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Tips for Cleaning and Restoring Your Headlights

Tips for Cleaning Headlight header

By Andy Jensen on February 8, 2021 in life hacks

You’ve probably seen a car with cloudy, white headlights. It looks gross, and it’s also a danger to the driver and anyone else on the road. If you’re starting to see symptoms that your headlights are fading, you don’t have to just put up with it. Read on for cheap and easy tips on cleaning and restoring your headlights.

What Happened to my Headlights?

It probably feels like you didn’t do anything wrong, but your headlights are failing. That’s usually accurate, as headlights degrade over time from several causes, and most are out of your control. Here are some common causes.

  • Sunshine

Just as you get a sunburn or need to repaint a fading house, UV rays can damage your headlights. The headlight’s outer UV-resistant coating wears off, allowing the softer plastic underneath to oxidize and turn yellowy-white, cloudy, rough, and brittle.

  • Dirt

Road grime acts like sandpaper when you’re driving 70 miles per hour, so years of speeding down the highway can wear down your headlights.

  • Dust

Just like dirt, dust is abrasive. It doesn’t do much harm each day, but it adds up.

  • Acidic rain

Even minor pollution in the air and water can damage your ride. Acid rain usually shows up on your vehicle as hard water spots that become etching damage to the paint and headlights.

  • Road debris

This cause is more obvious, as it usually leaves cracks or chips in the plastic surface. The damage degrades the outer UV protection, letting the rest of the headlight oxidize.

Signs It’s Time to Restore Your Shine

If you see one or more of these common signs of headlights wearing out, consider restoring them.

  • Visual defects

Look for a milky haze or dull finish on the outside of the headlight lenses, or scrutinize them closely for scratches, cracks, or a visibly rough texture.

  • Reduced visibility at night

Do you need to use the high beams more often? You’re not imagining it. According to AAA, cloudy headlights can cut light output by 80 percent. If you were able to see at night and now you struggle, it’s a sign the headlight lens is hazed to the point of restricting light. It’s an annoying and dangerous situation.

  • Drivers are flashing their high beams at you

Drivers flash their high beams for a few reasons. Your high beams may be on (oops!). One or both headlights may be misaligned. Or your headlights may have degraded to the point that they angle the light beam into oncoming driver’s faces. This situation is also dangerous — and rude.

How to Restore Your Headlights

Even if you’re not into DIY, this job is seriously easy. If you can apply a smartphone screen protector, you can handle restoring your headlights. You can even buy a handy headlight restoration kit at any auto parts store for about $20. If you have sandpaper, car wax, and painter’s tape at home, feel free to give it a try without the kit.

  • First, wash your headlights using any regular car wash soap, or even dish soap if that’s all you have. Soap up and scrub with a sponge or cloth, rinse, and towel completely dry.
  • Grab some painter’s tape. Lay down a strip around the perimeter of the headlight. Apply another strip around that to make sure you protect the paint.
  • Grab the kit’s roughest sandpaper. If you use your own, look for something with an aggressive bite, around 300 or 400 grit. Sand the headlight in a top-down motion with medium pressure. The headlight will look worse now, but keep going.
  • Once you’ve sanded the entire headlight lens, go to the next finer sandpaper, something around 800 grit. Tip: only use side-to-side sanding motions on this step. You will be able to see when you’ve sanded over the previous step’s work.
  • Finally, grab the fine sandpaper, which may be 2000 grit or higher. Go back to your top-down sanding, so you can get rid of all the medium sanding marks. The headlight should look rather smooth by the end of this step.
  • Wipe off the headlights with a wet cloth or paper towel. You can even wash them again to get rid of stray bits leftover from sanding. Then wipe dry.
  • Now it’s time to rub in the polish. Go in circular motions, grinding the fine paste into the light. Some polishes change color as they work, meaning it’s time to move on to the next section. Polish the lens until it looks new, and wipe it clean again.
  • The last step is the sealer. This is a new layer of UV protectant to prevent the clean and clear surface from hazing again. Most just spray on and need only a few minutes to dry. Then pull off the painter’s tape and your headlights are good as new! Get a selfie with your finished product because you should be proud.

Note that while YouTube videos make bold claims about the efficiency of toothpaste, it’s not a permanent solution. Yes, toothpaste works as a fine polish, but it won’t clear heavy oxidation or add back a UV layer, meaning you’ll have to do it again in as little as a month. Even worse are videos that show owners “fixing” their headlights with bug spray. Bug spray melts the outside of the lens, temporarily making it look clear. It also heavily degrades the plastic so the oxidation quickly returns.

Conclusion

Restoring your headlights isn’t that tricky. Watch for the warning signs that they’re fading, and grab a DIY headlight restoration kit. Take your time, and your headlights should look brand new in no time.

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Andy Jensen is a consultant for Say Insurance. He's an automotive enthusiast writer specializing in new and used models, industry tech and trends, and the car culture that surrounds it all. After receiving a Bachelor of Journalism from the University of Central Oklahoma, he decided to write about cars instead of getting a real job. He’s written for Jaguar, Volvo, Ford, Advance Auto Parts, Haynes Manuals, and others. His project car probably isn’t running.

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