Recently, I saw a heartbreaking post on a Facebook group about cleaning a vintage camera lens with Hydrogen Peroxide. The photographer wanted to get rid of fungus on the lens. But instead, they ended up destroying the optics. They cited photographers on YouTube who say this is the thing to do. And unfortunately, that’s the problem. Lots of photographers on YouTube aren’t experts. If you wanted official information on something more pressing, it’s often best to check out .edu, .org. or .gov websites. Don’t get me wrong, we’re a .com website. But we’re also an accredited source of information. And besides, over the past decade, we’ve asked some of the best and brightest minds how to do this.
Here’s a screenshot from the thread that I’m referencing. Personally, I’ve never heard anyone talk about Hydrogen Peroxide. So I did some Google searches on “cleaning your camera lens” and a few other inquiries. Crazily though, our own website came up. Indeed, we are pretty big on researching and squashing misinformation on this. But here are a few refreshers.
Isopropyl Alcohol: All the Experts Agree When Cleaning a Lens
Some of you folks are probably wondering what isopropyl alcohol is. It’s a standard alcohol that you can find at a pharmacy, electronics store, and a load of other places. You can’t drink it. It’s much different from the alcohol that’s in beer, wine, whiskey, etc.
We’ve primarily written about it with cleaning your lens contacts. And indeed, that’s what it can be used for. Here’s a reference from a previous article we’ve written:
“So why would you go about cleaning the contacts of your lenses? You’d be amazed what it can do. If suddenly you start finding the autofocus of your camera to be sluggish, then part of it could have to do with the contacts.
Cleaning the contacts removes dirt, grime, dust, and anything else that can hinder the communication between the camera and the lens.
With isopropyl alcohol, just use the cotton swab dipped in the alcohol and rub it into the contacts. That should take away any sort of dirt blocking the full communication.”
You can find more about how to do this in the previously linked article. And indeed, isopropyl alcohol is pretty great at cleaning both lens and camera contacts. You don’t need to worry about whether the camera or lens is weather-resistant either.
So what about the glass itself? What if the lens elements get dirty? What if there’s fungus? Well, believe it or not, years ago, Pop Photo did an article about cleaning your lens with Vodka. It sounded pretty sketchy and much unlike something the once stellar publication would do. So we asked experts to verify this. Indeed, many manufacturers said that it probably isn’t such a great idea when we talked to them. Brandon Remler, National Account Director of Fujifilm North America, told us it’s not such a great option.
“I would run my vodka first through a Brita or similar filter system 2x to remove any of the impurities that exist in cheap vodka,” explained Mr. Remler. “Vodka is good but not great since it is lower in sugar content than say dark rum and less residues. The impurity is what messes up the cleaning process, of course. Don’t want sticky fingers or sticky lenses.” He continued to say that he believes it’s less than ideal compared to isopropyl and rubbing alcohol.
And believe it or not, a bunch of other industry folks supported him:
The late Chuck Westfall of Canon said they only recommend conventional lens cleaning fluids.
Our Nikon reps pointed us to an article on their own website.
John Carlson, a former VP at Pentax, said that they only recommend isopropyl alcohol.
Tom Curley, a former head of Business Development at Panasonic, said using Vodka is a myth.
Tokina said that it’s not the best cleaner, but it won’t hurt the optics.
Sony said that it depends on the level of impurities.
Zeiss said this is a bad idea. They also make their own cleaning wipes.
A former Leica Product Manager told me that it’s a bad idea and to not believe everything you read on the internet.
Sigma said it might be alright when mixed with Windex.
Tamron said that using Vodka isn’t clean enough.
Indeed, lots of folks said isopropyl alcohol is the best. And we also talked to Zeb Andrews and the team over at Blue Moon Camera. Blue Moon sells tons of vintage and rare cameras and lenses. In fact, we’ve got a partnership with them called the Rare Camera Store. Zeb says that they’ve been people who brought in lenses from the coast or in Hawaii–and that there were often lots of fungus on the lenses.
“I guess the first thing to talk about with fungus is that the best battle to fight is one of prevention,” explains Mr. Andrews. “Proper storage of lenses can go a long way to never having this issue in the first place. Dark and damp is very bad.” He continued to add that UV light naturally prevents fungus from growing. You should also keep moisture off and prevent anything that fungus needs to grow. Basically, just clean the lens. But how?
The answer lies with electronics in general. Rice can work, but there are also those little silica bead packs. This is very important if you live somewhere humid. Unfortunately, Zeb and the team say that the lenses are not always returned to their original condition.
“Cleaning fungus will almost always help a lens and improve its overall condition, but quite often fungus has permanently etched the coatings or the glass optics themselves. In these cases no matter what technique you use, there will still be marks left over. The lens will be better, but not perfect. I think this gets left out of a lot of discussions regarding cleaning fungus out of lenses. There is no “magic bullet” technique that will always fix a lens back to original condition. Unfortunately you never really know whether the fungus has etched the lens until you get in there and clean it up. So sometimes it cleans off and leaves no marks at all and sometimes it cleans off and leaves behind etched patterns of the fungus.”
So what do the folks at Blue Moon Camera do themselves? Well, it’s a mix of things. Blue Moon’s repair tech makes his own cleaning solution of Windex, isopropyl alcohol, and ammonia. Windex does what Windex does best. Ammonia kills fungus. And the alcohol is the key to helping everything evaporate cleanly.
Essentially, you’re not supposed to do a ton of rubbing. The more rubbing you do, the more the optics might come off. Plus, Blue Moon says that you should use optical tissue. Q-Tips and cotton swabs can be used, but they can be mildly abrasive. We’ve heard good things about makeup swabs, though.
Beyond this, we’ve also used Purosol before, which didn’t cause any harm to our optics. Zeiss Cleaning Solution is pretty good, and we’ve tested it. And we definitely don’t recommend using your shirt.
A while back, we went into Declassified CIA documents that detailed how to clean camera lenses. They tell you to wear gloves. Here’s the gist of it all:
Benzine is good for removing oil.
Warm acetone for some adhesives
Alcohol is fine
Liquid detergent is fine. This is otherwise known as dishwashing liquid in some cases. This is recommended with hot tap water.
Granted, the document was from a long time ago: things have changed.
Can Hydrogen Peroxide Clean a Camera Lens?
“The advantage to the hydrogen peroxide soak is that it eliminates some of the physical contact necessary for cleaning,” says Zeb. He continued to state that if you mix it with ammonia, it might work. But they’ve never done it.
He has also never used the hydrogen peroxide method but didn’t see any issue with it. He said his only concern is that if you are soaking a cemented stack of optics in that bath there may be a chance that the solution gets between the optical elements and causes separation. For single elements though he figured it would be fine. He also uses a mix comprised of Windex for cleaning, paired with non-abrasive cleaning cloths for wiping fungus off. He also reiterated that fungus sometimes etches in and leaves marks that cleaning won’t help with. He pointed out that the internal coatings of some lenses can be softer than the external coatings and more prone to marring through cleaning, so you have to be careful going into lenses. He said some Leica lenses the internal coatings are so soft that you can polish them right off, which he actually sometimes does in order to remove bad fungus or internal haze, as a polished un-coated optic at that point is better than a hazy one.
Again, Blue Moon states they’ve never used hydrogen peroxide themselves. Considering their knowledge, I don’t think I’d try it.