DVDs are the cornerstone of any great movie collection, but as awesome as they are, they aren’t exactly indestructible. We’ve all been there. You lend a buddy a copy of your favorite DVD and it comes back looking like they used it to pry the shingles off their roof. When it comes to discs, scratches can be fatal to their lifespans, but depending on where the scratch is located, they can be repaired. Sure, you could go out and buy another copy, but that will cost you precious Amazon dollars or an inconvenient excursion to Best Buy, and who really wants to do that?
Luckily, there are a few methods available when it comes to fixing a scratched DVD or CD, which you should give a shot before you disown the irresponsible guy you once called a friend.
It’s important to note that these methods will not work with Blu-ray discs. Those discs use a harder coating that’s more difficult to scratch and damage, which is good, but the downside to this is that once it does scratch, the Blu-ray disc typically becomes unusable and has to be replaced. Minor damage may be corrected with a microfiber cloth, but the data density and layers prevent any of the options outlined below from working particularly well or even being advisable for a Blu-ray. Error-correction features on the best Blu-ray players may help them to ignore scratches, of course.
It’s also a good idea to back up your DVDs, CDs, and Blu-rays by copying the data to a hard drive, also known as “ripping.” This will keep your music and movies safe and watchable for as long as you need — provided your hard drive doesn’t become damaged — and if you still want physical copies, you can simply burn them onto a rewritable disc.
There are all sorts of ways you can damage a disc, but it’s important to identify how deep a scratch is or what caused the disc to malfunction before proceeding. The first trick is to identify that the problem is actually the disc. This is usually done by trying to play the disc in another device that has a disc drive or inserting another disc into the original drive that gave you issues.
What you should know before you begin
How do scratches affect discs?
A CD or DVD is composed of layers. At the top is a layer of plastic, with the label printed on the surface. Data is stored on the disc in the form of ones and zeroes. When a disc is printed, a laser burns tiny pits into the plastic, so that the surface consists of various pits and flat surfaces called “lands.” Beneath this is a layer of reflective aluminum, and it’s important: When a CD or DVD player reads the disc, it runs a laser along it. The laser detects whether it is running over a pit or a land before the aluminum reflects the laser back to the player.
Finally, the bottom layer of the disc is a layer of polycarbonate, which is meant to protect the data from damage. If this protective layer becomes scratched, the laser’s path can be altered, thus hindering its ability to accurately read the pits and lands. In order to fix the disc, one must either buff out the scratch or fill it with a transparent substance, so that the laser can travel through to the data.
Five tips before you start
Although we cover different methods for cleaning and resurfacing your discs, it’s important to remember a few key rules if you want to save yourself a headache while going through the process.
Step 1: Wash and dry your hands before handling your discs. It’s surprisingly easy to mess with the delicate data imprinted onto a disc’s polycarbonate layer, and both grease and oil are known to cause playback issues even if the disc shows no signs of physical damage. Better still, put on a pair of latex gloves, if you happen to keep them around.
Step 2: The best way to clean your discs, with any material, is to start at the center of the disc and work your way outward in a straight line. This allows for a better grip while cleaning and lets you avoid damaging any of the data printed onto the polycarbonate layer below. The reason for this is that the data runs in a spiral around the disc, as on a vinyl record. Because the disc spins so fast, the reader has to be able to compensate for missing bits of the data as it goes, and when a scratch runs straight out from the center of the disc to the edge, it’s a lot easier for the algorithm to catch the error and fix it automatically.
Step 3: Tray-loading drives may be more likely to read a damaged or scratched disc than slot-loading drives. If possible, it’s a good idea to use one of these drives when trying to salvage a disc to lower the number of variables at play.
Step 4: Given that the layer of data that is encoded onto the polycarbonate surface is so close to the top layer of the disc, scratches and dents on the label can cause read errors in the same way a ding in the reflective surface can. Make sure to store all your discs in cases or on spools, and handle them by the inner ring to avoid damaging the data.
Step 5: The best way to repair discs is not to scratch them in the first place. It sounds silly, but using good cases and spools can significantly reduce the chance of damaging a game or DVD, which will, in turn, save you the hassle of repairs in the first place.
Methods for repairing your disc
Mr. Clean Magic Eraser
Mr. Clean’s budget pad may be geared toward household cleaning, but it’s also surprisingly useful when it comes to restoring the proper finish to optical discs. Although you typically wet the magic eraser, lightly rubbing a dry eraser over the reflective surface of the disc — again, always in straight lines from the center of the disc outward — may smooth out some of the scratches on the reflective surface without affecting the data underneath. The Mr. Clean Magic Eraser is made from melamine foam, the same kind used for sound and heat insulation, and it takes advantage of the unique properties of the material rather than chemicals to clean surfaces.
The idea is that the foam acts as an abrasive, like sandpaper, and may smooth out the outer layer of a disc and result in a smooth surface to read from. Think of it like pumice stone against the rough skin of your heel; rub it and you’ll get some of the dead skin off, but if you rub too hard, you’ll take off the important bits underneath. Be really careful to not rub too vigorously on the disc, or you’ll risk damaging the data layer underneath.
Unless you want to spend $500 or more on a professional resurfacing machine, it’s best just to avoid this option altogether. While these high-end devices are great for people who need to clean and fix hundreds of discs a month, they’re prohibitively expensive to buy and often require an upkeep cost that quickly exceeds the cost of simply replacing a few scratched DVDs. The less expensive versions, which you may see on clearance shelves for $10 or $20, tend to do more harm than good, often scratching recoverable discs beyond repair or simply dousing them in chemicals that only further damage their exterior. However, it’s common to find these machines at rental stores that sell used discs and they’ll often let you use theirs for a nominal fee.
This is where things start to get messy. If you’ve reached this point in our guide, that probably means no other method has worked. If you can get a single computer to read a copy of the disc, you can burn a replacement copy on a new disc so that you don’t have to worry about scratches on the old disc. If the scratching is too severe on the data side of the disc, it may have permanently damaged the outer reflective layer. In this case, you may be able to get one more use out of the disc by replacing the material with something comparable in order to read the working portion of the disc again.
You can use a number of different materials at this point, some effective, and some born from rumors and common misconceptions. Chapstick, toothpaste, peanut butter, shoe polish, window cleaner, petroleum jelly, banana peels, and a number of other materials are purported to work for repairing a scratched disc, but they all have one commonality: Oil. The oils in these substances will help fill in some of the gaps left from scratching, even after they’ve been wiped clean. These oils provide a path for the laser to travel straight to the data and back.
Again, if you really care about your disc and want to save it, you’ve probably already taken it to a professional by this point. Nonetheless, if you’re still committed to watching your scratched disc, you could try slightly heating it. Polycarbonate has a very low melting point and becomes very malleable with only a bit of warmth. A desk lamp will do just fine, and you can just hold the disc through the ring in the middle up to the bulb. You don’t need to bend or flatten it, either — we’re just hoping that a little bit of heat will correct any minor scratches in the imprinted data and make the disc easier to read.
If you don’t succeed …
The sad fact is that while each of the above methods has a chance to work, it’s just as likely that they won’t. Generally, once you’ve damaged a disc enough that it won’t play, you’re out of luck. Unless you really need some coasters and don’t mind the scratched-up, silvery look, your discs could be headed to the recycling bin.
If after reading this guide you still want to expand your film collection, consult our guide to the best Blu-Ray movies, or go digital with the best films on Netflix. And think about this: The Netflix option is permanently scratch-resistant.
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