The Ins and Outs of a Scratched CD

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If your favorite music or data CD is skipping or just REFUSES to play, try cleaning the CD first before giving up. You can clean scratched CDs using household cleaners, repair kits, and specialized products.

How CDs Actually Work

Compact disks, or CDs, are just a bunch of extremely thin layers put together. There’s a polycarbonate plastic layer where all the data is encoded with a bunch of bumps. Then there’s the reflective layer usually made up of a material like aluminum. After that there’s a clear varnish type layer called the lacquer layer. Lasers read the plastic layer with all the bumps and the reflective layer reflects it back to be read by the player. Dirt or scratches interfere with the laser, and it can’t read certain sections of the disk which causes skipping, stuttering, or disk failures.

Simple things such as dirt, grease, and even oils from fingertips touching the surface are enough to cause the CD to skip. If it’s something small like this, there are household cleaners that can fix the problem, and can even get your CD to play like new! Try this: get a cute, fuzzy little cotton ball and gently wipe down the CD, starting from the center hole and swiping in short, firm strokes towards the edge. NEVER run a cotton ball, cleaner or rag around the disk, like an old fashioned record player. This can damage the CD in an irreparable way. Always work from the center out.

Clean Your Scratched CDs

If you’ve tried the cotton ball method, or using simple household cleaners and still can’t play the CD, hold it up to the light, tilting it back and forth, to check for scratches. Scratches perpendicular to the spiral of the CD usually don’t affect performance, but scratches that follow around the disk’s track can kill the performance. Once you find the scratch, focus your efforts on the scratch so you don’t accidentally ruin the CD yourself.

Household Polishes

Scratches are usually only in the lacquer coating of the CD, which means they can be buffed out with caustic polishes. Always test your polish, even the most benign, on a CD that you don’t care about BEFORE using it on something you don’t want to mess up. Not only to make sure it’s not too harsh, but also so you know you’re doing it right.

Common household items that make good CD polishers to buff out scratches include:

  • Toothpaste – paste, not gel
  • Baking soda mixed with water to form a paste
  • Brasso

Use a clean, soft cloth, like one you would use on your glasses, and wipe the CD from center to rim. Put a small amount of whichever item you decide to use (only one at a time) and gently rub from center to rim ONLY on the scratch itself with the D.I.Y. polisher. If you use the baking soda or toothpaste, rinse it off when you’re done. If you used Brasso, just wipe it off. Then just dap the CD dry and try playing it. You might have to clean it twice to get it to work.

Even though you’re ‘buffing’ the scratches off the lacquer lay, be very gentle with the polish because if you do it too hard, you could affect the under layer that contains all the data.

Commercial Products

There are companies out there who make kits, machines and products to repair scratched CDs. Companies that repair airplanes use acrylic polish to polish the acrylic surfaces of planes, and these polishes do the same to the plastic surface of a CD. Glass cleaners and acrylic polishers can be used on CDs. Use them the same as you would with homemade cleansers: always test the product on a CD you don’t mind risking, wipe from the middle out, etc etc.

CD Care

The easiest way to not have to worry about cleaning scratches again, is just taking care of your CD. Use common sense. Always put CDs back into their cases when you’re done. Don’t touch the surface with your fingers, always hold the CD by the edges. Maybe even use a soft cloth the wipe the disk after every use. These tips are the same with DVDs.

Taking this advice into account, your CDs should last for many years of enjoyment!


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