How to tell if a Banknote has been Cleaned/Washed?

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How to tell if a Banknote has been Cleaned/Washed?


Various sources such as the Internation Banknote Society (IBNS) website, state that cleaning (or washing) is generally harmful and reduces the grading of the banknote. Most banknote collectors and all (hopefully) dealers know this fact. How many of these have ever seen a cleaned banknote? Not that many. The trouble is that a lot of them are unware because the effects of cleaning cannot be easily spotted. On eBay, it is almost impossible to spot because the buyer relies on the seller's description and pictures of the banknote, feedback and ratings. Fortunately, there are ways to spot this which will explain in this guide later on. Note that this guide assumes that the reader has the knowledge of banknote grades.

Why cleaning banknotes is bad?

Other than the effects which we will describe in the next section, the grading of the banknote will be reduced by at least one grade. This does not deter some sellers because they want to improve the grade of low grade banknotes by cleaning them (in their eyes) and then sell them at the highest grade possible, without disclosing this fact, to unsuspecting buyers. They make maximum profits through fraud.

How can one tell if a banknote has been cleaned?

Under good light, one may notice the following on a cleaned banknote:

  • Original sheen may be lost.
  • Surface may become dull and lifeless.
  • Embossed parts will be completely flat like mountains squashed into the ground.
  • Defects may not be completely eliminated and signs of it can be seen.
  • White streaks where folds or creases existed (or still exist) if carelessly cleaned.

Under ultraviolet (UV) light, one will definitely notice the following;

  • Surface glows very brightly like a normal piece of paper.
  • Uneven blotches along the borders and elsewhere. These can be also spotted along the borders under good light.

One may also notice small dark stains.

Uncleaned banknotes DO NOT glow brightly due to the chemical composition of banknote material. In other words, banknote paper is made of cotton and paper or equivalent. In some cases, polymers or plastic. These materials absorb the most of the blue-purple light associated with glow of UV light.

The pictures below shows the photos of a cleaned banknote:

Although it is impossible to spot cleaned banknotes on eBay, what can one do to reduce the chances of buying one?

Look out for the following:

  • No detailed description on condition, other than judge for yourself (or equivalent phrases), superb condition (or equivalent) or just Uncirculated (UNC), Extremely Fine (EF) or Very Fine (VF) grades.
  • No return policy.
  • Private listings (which are more likely to provide collusion between the seller and associates).
  • In sealed airtight plastic cover.
  • The seller sells mostly other items then sells the odd banknote every now and then (say every three months or so) in only high grades such as UNC. (This rings alarm bells!!!!!!).
  • Neutral or negative feedback (or even bad comments) regarding cleaned banknotes.
  • Low seller ratings.

Note that sellers may not fit into all of the above points. Therfore:

  • Use common sense.
  • Ask direct questions to the seller in relation to the banknote they are selling. If the answers are evasive and vague then DO NOT bid.

What if these measures fail and one buys a banknote which turns out to be cleaned?

To find out whether a banknote has been cleaned or not, do the following:

  • Examine it under good light. Move it around so that the light bounces off at different angles. Then one should spot the signs mentioned earlier in this guide.
  • Lightly feel the surface of the banknote to detect flattening of the embossed parts.
  • Examine it under UV light. The effects are obvious.
  • Complain to the seller. Then one should get their money back. If this fails, open a dispute via eBay. If this fails, go to a consumer organisation such as Consumer Direct for advice and go from there.

Why should one invest in a UV lamp?

Just waste a small amount of money to buy one because one must find out if a banknote has been cleaned or not after one buys a banknote, especially ones in UNC. Otherwise, one will end up with a very expensive lesson. OUCH! We all know that is very painful emotionally and financially. Most of us feel sorry for the collector who unwittingly buys a banknote in supposibly in UNC condition but turns out to be cleaned.


With the information above, one should be able to reduce the chances of buying a cleaned banknote thus ending up with an expensive lesson a the end of the day. Hopefully, more people will be aware of the effects of cleaning banknotes.





If you want to check out my other guides, please feel free to do so:

Storing your Banknotes: Mylar or PVC?

Ways to Store your Banknotes

Buying Commemorative Banknotes

Postage & Packaging and Couriers

Exchange Rate Commissions - What you need to know?

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