could try a method that has proved effective, for me, personally.

You cannot wash the book nor scrub the smell out of it without damaging the pages. Spraying deodorants or fragrance sprays will mostly corrode the pages also. So what can you do? Why don't you try Camphor.


What is Camphor?

Camphor is a waxy, flammable, white or transparent solid with a strong aroma.

Camphor has a very pleasant smell and most importantly, it readily sublimes to its vapor state, thereby leaving the pleasant smell around the air it sublimes too. You could keep camphor near the books and within a few days, it should absorb the smell and the book should be rid of the musty smell. You might have to replace the sublimed camphor with fresh ones, and do this multiple times. The musty smell will pertain, but it will not be so intense and should cease to bother you. Camphor is flammable, but it is not very volatile. So it causes no harm to the books by catching on fire. However, I would advice you to keep it away from direct sunlight.

Camphor needs fresh air to sublime into its vapor. So keep the books in a well aerated room. The fresh air should also help in removing the musty smell.

Also, you could try Incense Sticks.

Incense sticks

They give out a very good aroma and is often used to remove unwanted smell off the air. But, they are not available everywhere. If you are in Asia, you will have no difficluty find either, as camphor and incense sticks are used extensively. The only drawback for the incense sticks in that, it must burn continuesly. This brings in the risk of the book being damaged, if they are kept too close to each other.

If you could get a few incense sticks and set them on one part of the room, away from the book, and also camphor around the book, the book should be rid of the musty smell in a while.

It will take a while to see the results, or rather smell the results. But it should work, give it a shot.

  • 1
    Not sure that I would prefer the smell of camphor to the smell of an old book. Commented May 26, 2016 at 1:13

Pages over time absorb moisture and depending on storage can get wonky over time. If the book is leather-bound, you can try polishing the book cover but the smell from the pages will still remain.

If anything you can try putting the book in a gallon zip-lock bag/container(container is pref since its air tight) and add a mix of silica gel and laundry freshner beads. Both are pebble sized solids so you shouldnt have any issue wiping them off the book after.

For best results, leave the book inside the bag/container covered for a few days.

If you are worried about the pages being stained, wrap the book once with mesh or cotton gauze, since both leave enough space for air to filter through but the beads of silica and laundry freshner to be blocked.


The smell could be mildew/mold.

One thing that works for mildew is sunlight; perhaps leaving the books in a sunny place, like a (dry) conservatory, might help; perhaps fanned open.

Of course, there's a danger of fading, if they're left in sun too long.

If it's very bad, make sure that you keep them away from other things that could become "infected" by the spores, e.g. clothes.

  • 2
    Great idea. However, I'm wondering if it wouldn't be a bad idea to maybe add some reference(s). Excellent thought mentioning the possibility of the smell "transferring" to other items!
    – L.B.
    Commented May 31, 2016 at 2:57
  • @L.B. no ref; entirely from personal experience. The smell of mildew is quite distinctive, and matches the case 2 in the OP. I've never tried books in the sun, but have successfully got rid of mildew smell from clothes/bags that way, even after repeated washings did not.
    – cdmackay
    Commented Jun 2, 2016 at 0:08
  • Yeah, I still think it wouldn't be a bad idea, but it is okay as is :)
    – L.B.
    Commented Jun 2, 2016 at 3:19
  • UV light and Ozone are used to deodorise things sometimes (I have in the past). Vacuum drying might get rid of some volatiles but the might return if the fungus remains.
    – KalleMP
    Commented Jun 28, 2016 at 16:50

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