Tutorial: Using toothpaste to help recover data from an optical disk

So this is one of those things that sounds like total nonsense. Why on earth would toothpaste work with recovering data off scratched optical media? I must admit I was very skeptical the first time I tried it, but it worked, so I’ve decided to make a blog post and video describing how I did it with a disk I sandpapered.

Warnings

There are a number of things that can go wrong here, so I want to make sure you are aware of the following things:

There is no guarantee that this will help in every case

If the disk is really really badly scratched (like my one that I used sandpaper on), this may not improve the situation at all – it’s far more likely to be effective if you have a few bad scratches, rather than the whole disk being covered in them. If you overdo it and wear down the plastic too much, exposing the metal underneath, it may make the disk totally unreadable.

Do *not* put wet disks into your optical drive

Please make sure your disk is fully cleaned and dry before putting it into your optical drive, or you may permanently damage your drive.

Do *not* scrub the label side of the disk

Assuming your disk isn’t one of the rare double-sided types, please don’t scrub the label side of the disk. Particularly with CDs, this is a very vulnerable side of the disk, and scratching the label can physically destroy the data on the disk.

I accept no responsibility for loss of data or damage to your disk or your disk drive

The steps I detail here have the potential to damage your disk and/or your drive if you follow them. I personally have had success following these steps, but I will not accept responsibility if following these steps causes loss of data or damage to equipment. Please follow this tutorial at your own risk.

The Video

The Writeup

The initial attempt

My horribly scratched CD
My horribly scratched CD

So as you can see, the disk I have to demonstrate this is badly scratched – I took sandpaper to it. I might have overdone it slightly, so it will be interesting to see if it works in this case.

I started off just by putting the CD in the drive as it was, to see what happened. Unsurprisingly, it spun up and then right down and started clunking and generally sounding unhappy. After a little while, the clunking stopped and the disk mounted (!), so I knew there was a chance this might work.

After starting DDRescue-GUI and running for around 40 minutes, it had sadly made almost no progress. At this point, having successfully demonstrated how bad the disk was, I started using the toothpaste. With some luck your disk will be better and you’ll be able to whittle it down to a few bad areas, rather than almost the whole disk being unreadable like in my case.

Wearing the plastic down with toothpaste

Having seen little success, I started rubbing it with toothpaste. I spent around 10-15 minutes rubbing the disk with the toothpaste (keeping it wet when needed). If you’ve got a few problematic areas, it’s best to focus on those, but in my case the whole disk was trashed so I just coated all of it. Be gentle when you rub it – you don’t need to use much pressure for it to work.

A scratched CD covered in toothpaste
A scratched CD covered in toothpaste

After doing this, chances are your disk might look a little worse – the toothpaste is slightly abrasive and will make lots of little scratches as it wears the plastic down. Don’t worry too much though – these little scratches aren’t a problem for the laser; they’re very very shallow.

Once you’ve decided you’ve rubbed enough, wash the disk off with water, then use a bit of soap/washing up liquid to clean off the fingerprints and any remaining toothpaste. Make sure it’s fully dry before you put it back in the drive. My disk sadly did not look any better:

My disk after using the toothpaste

At this point, I wasn’t particularly expecting things to be better, but I thought it was worth a try. It’s hard to tell if it’s any better when it’s done, so I recommend doing several small cleanings in between trying to read the data until you start to see progress.

The second data recovery attempt

I put the disk in as before, and it behaved very similarly, except it mounted much faster than before – a good sign. After restarting the recovery, I left it for another 40 minutes, and it did recover a little bit of data.

Sadly, at this point I had run out of time to try again, but at least there was a small improvement. There’s a quick follow-up montage video below where I made it even worse somehow! I think I either overdid it with the toothpaste, or perhaps my wax (which turns out to have oil in it…) destroyed the surface of the disk. The drive also got extremely hot during this 2-hour run, so I should note that it’s a good idea to check this regularly!

Conclusion

This didn’t work as well as I’d hoped, but I decided to leave the video as it was, rather than delaying things, as it shows that these things don’t always go as smoothly as you want. If you’ve reached this stage and things aren’t any better, you could go on to scrub more with toothpaste and see if things improve. You could also use some wax (like in furniture polish), to see if that helps – the idea is it fills in the scratches and makes the surface smoother so the disk is more easy to read.

That’s it for now, but stay tuned – I have some posts for the Raspberry Pi drone project coming up soon!

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About Hamish McIntyre-Bhatty

I'm currently studying for a Computing and IT degree with the Open University, and am a software developer as well. I enjoy coding in Python, C++ (still learning), and Java. Having written 4 open-source programs (hosted on launchpad.net), set up my own website, and started volunteering at Wimborne Model Town to work on their river control system, I still find the time to enjoy cycling, acting, photography, and playing bass guitar. I go climbing every now and then as well. More recently, I wrote my first commercial program, Disk Verifier, and created a PSID Unlocker GUI for Parted Magic. I also create tutorial and other informative videos for Parted Magic LLC.

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