How can I Fix a Scratched CD?

Brendan McGuigan

Anyone who has used CDs for more than a few months is well aware how easily they get scratched. No matter how hard you might try to protect them, keep them in their cases at all times, and clean them whenever you notice dust or dirt on them, eventually they start to get scratched up. At first these scratches are only cosmetic, and while it might look like they would have a negative effect, when you put them in a player, they play without any problems.

Stacking CDs can scratch them.
Stacking CDs can scratch them.

Evventually, however, these scratches turn into problems, causing small skips, or larger skips, or stopping the CD from playing entirely. Once you have a scratched CD, it might seem like there’s not much you can do about it, save buy a new copy of the CD, or give in and buy digital copies. But in fact, fixing a scratched CD is quite easy.

Protective cases may help prevent CD scratches.
Protective cases may help prevent CD scratches.

First of all, it’s useful to know what exactly causes one scratched CD to play fine, while another skips. It’s also good to know what kinds of scratches can be easily repaired, and which are almost impossible to repair. A CD is read from the inside to the outside, following a spiral, much in the same way a groove in a record is followed. A CD player has a laser which it bounces off of the CD to read small grooves in a plate sandwiched between protective layers. If something disrupts that laser beam, the CD can skip.

Most people think the data for a CD is held on the bottom of the CD somehow, and that scratches on this side are the most dangerous. In reality, however, the data is kept underneath the label side of the CD, on top of the thick layer of protective plastic, so in fact it is a scratched CD with the scratch through the label side that is least likely to be repaired.

The first step to repairing a scratched CD is to make sure what you’re seeing is actually a scratch, and not just a smudge or oil built up. These things can also cause the laser to bounce erratically, but can be easily cleaned with a soft, lint-free cloth. To do so, take the cloth and clean from the inside to the outside, in straight, direct lines, not in circular patterns. If the CD is still skipping, you’ll need to actually fix the scratches, either using a machine to do so, or with household remedies.

Machines to repair a scratched CD can run from quite cheap, at about $20 US Dollars (USD) for a unit and a little bit of cleaning solution, to fairly expensive, with some models costing upwards of $300 USD. These machines resurface the disc by taking off the outermost layer of the plastic protection. You continue taking off these thin layers until the CD no longer skips, at which point you have a slightly thinner, working CD.

For a cheaper alternative, that may or may not work, depending on the extent of the damage, you can use a household abrasive. Most people find toothpaste to be the easiest, most readily-available solution to fix a scratched CD. Use the toothpaste like a polish, with a soft lint-free rag, until the scratches are buffed out. This technique can work on even surprisingly scratched discs, but there is some risk that additional scratches can occur from the buffing itself, so it should only be tried on discs that are beyond hope anyway, at least until you become confident in your polishing skills.

CDs need to be properly stored so they don't get scratched.
CDs need to be properly stored so they don't get scratched.

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