How To Clean Sports Cards (And What Not To Do)

The Justin Herbert card that was allegedly cleaned

To clean cards, or not to clean cards… That question has raised a lot of eyebrows in the hobby. When submitting cards for grading, you want to make sure the sub will receive as high a grade as possible. You want your card to appear as pristine as possible. The question of how to clean sports cards – or whether to clean them at all – continues to spur a great deal of debate on social media and in hobby shops across the country.

What caused the latest stir in the trading card world? In September 2022, an ultra-rare Justin Herbert Black Finite one-of-one rookie card with a BGS 9.5 grade sold for $1.1 million. The transaction received a lot of attention because of the sale price, of course, but it also sparked controversy when it appeared that a fingerprint or smudge on the card had been professionally removed. This raised the question: is it okay to clean trading cards, and if so, how to do it?

Is Cleaning Cards Okay?

Modern cards, like Panini Prizm and Topps Chrome, are high-gloss cards susceptible to fingerprints or smudging on the face of the card. After ripping your favorite sports card boxes and setting aside the nicest cards for grading, it is common to see a fingerprint here and there. Prior to sliding cards into a penny sleeve and a top loader or card saver, it’s a customary practice to wipe away any noticeable smudge and/or any dust with a soft cloth. This is a generally accepted practice among the vast majority of collectors. However, it is important to learn how to clean sports cards correctly.

In the case of the Justin Herbert card, the individual that submitted the card to BGS admitted to first sending the card to a service that would prepare it for grading. This raised the question of whether the card had been chemically cleaned. If the card had been sprayed with a cleaning liquid or otherwise cleaned with chemicals, many believe that BGS should have labeled the Herbert as “altered” — which would have dramatically decreased the value of the card.

Cleaning Sports Cards Vs. Altering

Before submitting your cards for grading, you want them to look their best. In terms of value, the grade of a card can either mean that your card is worth a lot or not worth much at all. Because you will be paying anywhere from $15 to several hundred dollars per card for grading, you want your cards to come back with the highest grade possible so you can at least justify the cost of the submission. The question of how to clean sports cards or whether it’s something you should be doing depends on a few things. Wiping away a smudge is one thing, but some collectors have gone to extremes to ensure the card will receive a 9 or a 10 grade.

Physically altering a card is not an acceptable practice, and all legitimate grading companies have policies against this. A common alteration is when the edge of a card is trimmed or thinly sliced to remove a small nick on a corner. If a grading company sees that this has been done, then the card may not receive a grade at all and will be returned in a card holder with a label indicating that the card has been altered — significantly compromising the resale value. So is it worth it to alter these cards? As a collector, it is crucial you learn how to clean your baseball cards or football cards as minimally as possible.

If a card is cleaned with chemicals, as the Justin Herbert card is thought to have been, many believe this is also a form of alteration. In the short term, a chemical spray can clean off the surface of a card and improve its appearance, but long-term effects of a chemical cleaning solution could alter the color or clarity of the card. If something like this happened to the Justin Herbert one-of-one, then this would be tragic.

How to Clean Trading Cards

Cleaning cards shouldn’t be rocket science. In fact, if you were checking out different options for how to clean your baseball cards or football cards, it’s best to remove any technology and simply use common sense.

1. Prepare your space.

The first step to learning how to clean sports cards is ensuring your workspace is clear of any dust or debris in order to guard against tiny foreign objects that may work their way onto your card.

2. Have your supplies ready.

Make sure you have enough sports card sleeves and supplies, like top loaders, within reach. You won’t have to learn how to clean your trading cards as much, if you take the necessary precautions in protecting them from external debris.

3. Use a microfiber cloth.

An orange microfiber cloth

A soft microfiber cloth is really all you need to wipe away any residue that may show up on the surface of the card. You can also use a blacklight to search for any dust particles or imperfections on the card.

4. Don’t overdo it.

Apply a fair amount of pressure but only what is necessary to remove the smudge or fingerprint. This is even more important if it is not an opti-chrome card you are trying to clean.

5. Use common sense.

One of the most important steps when learning how to clean your trading cards: if you believe you are about to do something to the card that might physically alter its appearance, then stop immediately.

Keep Your Collection Looking Its Best

When putting together the Mount Rushmore of your card collection, you may choose to submit those raw cards for grading. That means they need to appear in as pristine condition as possible.

Whether you’re seeking information about how best to clean sports cards or you’re hunting down your grail card among the best new sports card releases in the hobby, then Giant Sports Cards is here for you.