The digital age has revolutionized the way we handle information. Never before could humankind record and store so much information and in such diversity. While the amount of data has increased exponentially, the predicted lifespan of the storage media hardly exceeds the lifetime of a human.
So how long do CDs, DVDs, and Blu-ray optimal discs last? How can you expand their lifespans? And what happens if a disc doesn’t play?
What Determines the Lifespan of Different Optical Discs?
Optical discs have been commercially available since the 1980s. Since then, there have been advances in the actual technologies and materials used in CDs, DVDs, and Blu-rays, meaning information is much safer now than it ever was before.
While estimates predict a huge lifetime for optical discs, we can’t be sure when they are really going to break down. However, by being aware of what determines the lifespan of optical discs and what causes them to break, you can make choices and significantly increase the survival time of your stored data.
To understand what limits the life span of optical discs, we first need to look at how they are built-up.
All optical discs have three key layers in common:
- Coating layer that protects the reflective layer.
- Shiny layer that reflects the laser.
- Polycarbonate disc layer that stores the data.
In addition, a label is applied above the coating layer and re-writable discs contain a dye layer between the reflective and protective layers.
One factor that determines the maximum lifespan of an optical disc is the type of reflective layer. Other factors include the overall quality of the raw materials used and manufacturing.
Most important, however, is the way the medium is treated by the user. The handling of an optical disc has the most significant impact on its longevity, so we’ll come back to this in a moment.
How Long Do CDs, DVDs, and Blu-rays Last?
It is hard to predict exactly how long an optical disc will last since it depends on so many different factors. Nevertheless, estimates predict a lifespan of up to 200 years for recorded CD-Rs and Blu-Ray discs.
Generally speaking, discs with recorded media will degrade faster than those without.
Despite this, unused (with no data) CD-Rs and CD-RWs have the shortest predicted lifespan (five to 10 years), followed by recorded DVD-RWs (up to 30 years). Recorded CD-RWs and DVD-Rs have a predicted lifetime of 20 to 100 years.
Don’t rely on any of these media for lifelong storage of your precious data, as they are likely to fail sooner rather than later. Blu-rays are the most dependable, but they’re also the newest, so long-term information isn’t available just yet.
How Do CDs, DVDs, and Blu-rays Rot or Deteriorate?
Different types of optical discs contain different layers and the reflective layer is most susceptible to damage.
Omg I was gonna play a dvd and the the dvd player is really old and closed before the entire disc was inside 😭😭 I HOPE IT ISN’T SCRATCHED
— 🌟 (@HewoMint) June 23, 2021
Standard compact discs typically have a reflective layer made from aluminum. When exposed to air, aluminum oxidizes, which naturally happens around the edges of the CD. However, degradation of the reflective layer is not the only cause of disc rot, the chemical or physical deterioration of data which results in information becoming unreadable.
These underlying causes of disc rot are manifold and can include any of the following:
- Oxidation or corrosion of reflective layer.
- Physical damage to disc surfaces or edges, such as scratches.
- Galvanic reaction between layers and coatings.
- Chemical reactions with contaminants.
- Ultra-violet light damage.
- Breaking down of disc materials, e.g. de-bonding of adhesives between layers.
Interestingly, while most types of disc rot are caused by inappropriate use and/or storage, there is one in particular, CD bronzing, which is caused by a fault in manufacturing. This manifests as a brown discoloration (or “mold”) starting at the edge of the disc and working its way towards the middle.
There’s some disagreement over what causes CD bronzing, but it’s most likely to be either the lacquer used to coat discs or the silver (used instead of aluminum) reacting with the sulfur found in sleeves and accompanying booklets. This forms the brown silver sulfate.
How Can I Check the Condition of My CDs, DVDs, and Blu-rays?
Your best option is to perform a simple visual check, i.e. look at your disc.
If you see light shining through tiny holes when you hold a disc against light, then the reflective layer has started to disintegrate.
Also check your CDs for discoloring, especially around the edges. See whether the different layers are still tightly together or have started to de-laminate.
You might see small scratches too when inspected under the light. Most of the time, these won’t have too much of an adverse effect on the data, but deeper marks can. Little scratches are a warning sign that the disc isn’t being treated properly, so check whether it’s staying in its holder properly, or if there’s anything else affecting the physical unit.
If it’s a CD, DVD, or Blu-ray, try playing it. Pay attention to any parts that skip or jump. Be careful with doing this: if it gets too hot and overloads the system, you can cause more damage, so be patient and stop the disc as soon as a problem arises.
If many discs are having the same issues, it’s worth checking if the problem isn’t so much the media as the player.
Finally, you can try to copy the optical discs to a hard drive or scan them for data integrity using different software, e.g. CDRoller, which can actually help you recover your lost data too (in many cases).
How Can I Increase the Lifetime of My CDs, DVDs, and Blu-rays?
There are many ways you can increase the lifespan of your CD, DVD, and Blu-ray collection. Much is common sense, i.e. treating them as treasured items, not something you can fling around with careless abandon.
So here are a few tips for looking after your optimal discs:
- Choose a high quality medium from a good brand. This makes it more likely that long-lasting materials have been used in the process of creating discs.
- If you want to maximize CD longevity, go for gold as a reflective layer.
- Treat your CDs, DVDs, and Blu-rays with care. Hold them by the outer edges or the hole in the center, don’t touch the surface, avoid scratches, and keep dirt from the disc.
- Keep them in a dry, dark, and cool place: humidity, sunlight, high temperatures, and pollutants can damage the different layers.
- Store them in jewel cases, rather than paper slips. This avoids chemical leakages or reactions that damage discs over time.
- Use non solvent-based felt-tip permanent markers, suitable for writing on CD, DVD, or Blu-ray labels.
- Rewrite your rewriteable discs as little as possible.
- Choose slow writing speeds to reduce errors and increase quality.
What Can I Do When My Disc Won’t Read?
A disc that can no longer be read by your player or shows errors is not necessarily a lost case. Here area few tips for what you can do when your CDs, DVDs, or Blu-ray discs refuse to play:
- Make sure you haven’t accidentally inserted the disc upside down.
- Carefully clean the bottom layer with alcohol to remove grease from fingerprints and dust.
- Try to read the disc in a different player. It might be that the laser in your player that reads this data is faulty or that a different player can still read your CD, DVD, or Blu-ray.
Sometimes, even the silliest of things can fix your discs—like toothpaste fixing CDs! So keep an open mind and do your research.
If none of these options work, it’s worth investigating if there are any experts who can help restore otherwise lost information.
CDs, DVDs, and Blu-rays Have a Shelf-Life
If you want to keep something really important, you need to have back-ups.
Check all your back-ups regularly to make sure none of the copies have broken in the meantime, regardless of whether you store your data on a CD, DVD, hard drive, or even Blu-ray.
Need to play a scratched disc and can’t? Here’s how to fix a scratched DVD or CD with toothpaste and other household items.
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