Even though it was invented over 70 years ago, the Polaroid camera has created a lasting legacy and is still a hot-ticket item even today in the digital age. However, unlike photos taken on a smartphone, Polaroid snaps can deteriorate as they age.

Here’s everything you need to know about Polaroid photos, how long they last, and how to best preserve your collection.

What are polaroids?

A Polaroid is a type of instant camera that produces self-developing photographs, which are now colloquially also called polaroids. Basically, they’re instant photos, allowing users to obtain tangible, developed images within minutes of capturing a shot. Of course, their unique appeal lies in the instant gratification — eliminating the need for traditional film development. Though we now have smartphones that offer the same thing — and at a much higher quality — Polaroid photos have retained their popularity thanks to novelty and nostalgia.

The history of the Polaroid when the first camera was unveiled, marking a departure from the time-consuming and intricate photographic processes of the era. However, it wasn’t an instant overnight success. Over the years, Polaroid continued to refine its technology, introducing various models and film formats. The popularity of Polaroid cameras soared in the 1970s and 1980s, as the convenience of instant photography appealed to a broad audience.

Though it seems like magic or some kind of high-tech process, the Polaroid camera actually operates on a very straightforward principle. Unlike traditional film, Polaroid film incorporates layers of chemicals within the film itself. The film is made up of three layers: the top layer is a transparent plastic cover sheet, the middle layer is the film emulsion, and the bottom layer is a developing agent. The emulsion has dye molecules suspended in gelatin, and when a photo is taken, light hits this layer, initiating a chemical reaction and exciting the dye to move through the gelatin. The developing agent draws the dye down and traps it, and then the image sets directly on the film and becomes the picture under the transparent layer.

This process works swiftly, rendering a visible photograph in a matter of minutes. However, it is an ongoing chemical reaction which is why polaroids look cloudy and grey when they first come out of the camera, as the reaction is still happening and needs time to complete.

Despite falling out of popularity in the ‘90s and ‘00s thanks to the digital revolution, Polaroid remains an iconic name in photography. In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in instant photography, with modern iterations of Polaroid cameras catering to a new generation of enthusiasts.

How long do polaroids last?

Polaroid photos are created almost instantly, but without the proper care, they won’t last forever. The lifespan of a Polaroid photo really depends on how it’s handled and cared for. Just like any other photo, they can last for decades if stored properly. However, they can also fade super quickly if they’re not taken care of.

If you just throw your Polaroid photos in a box, there’s a good chance they will fade or become distorted over the years. The three main problems that can wreak havoc on your Polaroid collection are UV exposure, moisture, and temperature fluctuations. Prolonged exposure to sunlight or other sources of UV radiation can cause fading and discoloration in the images. It is therefore a good idea to store Polaroid photos in dark or low-light conditions.

Moisture is another critical element that can adversely affect the longevity of Polaroid prints, as it can lead to the degradation of the chemicals within the film, causing the image to blur, run, or develop mold. Using archival-quality photo albums or sleeves can help protect them from moisture-related damage.

Extreme temperatures, both hot and cold, can also accelerate the chemical reactions within the film, leading to color shifts, image distortion, and overall deterioration.

How to preserve your Polaroids

Many of the methods you can use to help ensure your Polaroid photos last as long as possible are the same as for regular film photos. Though they seem somewhat more delicate, Polaroids are no different from regular photos when it comes to deteriorating over time.

Some things to keep in mind when it comes to the storage and handling of your photos:

Don’t store them right away

Since it is an ongoing chemical reaction, Polaroid photos actually need roughly four weeks to fully develop. Wait around a month after taking them before storing your photos away.

Store in a cool, dry place

Exposure to sunlight and extreme temperatures can accelerate the deterioration process. Ideally, keep your snaps away from moisture or damp places like basements, and somewhere they will not be exposed to temperature fluctuations.

Handle Polaroid photos with clean, dry hands or wear cotton gloves

This is necessary to prevent oils and dirt from your fingers from transferring onto the prints, which can lead to film degradation over time.

Use high-quality storage solutions

Invest in archival-quality photo albums, sleeves, or storage boxes made from acid-free materials. Look for things made of polyethylene or polypropylene, not metallic or magnetic solutions. These materials are designed to protect photos from chemical reactions that can occur with non-archival materials.

If you choose to display your Polaroid photos, frame them using UV-protective glass

This type of glass helps block harmful ultraviolet rays that can cause fading and discoloration.

Avoid using adhesive materials such as tape or glue on your Polaroid prints

These can damage the surface, which is impossible to repair.

Consider digitizing your Polaroid photos to create digital backups

This ensures that even if the physical prints degrade, you have digital copies for long-term preservation.

Preserve your polaroids with EverPresent

By far, the best way to ensure that your Polaroid photos will last forever is to preserve them with a photo digitizing service like EverPresent.

We have a dedicated photo scanning team who treat every photo as if they were their own cherished memories. Whether you have 100 photos or 100,000, we can digitize your photo collection ensuring that it will last for generations to come.

Get in touch today for a free, no-obligation estimate to see if EverPresent is the right fit for your needs.