How to Clean and Restore Headlights

Cars, like people, age. A car and its parts deteriorate over time, in much the same way a person’s body becomes weak as time goes by. Like a person has eyes, we can say that a car’s eyes are its headlights. As a person’s vision becomes weaker as a person ages,  the car’s headlamps fade and become cloudy.

Previously, car headlamps were made of glass. In the latter part of the 90s and early 2000s, glass automotive headlamps began to be replaced by those made of polycarbonate plastic material. These have been proven to be stronger, more durable, and easier to manufacture. The use of polycarbonate materials also allowed automobile manufacturers to switch from the ordinary square, rectangular, or round headlights to headlights that follow the lines and contours of the whole vehicle, complementing the overall theme of the car designer.

However, despite all these advantages, polycarbonate material has proven to be prone to wear and become cloudy due to the heat given off by the lightbulbs inside the headlight housing. Also, unlike the old glass headlamps, polycarbonate headlights are affected by sunlight and other forms of external heat and radiation.

Even though the headlamps come from the factory coated with a thin layer of ultraviolet-resistant material, this coating breaks down due to natural oxidation, radiation, and other external factors. This results in the headlamp surface becoming cloudy, thus limiting or even obstructing the light beam. In extreme instances, the light is dispersed over a wide area. The range of the light beam is consequently affected, shortening the beam and greatly reducing visibility during night driving, giving the driver risky and unsafe driving conditions.

There are a few ways to clean and restore headlights. The easiest way is to bring your car to an automotive detailing shop and tell them that you want your headlamps restored. This is for those who may not have time to perform this task themselves, or for those who do not have the inclination or desire (whether through lack of ability or not) to do it. It will usually turn out more expensive than if you did it personally, but you can be assured that it was done properly and professionally. Just make sure that the shop you bring your car to has a good reputation.

For a simple and inexpensive fix that you want to do yourself, prepare the following:

  1. Toothpaste (any kind will do, but the cheaper, grittier ones seem to work best)
  2. Warm water (inside a spray bottle)
  3. Car wax
  4. Toothbrush
  5. Flannel or microfiber cloth

Once you’ve collected the things you’ll need, follow these steps:

Step 1: Spread the toothpaste onto the surface of the headlamp. Make sure to thoroughly rub it onto the headlamp.

Step 2: Use the toothbrush to spread the toothpaste onto hard-to-reach nooks and crannies.

Step 3: Leave the toothpaste for a few minutes in order to dry out.

Step 4: Spray the toothpaste-covered surface of the headlamp thoroughly with warm water.

Step 5: Wet the flannel or microfiber cloth and wipe off all the toothpaste from headlamp.

Step 6: Using a dry cloth, dry the headlamp entirely.

Step 7: Once you make sure the headlamp is totally dry, rub car was on the headlamp surface.

Step 8: Hand-buff the headlamp to make sure there is no excess wax remaining on the headlamp.

Another way to restore headlights is to sand the surface of the headlamp using sandpaper, then finishing the process by polishing the headlamp using an orbital polisher. While this is more complicated and time-consuming, the results you get using this method will turn out more professional, as this is how automotive detailers restore headlights. For this method, you will need the following:

  1. Sandpaper (800-grit, 1,500-grit, and 2,000- or 2,500-grit)
  2. Distilled water (inside a spray bottle)
  3. Two-step polishing compound or any professional-grade rubbing or polishing compound
  4. Masking tape
  5. Electric orbital or dual-action polisher (if this is not available, you can polish and buff the headlamp by hand using a microfiber towel)
  6. UV protection solution

Follow the steps in order:

Step 1. Clean the headlamps thoroughly using soap and water.

Step 2: Once the headlamp is dry, cover the sides of the headlamp (the area where the clear plastic meets the headlight frame or body) with masking tape. This is done in order to protect the paint or chrome plating around the lens from being sanded accidentally.

Step 3: Using 800-grit sanspaper, dry-sand the headlamp surface. Use a left-to-right, bank-and-forth motion. This sands away the cloudy or yellowed oxidized plastic. Don’t be surprised or afraid that you’ve done something wrong if the headlamp looks hazy after this step is done. This is completely normal.

Step 4: Spray some water onto the headlight. Make sure you completely wet the surface.

Step 5: Using 1,500-grit sandpaper, sand the headlamp with an up-and-down motion in order to smoothen out any abrasion peaks you might have left from Step 3.

Step 6: Again, spray some water onto the headlight. Make sure you completely wet the surface.

Step 7: Using a left-to-right, bank-and-forth motion, sand the headlight surface with 2,000- or 2,500-grit sandpaper. You’ll notice that the headlamp surface has become clear and smooth.

Step 8: Using an orbital or dual-action polisher, polish the surface of the headlamp. Use a two-step compound (medium and fine) when polishing the headlamp for refined results. If you plan to do the polishing by hand, do it section by section using circular motions (think Mr. Miyagi and The Karate Kid). Make sure you polish all sections evenly so the clarity of the headlamp will be even.

Step 9: Apply UV protection solution on the headlamp surface.

Of course, you can always replace cloudy or faded headlamps with brand new units, but brand-new replacement headlights can certainly cost a pretty penny. For those who want to save a few dollars, the alternative, therefore, is to clean and restore the headlights. While you can never restore the headlights to their original condition, the results you can get by cleaning and restoring them properly can definitely be more than satisfactory.

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