Dry vs Wet Head Cleaners: Which is the Best for your VCR?

VCRs and camcorders will eventually build up dust and other particles on the read heads causing fuzzy or poor playback quality. If you are trying to play and transfer your videotapes it’s critical to keep your heads clean for the best picture quality.

The solution is to clean your heads, the 2 most popular options are dry and wet head cleaning cassette tapes that you insert into your VCR.

In the battle of dry vs wet head cleaners are you confused by which is best?

A wet head cleaner will clean better and is less abrasive to the heads of your VCR than a dry head cleaner when used properly. This is because dry systems are purely abrasive and can damage your VCR heads, whereas a wet system uses cleaning fluids to clean your VCR heads.

Not all head cleaners are the same, there are several options including magnetic head cleaners and manually cleaning your VCR heads that you may also want to consider.

Dry vs Wet Head Cleaners: How They Work

The job of a VCR or camcorder head cleaner is to clean the read heads that take the information off the videotape and turn it into an actual video frame.

The read heads on a VCR have gaps on them that are tiny, thinner than human hair, and are easily clogged by dust and magnetic tape particles. This is why is so easy for the picture quality of a VCR to degrade, especially after playing several tapes or sitting around for a few years collecting dust.

Simply playing VHS is the main culprit of dirty heads. Videotapes contain magnetic particles that hold the video information that will get played. When a VCR is playing a tape it gets wound and stretched inside the VCR and these particles can slowly flake off, especially on poor quality or older tapes.

Both dry and wet head cleaners come in a cassette that looks like a regular VHS tapes tape. Basically, you insert the head cleaner into the VCR and hit “play” and it will clean your VCR heads.

This is a very hands-off way of cleaning your VCR heads. There are more manual ways of cleaning your VCR heads, which is what a repair shop would do If you were having issues with your VCR, but this is more of an advanced option most people aren’t willing to try.

How Dry Head Cleaners Work

Most dry head cleaning systems are simply an abrasive fabric that will run across your VCR heads and clean any particles out.

The problem is that by being abrasive it can cause wear on the VCR read heads with each use, making them less effective. So their heads may be cleaner when you are done but also slightly damaged.

Some head cleaners like the Maxell Dry Head Cleaner will display instructions on the screen as it’s running, and let you know exactly when it’s done. See the sample video below:

You can find this Maxell VCR Head cleaner on Amazon and eBay as well.

How Wet Head Cleaners Work

Wet head cleaners basically consist of a strip of fabric that you place a number of drops of liquid cleaner on, the number of drops will vary based on the manufacturer.

The cloth will cycle through the VCR but is softer and less abrasive than a dry head cleaner because the liquid cleaner is doing the work.

This is similar to trying to clean a dirty kitchen table with paper towels. With a dry paper towel, the friction of rubbing is doing all of the cleaning. With a wet paper towel, the friction does some of the cleaning but the cleaner itself does most of the work.

Same with a wet VCR head cleaner, the “wet” cleaner does most of the work, thus not scratching, damaging, or wearing out your VCR heads.

The danger of wet cleaners is that if you don’t follow the manufacturer’s instructions and put too much cleaner on the fabric then the excess cleaner can drip on or damage vital parts inside your VCR.

More Head Cleaning Options

There are a few more options for cleaning your VCR heads beyond your typical Wet vs Dry options if you are still looking for

Magnetic Head Cleaners

Back in the 1980s during the glory days of the VCR, there was a magnetic VCR cleaner developed by Scotch that would essentially pick up all of the magnetic particles that flaked off your VHS tapes all over the inside of your VCR.

It uses magnets not abrasion to clean the VCR heads and other components like pins and guides.

While the tape is cleaning it plays a pre-recorded message on the screen and plays audio (left and right channel) to see how well it’s performing, and tells you when to stop.

This sounds like a great option compared to both wet and dry head cleaners.

I think this is the model here on Amazon, or you can search for the same on eBay. It doesn’t say magnetic but it does say less damaging than wet and dry head cleaners so I think it’s the right model.

Manual Head Cleaning

Manual head cleaning isn’t for everyone because it involves taking the cover off your VCR, which also means unplugging it and disconnecting it as well.

And don’t forget having to reset the dreaded clock when you are done….

But for those with more of a DIY attitude all it takes is:

  • a screwdriver
  • a bottle of cleaning solution – if in the US look for “Denatured alcohol” or (UK/AUS) look for Methylated spirits. The most common Isopropyl alchol contains too much water, look for 99.9% pure do not use the regular stuff found in stores as it contains too much water and can lead to corrosion of delicate parts.
  • Some people use Q-tips but please don’t as they will fray and cause more damage than do good. Use things that won’t fray like strips of paper, a sponge, or swabs designed for cleaning.

You also need to know what to touch on the VCR and what not to touch, its not exactly self-explanatory so what this video to see if you are interested in cleaning your own VCR head.

Cleaning at VCR Repair Shop

Believe it or not, there are still some TV and VCR repair shops out there. The numbers are definitely dwindling but if you are in luck one might be within driving distance.

If your VCR seems especially dirty and you don’t want to clean the heads yourself then this might be your best option.

Simply good “VCR repair near me” and check out the results.

If you find a repair shop then check their ratings, and give them a call to make sure the price is right and they aren’t going to try and up-sell you into repairs you don’t need.

Camcorder Head Cleaning

Some camcorder models do sell head cleaning cassettes, I personally own a MiniDV and Digital8 camcorder cleaning cassettes.

If you are having camcorder playback issues try a head cleaning cassette. If that doesn’t work then I would NOT try to take apart your camcorder and clean it yourself, try to find a local pro that does this – hopefully your local VCR repair shop can work on camcorders as well.

Depending on your needs there are plenty of options. For the DIY techie person, a good manual cleaning might be the way to go. For a hands-off person, either a Scotch magnetic tape or a good wet cleaner is a good option.

Or – hand off your VCR to a local repair guy for a good cleaning and once-over before you start playing any tapes, especially if it’s been a while since the VCR worked properly.

Where to find VCR and Camcorder Headcleaners:

Most electronics stores like BestBuy won’t carry these items due to lack of demand so your best option is Amazon and eBay. Just be careful on eBay as I saw a bunch of used tapes for sale. They may still work but I’d prefer new myself.

Important Facts to Keep in Mind:

  • VCRs and camcorders are a dated technology that are nearly extinct. If you are playing tapes on your VCR then you should be converting them to digital because finding a good working VCR is getting harder by the day.
  • VHS tapes have a limited lifespan and are degrading as you read this. Meaning the next time you try to play they the tapes they will look worse or possibly not play at all.

I urge you to get your VCR clean and start converting your tapes as soon as possible so you don’t lose your precious memories.