If you do use CDs or DVDs to backup your photo library – please read this.

After burning the disc, don’t label it. The top of the disc, NOT the bottom, is the most fragile part! Most damage comes from labeling the disc. The adhesives used in labels, and the dyes used in ink pens, are applied directly to the foil layer of the disc. If that gets damaged, you will be very unhappy.

I don’t put labels on my discs. I also don’t write on them. I simply put them into a sleeve or jewel case that has been labeled. Yes, the CD could become disassociated with the sleeve or case, but if that happens, I just need a second to read the disc to see what it contains. I can then resleeve and relabel it.

This system assures the best care of the fragile foil layerof the CD. But if you do apply a label to your CD, make sure to get one with acid-free materials. This will cost more but will last longer. Eventually, the adhesive will probably damage the CD, so make sure to backup your backup every few years as a precaution.

NOTE: I have tested several special pens and adhesives that claim to offer a safe alternative for writing on CDs, etc. These are long-term tests that I started in 1997. So far, none of those claims has been true and all the products I started testing are now off the market. Approach these products with some caution and do your research.

Join the conversation! 46 Comments

  1. Hi Scott, thanks for the confirmation on something I had thought was urban legend. I had thought that writing on the top side of the DVD or CD was OK and had no long-term effect. Your approach using a jewel case is clearly a sensible one. Now I’m off to business depot to stock-up.

  2. Hi Scott, thanks for the confirmation on something I had thought was urban legend. I had thought that writing on the top side of the DVD or CD was OK and had no long-term effect. Your approach using a jewel case is clearly a sensible one. Now I’m off to business depot to stock-up.

  3. While this is good advice in general, I’d like to add a couple of things. Firstly, there is always the option of buying the inkjet printable CD’s/DVD’s. These have a layer already applied that accept inkjet ink and thus can either be printed on or written on if you don’t have a cd printer.

    The second thing is that with single layer DVD’s the dye and reflective layer are in the middle of the disk, not on once side as per CD’s (CD’s are a one piece 1.2mm disk, whereas the DVD is a sandwich of two 0.6mm disks). This presents it’s own problems with sticky labels though as stress can cause the two layers to separate, however it is perfectly safe to write on the plastic or inkjet surface of a single layer DVD. If your pen ink is able to penetrate 0.6mm of polycarbonate then you have other things to worry about.

  4. While this is good advice in general, I’d like to add a couple of things. Firstly, there is always the option of buying the inkjet printable CD’s/DVD’s. These have a layer already applied that accept inkjet ink and thus can either be printed on or written on if you don’t have a cd printer.

    The second thing is that with single layer DVD’s the dye and reflective layer are in the middle of the disk, not on once side as per CD’s (CD’s are a one piece 1.2mm disk, whereas the DVD is a sandwich of two 0.6mm disks). This presents it’s own problems with sticky labels though as stress can cause the two layers to separate, however it is perfectly safe to write on the plastic or inkjet surface of a single layer DVD. If your pen ink is able to penetrate 0.6mm of polycarbonate then you have other things to worry about.

  5. Scott, Have you ever tired the printable disc? I was able to pick up a cheap printer that allows me to print on these disc and was just wondering if you have tried them.

  6. Scott, Have you ever tired the printable disc? I was able to pick up a cheap printer that allows me to print on these disc and was just wondering if you have tried them.

  7. Scott,

    Have you looked into the inkjet writable DVDs/CDs. I’ve been using them for a couple of years for my DVD-Videos and so far haven’t had any problems.

    How did you get that bird to hover in front of the white background in your studio? Taxidermy?

  8. Scott,

    Have you looked into the inkjet writable DVDs/CDs. I’ve been using them for a couple of years for my DVD-Videos and so far haven’t had any problems.

    How did you get that bird to hover in front of the white background in your studio? Taxidermy?

  9. I’ve been using lightscribe for over the past 2 years to label my discs for personal and professional purposes. While the label is only in monochrome I find the results to be very classy if done right. Since lightscribe is burning a label onto a special coating on top of disc I don’t believe there are the same adverse affects to the foil layer. The only issue I have noted is fading of the label with some of the lower quality discs after a year.

  10. I buy printable DVDs and have never had a problem reading them back.

  11. I buy printable DVDs and have never had a problem reading them back.

  12. While I don’t dispute your long term testing, the one thought that jumped out at me when I read it is: “There have probably been even more products introduced (and even pulled) since your initial tests began”. Perhaps, since then, they’ve corrected their science, and/or marketing material. I’m not saying your tests aren’t valid, but, for example, if you actually waited for the actual half life of some elemental materials (like carbon, oxygen, plutonium, etc) then you’d be waiting for several THOUSAND years. I still don’t know the science behind figuring out how one product can effect the lifetime of another product in just a few days/weeks/months, but perhaps things have gotten better by now? It doesn’t hurt to ask, or verify on your own. I’ll be keeping this thought in mind when I do write things to CD/DVDs though, thanks for the tip.

  13. While I don’t dispute your long term testing, the one thought that jumped out at me when I read it is: “There have probably been even more products introduced (and even pulled) since your initial tests began”. Perhaps, since then, they’ve corrected their science, and/or marketing material. I’m not saying your tests aren’t valid, but, for example, if you actually waited for the actual half life of some elemental materials (like carbon, oxygen, plutonium, etc) then you’d be waiting for several THOUSAND years. I still don’t know the science behind figuring out how one product can effect the lifetime of another product in just a few days/weeks/months, but perhaps things have gotten better by now? It doesn’t hurt to ask, or verify on your own. I’ll be keeping this thought in mind when I do write things to CD/DVDs though, thanks for the tip.

  14. That is good advice. I also think the printable CDs/DVDs may be a good solution.

    That aside have you ever thought of writing on the inside clear plastic ring? Maybe not exactly what is on the disk, because who can write that small, but a file number that matches your sleeve. That way if they get separated you can still pair up there numbers.

    Hope that helps!

  15. That is good advice. I also think the printable CDs/DVDs may be a good solution.

    That aside have you ever thought of writing on the inside clear plastic ring? Maybe not exactly what is on the disk, because who can write that small, but a file number that matches your sleeve. That way if they get separated you can still pair up there numbers.

    Hope that helps!

  16. Are there service bureaus out there that will press a DVD from a recordable DVD you provide them. Or is the price so high, that it would be cheaper and safer to just record a bunch of extra copies as backup-backups.

  17. Multiple copies probably wouldn’t help you much because they would probably degrade at around the same rate (assuming the production practices created similar media). They would protect against scratches somewhat though.

    Also, I second Bart’s comment. This is a problem for CDs but not for DVDs, which have plastic on both sides. It’s easy to see this if you look at them from the side, and even easier if you bend them until they break in half. If you haven’t done this to some CDs and DVDs to see what’s inside I recommend it :)

  18. Multiple copies probably wouldn’t help you much because they would probably degrade at around the same rate (assuming the production practices created similar media). They would protect against scratches somewhat though.

    Also, I second Bart’s comment. This is a problem for CDs but not for DVDs, which have plastic on both sides. It’s easy to see this if you look at them from the side, and even easier if you bend them until they break in half. If you haven’t done this to some CDs and DVDs to see what’s inside I recommend it :)

  19. I’ve been using the special marking pens but think I’ll reconsider that approach. Do you have any thoughts on how to catalog all those discs? With revisions and multiple copies it can get complicated as to what is actually on the disk apart from popping it in the drive. Good Tip btw.!!!

  20. I’ve been using the special marking pens but think I’ll reconsider that approach. Do you have any thoughts on how to catalog all those discs? With revisions and multiple copies it can get complicated as to what is actually on the disk apart from popping it in the drive. Good Tip btw.!!!

  21. This is what I do for CD and DVD backups:

    I keep a notebook of sleeves (you can buy 3-ring punched sleeves from office stores that hold 6 CDs or so). I mark each sleeve with a sharpie on the plastic cover with a 1, 2, 3, etc. Sometimes, I’ll write a short description of the contents if it is really important. Then, on the clear plastic center of the media, I write the number that coincides with the sleeve. That way if they get separated, it’s a simple matter of matching them back up.

    Sharpies do degrade optical media over time. Memorex makes CD pens, but I don’t know how well they work. I haven’t used them.

  22. This is what I do for CD and DVD backups:

    I keep a notebook of sleeves (you can buy 3-ring punched sleeves from office stores that hold 6 CDs or so). I mark each sleeve with a sharpie on the plastic cover with a 1, 2, 3, etc. Sometimes, I’ll write a short description of the contents if it is really important. Then, on the clear plastic center of the media, I write the number that coincides with the sleeve. That way if they get separated, it’s a simple matter of matching them back up.

    Sharpies do degrade optical media over time. Memorex makes CD pens, but I don’t know how well they work. I haven’t used them.

  23. I used to backup everything to CD/DVDs until one day I went to review some old pictures and found 25% of the files corrupt and unreadable (these disks were about 2-3 years old). Since then all my backups are on hard drives. Were my corruption issues because of the markers i used, the cheap media, not 100% perfect temperature/moisture levels? Not sure, but now I do multiple hard drive backups (one being offsite) and haven’t looked back since. Plus it takes up less room and takes much less time.

  24. I used to backup everything to CD/DVDs until one day I went to review some old pictures and found 25% of the files corrupt and unreadable (these disks were about 2-3 years old). Since then all my backups are on hard drives. Were my corruption issues because of the markers i used, the cheap media, not 100% perfect temperature/moisture levels? Not sure, but now I do multiple hard drive backups (one being offsite) and haven’t looked back since. Plus it takes up less room and takes much less time.

  25. I am currently using Light Scribe discs and writers. I have had no problems with any DVD’s or CD-Roms labeled using Light Scribe.

    However, I do still have CD-Roms I burnt in 1997 labled with a Sharpie which still work without any problems. It all comes down to how you handle and store the discs. Some discs are more tempermental than others. I store my CD-ROMs in sleeves, and try not to subject them to extreme temperatures or humidity. Except for a few disks which became physially defective (cracked by bad cases), I have not had very many disks fail. I have a few thousand CD-Rom disks, and maybe less than 20 failures, over at least a decade of burning disks. Another nasty culprit for CD/DVDs is direct sunlight or UVlight. The UV component of light can deteriorate the polycarbonate used in the CD/DVD.

    No one method of marking and archving material is absolutely right or wrong. You have to choose what works for you. Think of the family photo albums which are used to store priceless photos on sticky cardboard pages… Oh the horrror!!!

  26. I am currently using Light Scribe discs and writers. I have had no problems with any DVD’s or CD-Roms labeled using Light Scribe.

    However, I do still have CD-Roms I burnt in 1997 labled with a Sharpie which still work without any problems. It all comes down to how you handle and store the discs. Some discs are more tempermental than others. I store my CD-ROMs in sleeves, and try not to subject them to extreme temperatures or humidity. Except for a few disks which became physially defective (cracked by bad cases), I have not had very many disks fail. I have a few thousand CD-Rom disks, and maybe less than 20 failures, over at least a decade of burning disks. Another nasty culprit for CD/DVDs is direct sunlight or UVlight. The UV component of light can deteriorate the polycarbonate used in the CD/DVD.

    No one method of marking and archving material is absolutely right or wrong. You have to choose what works for you. Think of the family photo albums which are used to store priceless photos on sticky cardboard pages… Oh the horrror!!!

  27. I’ve found that overall the best strategy for backing up to DVD, (which I’ve never thought is a good idea) is to make sure that you are buying quality optical media. I have bought cheap & expensive brands over the years. About 25% of the cheap media I bought the foil bubbled up and separated from the plastic where as the expensive are still holding up, writing or no writing, even in sometimes poor condition. If I ever need to store anything long term on optical media my brand of choice is Verbatim. Read reviews on all the brands and make your own choice.

  28. I’ve found that overall the best strategy for backing up to DVD, (which I’ve never thought is a good idea) is to make sure that you are buying quality optical media. I have bought cheap & expensive brands over the years. About 25% of the cheap media I bought the foil bubbled up and separated from the plastic where as the expensive are still holding up, writing or no writing, even in sometimes poor condition. If I ever need to store anything long term on optical media my brand of choice is Verbatim. Read reviews on all the brands and make your own choice.

  29. The reflective layer of a CD/DVD is much closer to the label side than the readable side, but it is in fact still covered by a layer of plastic which you can see by viewing the disc edge on. If it doesn’t then you shouldn’t even use the disc at all. This is the opposite with blu-ray where the reflective layer is much closer to the readable side.

    What makes cheap disks cheap is the type of plastic they’re made with. And lower quality porous plastic could let inks or adhesives through over time damaging the reflective layer. Most recognizable brand name disks should have good enough plastic to not suffer from this issue.

    But as Tyler said, if you really want to be safe, just right on the clear plastic ring in the center. You could always just number the disc and keep a spreadsheet/database of what the contents are.

  30. The reflective layer of a CD/DVD is much closer to the label side than the readable side, but it is in fact still covered by a layer of plastic which you can see by viewing the disc edge on. If it doesn’t then you shouldn’t even use the disc at all. This is the opposite with blu-ray where the reflective layer is much closer to the readable side.

    What makes cheap disks cheap is the type of plastic they’re made with. And lower quality porous plastic could let inks or adhesives through over time damaging the reflective layer. Most recognizable brand name disks should have good enough plastic to not suffer from this issue.

    But as Tyler said, if you really want to be safe, just right on the clear plastic ring in the center. You could always just number the disc and keep a spreadsheet/database of what the contents are.

  31. The other thing you can do is write on the clear part of the disk in the center if your description is not too long.

  32. The other thing you can do is write on the clear part of the disk in the center if your description is not too long.

  33. I have been having issues with failing dvdr discs for years without knowing the reason why, i dont use noname brand discs, but i write on them with a sets of TDK cd-r pens.

    Maybe the TDK pens are the reason for dvds failing one me.

    If that is the case i will once and for all have solved this very annoying issue!

  34. I have been having issues with failing dvdr discs for years without knowing the reason why, i dont use noname brand discs, but i write on them with a sets of TDK cd-r pens.

    Maybe the TDK pens are the reason for dvds failing one me.

    If that is the case i will once and for all have solved this very annoying issue!

  35. This is good advice … for CD-Rs. Note that DVDs don’t expose their metal backsides to the world (I believe CD’s generally have a thin coating beyond the metal foil as well, but it’s so thin as to practically not be there).

    IMHO, in this day and age, if you aren’t backing up to DVD (and DVD+R is the more long-term stable of the two) then you are just wasting money and space. Are there any reasons to favor CD-R at this point?

  36. This is good advice … for CD-Rs. Note that DVDs don’t expose their metal backsides to the world (I believe CD’s generally have a thin coating beyond the metal foil as well, but it’s so thin as to practically not be there).

    IMHO, in this day and age, if you aren’t backing up to DVD (and DVD+R is the more long-term stable of the two) then you are just wasting money and space. Are there any reasons to favor CD-R at this point?

  37. As I understand it, all CD/DVD media has a spun lacquer layer over the aluminum reflective layer, for oxidation prevention and surfface protection. (A CD/DVD without that layer would be shot before it ever left the store shelf.)
    The difference is in the thickness and quality of the coatings. Good quality CD/DVD media (Taiyo Yuden etc) have thicker layer that is not impressioned or imprinted in any way. I’ve used Taiyos for years, and have not had a failure…can’t say the same for every other brand I’ve used.
    I buy my media from a specialty retailer (blankmedia.ca) because, in my experience, the stuff you get at Best Buy etc isn’t worth trusting more than a year if that, and also has high error rates, jitter etc. (more important in audio work).
    As Scott mentioned, ya gets what ya pays for…and your data should be worth the best you can get.

  38. As I understand it, all CD/DVD media has a spun lacquer layer over the aluminum reflective layer, for oxidation prevention and surfface protection. (A CD/DVD without that layer would be shot before it ever left the store shelf.)
    The difference is in the thickness and quality of the coatings. Good quality CD/DVD media (Taiyo Yuden etc) have thicker layer that is not impressioned or imprinted in any way. I’ve used Taiyos for years, and have not had a failure…can’t say the same for every other brand I’ve used.
    I buy my media from a specialty retailer (blankmedia.ca) because, in my experience, the stuff you get at Best Buy etc isn’t worth trusting more than a year if that, and also has high error rates, jitter etc. (more important in audio work).
    As Scott mentioned, ya gets what ya pays for…and your data should be worth the best you can get.

  39. I had no idea. I need to carefully reconsider my backup strategy. Thanks for bringing this up TWIP.

  40. I had no idea. I need to carefully reconsider my backup strategy. Thanks for bringing this up TWIP.

  41. I have used the Lightscribe dvd’s since they hit the shelves. I have had no failures with these and some are 4-5 yrs old now and still work well.

  42. I’ll chime in here with yet another anecdotal tally ( is the plural of anecdote “data”? :D ) – nearly all of the CDs I burned in the nineties have failed in one way or another – delamination, bubbling, solvent ink damage, you name it. Some just don’t read, for no physically obvious reason – a dd saved most of those, though. On the other hand, almost all of the DVDs I have burned since the late nineties are still good, after lounging around in the same acid-free, non-pvc disk storage folder. All were labeled with Sharpies, and as soon as the inkjet printable disks appeared on the market I started buying them.

    At one point I had a linux system set up to burn a RAID-5 set of three DVDs. Mostly just for the geek practice, because getting the volume mounted was a PITA, even with scripts, but the concept works pretty well – you can recover from the failure of any single disk. *shrug*.

    Magnetic media fails, as well, unfortunately. That’s why I always print out images that matter. I put together my daughter’s first year pictures in a Blurb book to make sure that even if there’s some catastrophic failure of media we’ll always be able to look at them.

    In the final analysis, I think it’s fairly obvious that archival storage in the digital age depends on proliferation. So I back up all of my “*** or better” images to my iDisk, to Mozy, to hard print, and to DVD, in the expectation that regardless of the turns technology takes or my fortunes take, I’ll still have access to those images.

  43. I’ll chime in here with yet another anecdotal tally ( is the plural of anecdote “data”? :D ) – nearly all of the CDs I burned in the nineties have failed in one way or another – delamination, bubbling, solvent ink damage, you name it. Some just don’t read, for no physically obvious reason – a dd saved most of those, though. On the other hand, almost all of the DVDs I have burned since the late nineties are still good, after lounging around in the same acid-free, non-pvc disk storage folder. All were labeled with Sharpies, and as soon as the inkjet printable disks appeared on the market I started buying them.

    At one point I had a linux system set up to burn a RAID-5 set of three DVDs. Mostly just for the geek practice, because getting the volume mounted was a PITA, even with scripts, but the concept works pretty well – you can recover from the failure of any single disk. *shrug*.

    Magnetic media fails, as well, unfortunately. That’s why I always print out images that matter. I put together my daughter’s first year pictures in a Blurb book to make sure that even if there’s some catastrophic failure of media we’ll always be able to look at them.

    In the final analysis, I think it’s fairly obvious that archival storage in the digital age depends on proliferation. So I back up all of my “*** or better” images to my iDisk, to Mozy, to hard print, and to DVD, in the expectation that regardless of the turns technology takes or my fortunes take, I’ll still have access to those images.

  44. A little tip to let folks know all may not be lost during those heart sinking moments when nothing shows up in Explorer after the disk has been spun up…
    A utility like ISOBuster has saved my neck a few times, by allowing me to retreive disk contents otherwise lost to conventional access. The consumer version is free.
    http://www.isobuster.com

  45. A little tip to let folks know all may not be lost during those heart sinking moments when nothing shows up in Explorer after the disk has been spun up…
    A utility like ISOBuster has saved my neck a few times, by allowing me to retreive disk contents otherwise lost to conventional access. The consumer version is free.
    http://www.isobuster.com

  46. And then there’s me who has always used adhesive labels and sharpie pens to label my CDs – all of which work just fine after a decade of sitting there. *yawn*

    I think it just goes to show that if you buy cheap products, they fail… always buy quality media. You get what you pay for.

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About scottbourne

Founder of Photofocus.com. Retired traveling and unhooking from the Internet.

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