Closeup of a compact disc and cleaning cloth

Compact disc care – handling, storing and cleaning your CDs to prolong their useful life

Compact discs? Aren’t they about as popular as a flatulent teenager in a crowded lift?

Erm, yes. But while it’s true that sales of CDs have shrunk dramatically since their heyday, there are still plenty of them about in people’s collections. Proper compact disc care is therefore still important, so you can get the most out of your treasured music for many years – and decades – to come!

Why is proper compact disc care necessary?

Readers of a certain age will have seen the TV demonstration in the early 1980s, in which these then-new shiny silvery discs were subjected to all sorts of indignities, yet still played properly afterwards.

But of course, real life isn’t like that, and anyone who’s ever owned any will know that they can sometimes be just as temperamental as vinyl or cassettes.

Although CDs don’t actually ‘wear out’ in the sense that records or tapes do, following some simple care, handling and storage tips will help you get the most out of them for as long as possible.


Although I refer to CDs in this article, the information also applies to DVDs and Blu-ray discs.

Handling your CDs properly

Luckily, handling your CDs properly is really easy:

Handle them by their outer edge and centre hole

I told you it was easy! That’s the first part. With the corollary being…

Don’t touch the surfaces

Don’t touch the disc surfaces – neither the playing side nor the label side.

Playing side

Fingerprints, dust, dirt and anything else in or on the polycarbonate substrate layer (playing surface) make it more difficult for the laser beam to read the disc’s data. Although CD players have built-in error correction systems, these are not infallible. If a disc shows too many signs of damage, you will no longer be able to play it.

Fingerprints can actually be worse than scratches, as they take up a larger, wider area. This means there is more guesswork involved for the error correction system.

The error correction abilities of dedicated CD players tend to be better than those of computer disc drives. The error compensation system can be beavering away over multiple plays of a disc without you, the listener, even being aware of the fact. Only if the disc becomes too damaged do you notice there’s a problem.

Label side

It’s also important not to touch the label surface. Why’s that? The data on CDs is closer to the label side than it is to the playing side! And the label sides are easy to scratch or damage. So although this may sound strange, damage to the label side is more serious than damage to the playing side! Even a pinhole in the label side’s protective coating can render the data beneath it unreadable. (DVDs are slightly different. Their data isn’t stored closest to the label side, but in the centre of the flat disc. But the same principle applies – discs are thin, labels are sensitive and it’s easy to render the data unreadable.)

Plus, if the label side is cracked or scratched, oxygen and moisture can more easily get at the disc.

Don’t bend your CDs

This tip may sound glaringly obvious, but you’ll have noticed that some discs are wedged onto the holder in the disc tray really, really tightly.

It’s tempting to try and wiggle it out, lifting it a bit as you do so, but by doing so, you could be damaging it!

Try and remove it by pressing the tabs in the holder in the usual way, until it releases the disc from its vice-like jaws.

Labelling CDRs

I’m not sure if anyone still uses CDRs, but if you are, don’t stick adhesive labels on them! Not just on the playing side, but also not the label side! Over time, the glue breaks down, causing havoc with the disc surface and leading to read errors and ultimately, failure.

Instead, label your CDRs by writing on them with a felt tip permanent marker, but make sure it uses water-based ink, not solvent-based.

Don’t use ballpoint or rollerball pens, as these are hard, pointed scratchy things which can scratch off the protective layer. We’ve already seen why that causes problems.

CDR with adhesive labels stuck to the label side
Don’t stick adhesive labels to your discs

Cleaning compact discs

If your compact discs are handled, stored and cared for properly, they shouldn’t need cleaning. Only clean them when necessary, and if only one bit is affected, there’s no need to clean the entire disc – just clean the affected area.

But in the real world, second-hand CDs aren‘t always in perfect condition. They are sometimes supplied with free dust, dirt, fingerprint and hair samples, all of which can prevent the laser beam reading them properly.

If this is the case, you’ll need to clean them. But how?

Cleaning CDs with compressed air

Your first choice should be to try and clean your CD or DVD with air.

But hang on – don’t blow on it! Breath contains moisture, which can cause dust on the disc to stick.

Used compressed air instead. Not from some kind of industrial machine, but one of the canisters of compressed air you can buy for cleaning computer keyboards and inside computer casings.

Cleaning CDs by dry wiping

If compressed air doesn’t bring results, the next step is to try dry wiping them.

CD and cleaning cloth
Dry wipe your CDs and other optical discs with a soft, microfibre cloth

You can buy special CD cleaning cloths, but any clean, soft, lint-free microfibre cloth is OK, such as for example the ones for cleaning glasses (as in spectacles, not drinking glasses. Why’s the English language sometimes so complicated?!).

You also only need to clean the playing surface.

Wipe the disc’s playing surface in straight lines from the centre to the edge. Don’t wipe in a circular motion, and definitely don’t ‘clean’ it by rubbing it on your clothing!

Don’t press on too hard as you do so, as you don’t want to press any debris present down onto the disc surface.

And very importantly, don’t use tissues, as these are abrasive, and can scratch your discs!

CD showing cleaning direction: centre to edge
Wipe your CDs and other optical discs from the centre to the edge

Cleaning CDs by wet wiping

Only wet clean your CDs or DVDs if absolutely necessary, and if you do, be extremely careful! It’s important to use the right cleaning fluid, and even then, this can leave residue.

CD cleaning fluid is available (often with a CD cleaning cloth), but a mixture of distilled water and washing up liquid can also do the job. If you go down the soapy water route, it really does have to be distilled water, not tap water, as this contains minerals and limescale.

Don’t use alcohol-based cleaners or powerful solvents, as they attack the disc surfaces! One possible exception to this is isopropyl alcohol, as it evaporates before it has chance to attack the disc’s polycarbonate. But it can still damage the label side, so be careful!

Gently dry the disc with a soft, clean, lint-free microfibre cloth when you’ve done.

Storing compact discs

We’ve learned how to handle and clean your CDs. Now here are eight storage tips for you:

  • Keep your CDs in their boxes, sleeves or packaging – don’t leave them lying around
  • Don’t store optical discs at extreme temperatures. Room temperature is best, so around 18–20°C (64–68°F)
  • The storage environment shouldn’t be too humid – ideally 40–50% relative humidity
  • Don’t subject them to extreme temperature changes
  • Store CDs and other optical media out of direct sunlight
  • Keep your discs away from dust, dirt and moisture
  • Store your CDs on edge (like books). So some of those CD storage towers you’ve maybe seen are out of the question! Don’t store CDs flat (horizontal) for long periods, as this can cause the polycarbonate to bend, especially in high temperatures
  • And definitely don’t stack them loose on top of one another (although see point 1 – they shouldn’t be out of their cases anyway!)
Storing CDs vertically
Store CDs vertically, like books

Removing scratches from CDs

Scratches on CDs or other types of optical disc reflect or refract the laser beam, causing playback errors, or in some cases, lack of reliable playback at all.

Whereas some scratches don’t seem to have any negative effect on playback, some tiny, faint, barely visible ones can cause havoc.

Scratches are less likely to cause problems if they run from the centre of the disc outwards, with scratches running along the circular direction of the track being more likely to cause uncorrectable errors.

The key to removing scratches is to reduce the difference in height between the scratches and the undamaged surface. So how do you do that?

You can find commercial CD repair kits, which include a special paste for filling the scratches.

Some adventurous souls also use toothpaste (!) to reduce the refraction of light from the laser beam. Call me Mr Unadventurous, but I don’t really fancy doing that!

If you’ve had no luck with the easier, more risk-free methods, you could consider giving these methods a go. I’d suggest starting with the kit, rather than the toothpaste. Who knows, as long as your CD isn’t too damaged, and your expectations are realistic, you may have some success.

Depending how badly scratched your discs are, and what’s on them, it may just be easier to stream the music or buy it in some other format.

Compact disc care – conclusion

Following these easy CD handling, storage and cleaning tips will help you preserve your precious CD collection, so you can still be gaining maximum enjoyment from your compact discs in decades to come. (And if CDs ever become popular again, as vinyl has done in recent years, you’ll be ahead of the pack!)

All photos ©

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