Does degaussing work on HDD?

Degaussing can be an effective way to securely erase data from a hard disk drive (HDD). When done properly, degaussing renders data unrecoverable by erasing the magnetic fields on the HDD platters. However, degaussing may not work reliably on all HDDs due to advances in HDD technology over the years.

What is degaussing?

Degaussing is the process of exposing magnetic storage media, like HDDs, to a powerful alternating magnetic field. This field scrambles and randomizes the orientation of magnetic domains on the HDD platters, effectively erasing any data stored.

Special degausser devices are used to generate the alternating magnetic field required for degaussing. Degaussers may use strong permanent magnets, coils pulsing with electricity, or both to produce magnetic fields ranging from 1,500 to 20,000 Oersteds – many times higher than Earth’s magnetic field.

How does degaussing erase data?

HDDs store data as magnetic regions with specific orientations of magnetic poles, forming magnetic domains on the magnetic platters. Each magnetic domain represents a bit – a 1 or 0. These magnetic regions retain their orientations persistently, allowing long-term data storage.

When an HDD is degaussed, the powerful alternating magnetic field causes the magnetic regions to rapidly change their pole orientations randomly. The resulting scrambling of magnetic domains prevents recovery of the original data.

Factors affecting degaussing effectiveness on HDDs

Several factors determine whether degaussing will successfully erase data from a particular HDD model:

  • Magnetic coercivity – This indicates how strongly the magnetic regions retain their orientation. HDDs with higher coercivity require stronger degaussing fields.
  • Platter material – Aluminum platters get erased more easily than glass or ceramic.
  • Encoding – Perpendicular magnetic recording (PMR) HDDs can be harder to degauss than older longitudinal recording HDDs.
  • Size – Miniature HDDs like those in laptops have smaller magnetic regions, requiring stronger fields.

In general, the higher the HDD’s areal density, the more difficult degaussing becomes. Modern HDDs keep pushing areal density higher, making them harder to degauss.

Does degaussing reliably erase modern HDDs?

For quite some time, degaussing was an effective data sanitization method for HDDs. But with the advancement in HDD technology over the past decade, the reliability of degaussing has diminished.

Modern HDDs using perpendicular magnetic recording can have a coercivity of 5000 Oe or higher – much greater than older longitudinal recording HDDs. This makes data erasure more difficult.

In addition, bit regions have shrunk significantly in size with increased HDD areal densities. The small size makes bits harder to scramble with external magnetic fields.

Several researchers have demonstrated that data can be recovered from modern HDDs even after degaussing. But it does not mean degaussing is completely ineffective.

Chance of error depends on degausser strength

With powerful industrial degaussers generating fields upwards of 20,000 Oe, there is a good chance of erasing data on modern HDDs. However, consumer degaussers generating less than 5000 Oe are far less reliable.

Stronger degaussers are able to randomize bit orientations more thoroughly, leaving less residual signal. But they are costly and not readily accessible to consumers.

Other factors reducing degaussing reliability

In addition to the factors mentioned already, some other reasons also contribute to degaussing becoming less reliable:

  • Protective casing – HDD enclosures can attenuate the degaussing field strength.
  • Shielding – Internal shielding protects platters from external magnetic fields.
  • Remanence – Residual magnetization left after degaussing can allow data recovery.
  • Non-uniform fields – Weaker regions may not effectively scramble bits.

These factors make successful degaussing trickier, especially with consumer degaussers and shielded HDDs.

Steps to increase degaussing effectiveness

To improve the chances of reliably erasing data from modern HDDs using degaussing, some steps can help:

  1. Use an industrial degausser producing very strong fields exceeding HDD coercivity.
  2. Degauss multiple times in different orientations.
  3. Remove any protective HDD enclosure during degaussing.
  4. Physically disassemble HDD to directly expose platters.
  5. Degauss individual platters separately if possible.
  6. Verify erasure by checking for residual magnetization.

Following these steps requires greater effort but reduces the possibility of degaussing failure or partial erasure. However, there is still no guarantee of full data erasure.

Software-based HDD erasure techniques

With degaussing becoming less reliable, software-based techniques like crypto-shredding are gaining popularity for securely erasing HDDs:

1. Encrypting the entire HDD

The HDD is fully encrypted, and the encryption key shredded, making data unrecoverable even with platters intact.

2. Erasing encryption keys

The encryption keys used to encrypt certain disk regions are erased, preventing access to that encrypted data.

3. Directly overwriting visible sectors

Visible HDD sectors are overwritten multiple times with random data to erase previous contents.

The advantage of these techniques is that erasure effectiveness does not depend on physical factors of the HDD. But a disadvantage is that deleted data in hidden sectors may remain.

Is degaussing obsolete for erasing HDDs?

While degaussing remains effective on older or lightly shielded HDDs, technology advancements reducing its reliability have led to recommendations against relying solely on degaussing for secure data erasure on modern HDDs.

However, degaussing still is helpful for quickly purging data from damaged HDDs before physical destruction. Following degaussing with physical destruction can provide high assurance of erasure.

For maximum effectiveness, degaussing should be combined with encryption or overwriting of visible sectors. While degaussing alone cannot be relied upon anymore, as part of a multi-step erasure process it still can serve a purpose for securely sanitizing HDDs.


In summary, degaussing remains capable of erasing data from legacy and lightly shielded HDDs. But modern advancements in HDD technology, including higher coercivity, greater areal densities, and perpendicular recording have made degaussing far less reliable and repeatable.

Using industrial-strength degaussers improves the chances of success. However, there are still physical factors that pose challenges for degaussing becoming fully effective on the latest HDDs. Following up degaussing with encryption or overwriting can help strengthen assurances of erasure.

While degaussing may not be completely obsolete, exclusively relying on it for sanitizing modern HDDs is no longer advisable. For guaranteed data erasure, software-based techniques like crypto-shredding or physical destruction should be considered instead of or in addition to degaussing.

Factor Effect on Degaussing
High coercivity Requires stronger degaussing field
Small bit size Bits harder to scramble
Perpendicular recording Harder to erase than longitudinal recording
High areal density More difficult to degauss
Shielding Attenuates external degaussing field
Remanence Residual magnetization allows recovery
Non-uniform fields Weaker regions may not erase data

This table summarizes some factors that make degaussing less reliable for securely erasing modern HDDs.

Software-based HDD Erasure Techniques

Technique Description Benefits Limitations
Full disk encryption Encrypt entire HDD, shred key Strong erasure if key is destroyed Deleted data in hidden sectors may remain
Encryption key erasure Erase keys encrypting disk regions Renders target data unreadable Other data not erased
Sector overwriting Directly overwrite visible sectors Erases previous contents of overwritten sectors Hidden sectors not overwritten

This table compares some software-based techniques for erasing data from HDDs.

Recommended HDD erasure methods

Based on current research and evidence, the following methods are recommended for securely erasing data from modern HDDs:

  • Crypto-shredding techniques like full disk encryption and key destruction provide strong assurance of erasure effectiveness.
  • Overwriting visible sectors enhances erasure of non-hidden data regions.
  • Degaussing helps purge data prior to physical destruction for high security.
  • Physical destruction via shredding or incineration eliminates recovery risks.

Relying solely on degaussing is not ideal due to technology advancements impacting its reliability on modern HDDs. But as part of a multi-step erasure process, degaussing still has usefulness in quickly purging magnetic data prior to destruction.

For commercial or high-security applications, a combined approach of degaussing, crypto-shredding, overwriting, and physical destruction offers maximum assurance HDD data has been securely and irrecoverably erased.

Degaussing versus other HDD erasure methods

Here is a comparison between degaussing and some other common HDD data erasure methods:


  • Purges data by erasing magnetic domains
  • Fast, parallel erasure of entire disk
  • Less reliable on high-density HDDs
  • May require multiple passes for effectiveness


  • Renders data unreadable by destroying keys
  • More reliable than degaussing on modern HDDs
  • Deleted data in hidden areas may remain
  • Disk remains intact so needs physical destruction too

Sector overwriting

  • Overwrites visible sectors with random data
  • Generally effective for non-hidden regions of disk
  • Very time consuming compared to degaussing
  • Many passes needed for high security

Physical destruction

  • Shreds, incinerates or pulverizes HDD
  • Highest assurance against all data recovery
  • Destructive, renders HDD unusable
  • Special equipment required

As seen from the comparisons, each method has certain advantages and limitations. Using a combination of methods provides complementary benefits for securely sanitizing HDDs.

In summary

While degaussing can still be incorporated in a broader HDD erasure plan, exclusively relying on it to sanitize modern high-density HDDs is risky due to technology factors impacting its reliability and repeatability.

For guaranteed erasure, software-based techniques like crypto-shredding and physical destruction are recommended instead of or in addition to degaussing when sanitizing HDDs. Following a multi-pronged approach provides layered assurance of unrecoverable data destruction.