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How to Clean Old Plastic

Clean old plastic such as on vintage phones.
old phone image by Pali A from Fotolia.com

Old plastic, especially vintage or antique plastics such as celluloid or Bakelite, may require extra-gentle care when cleaning them. Some cleaning solvents, for example, can discolor or even dissolve the item. More modern plastics, such as those made in the 1960s and later, may not require as much gentleness as their older predecessors, but gentle cleaning, in most cases, will help prevent or reduce damage no matter what the age or type of plastic.

Cleaning Celluloid

Dip a soft cloth into distilled water.

Gently wipe the celluloid piece with the cloth.

Dry the celluloid piece immediately with a dry, soft cloth.

Cleaning Bakelite

Wipe the piece of Bakelite down with a damp cloth for a light cleaning. Or dip it in hot, sudsy water--made with gentle dish soap--for a more thorough cleaning. Do not dip items that include non-Bakelite parts, such as metal, string or cloth, which may not be good to get wet.

Scrub gently with a soft toothbrush to get any grime inside grooves and ridges.

Rinse off the item and dry it immediately with a soft cloth.

Cleaning Old, but More Modern Plastics

Wipe the plastic with a damp cloth if it only needs a light cleaning. For dirtier items, add a bit of mild dish soap to a damp cloth and gently rub the plastic. If it appears that the item can be put in water, place it in warm, sudsy water made using gentle dish soap.

Scrub any grooves and difficult to clean areas with a soft toothbrush. For particularly difficult to remove dirt and grime, test-clean a small, hidden area with a mixture of mild soap and baking soda, scrubbing with the toothbrush. If the plastic handles this fine, continue to use the baking soda on the tough to clean areas.

Rinse and dry with a cloth.

Things You'll Need:

  • Soft cloths
  • Soft toothbrush
  • Gentle dish soap or detergent
  • Water
  • Distilled water
  • Baking soda


For cleaning celluloid, flannel makes a good, soft cloth to use. Baby toothbrushes often have the softest bristles and therefore are a good choice when cleaning plastic that can scratch easily, such as Bakelite.


  • Avoid immersing celluloid in water, especially if it has metal or rhinestones as part of the item. Water can get underneath the metal and start it to rust. and the water can soften the glue holding the rhinestones causing them to fall out. Most importantly, cracks or small holes could be in the celluloid and if water gets in it could cause damage to fragile plastic. Do not use alcohol on celluloid or Bakelite. It should not be used on most other old plastics either. If using a type of cleaner on old plastic other than mild soap, always try the cleaner on a small hidden area before proceeding. Don't put old, vintage plastics in the dishwasher.
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