Over time, the plastic that sums up your headlights will degrade and cloud over. If yours aren’t shining quite like they used to, here is how to clean your headlights.
Most headlights are produced with polycarbonate plastic, which is durable and scratch-resistant. But over time polycarbonate clouds over, mostly because of UV rays that degrade the outer layer of plastic. Fortunately, there are plenty of products on the market designed to assist you restore your vehicle’s 20/20 nighttime vision. Here’s how to clean your headlights and make them shine like new.
Most vehicles and a lot of trucks today are manufactured with headlamp assemblies that use quartz-halogen bulbs plugged into the back of a large plastic reflector. The outer surface of these headlamp modules is molded polycarbonate plastic. That plastic is much lighter than glass and far more resistant to stone chips and cracks. However, after few years of exposure to sunlight and atmospheric chemicals, polycarbonate has a tendency to get hazy. Badly neglected lenses can actually pit and develop a network of fine cracks, called craze, which makes the job of fixing them tougher. It’s worth a try, though—and you’ll require only a few bucks’ worth of materials to get the job done. Sure, these assemblies are easy to change, but they can be very expensive. A pair of lenses for a luxury car can cost as much as a thousand dollars. Woof.
Fortunately, there’s a simple and inexpensive solution. Unlike glass, the polycarbonate plastic could be polished back to a surface as smooth as new, in a procedure that will not take more than a half-hour. Check out our list of best headlight restoration kits.
Wash Your Car
Wash your car to take out any surface dirt. Waxing it, at least within a foot or two of the headlamps, is a good idea, since drips and droplets of the abrasive polishing compound are less likely to stick to a freshly waxed surface.
Go out to the store and buy some blue, low-tack painter’s masking tape, the handy stuff that peels off easily. Mask the area around the headlamp that requires polishing. For some reason, the red, yellow and clear lenses for the marker and backup lights, which are molded of ABS plastic, don’t seem to haze as much as polycarbonate headlamps, so you can probably just mask them as well. You may need to remove nearby trim, especially chromed metal or chrome-finish plastic, since we’ll be polishing and sanding with materials that can kill the chrome.
All of these products use an abrasive such as sandpaper to scuff away the outer layer of haze. This is the most vital step, so be thorough. When you’re done, the entire headlight should be clear of any yellowing and have a rough, dull surface. Soak a piece of 1000-grit wet/dry sandpaper in cold water for 10 minutes. Lightly sand the lens in straight strokes. Methodically cover the entire lens surface, always sanding back and forth in one direction. Make the surface wet while you work. Again, be careful not to damage nearby paint or trim. Use the palm of your hand to conform to the curved surface of the lens.
Sand until the pits, discoloration and scratches you’re trying to exterminate are gone. Don’t rush this part. And don’t be afraid to dry the surface with a towel and confirm the uniformity of your sanding. When you’re done, clean and dry the area.
READ ALSO:HOW TO CHANGE A HEADLIGHT BULB
Now go through the same operation with 1500-grit wet/dry sandpaper, this time sanding at right angles to your previous work. Again, be methodical. Make the paper wet, cover the entire surface and then clean up to take out any abrasive powder. Repeat the procedure, every time at right angles to the last sanding, with 2000-, 2500- and 3000-grit wet/dry. Clean up one last time. You might want to touch up or redo the masking tape along the way if it starts looking a little tattered.
A fine polish cleans up the sandpaper scratches and makes the headlight lenses clear again.
Let’s say your lens is only moderately obscured. Start the repair with polishing compound and a flannel or microfiber cloth. Smear some compound on the lens and polish in a circular motion. As the polish gets ground into the cloth and dries out, it lifts the haziness right off the lens. Most of the compound eventually winds up on the cloth, but it probably takes about 10 minutes of rubbing per lens, so do not be in a rush. If you have an orbital polisher, you can use that with a lambswool or terry-cloth pad. Don’t polish the paint off nearby surfaces. Simply continue with compound until the lens is shiny.
Okay, you’ve been polishing one corner of the lens for a few minutes, and it’s better—but not perfect. The lens surface is far too degraded for the polishing compound to rescue it. There are still pits that you can feel and see.
Clean up every last vestige of the abrasive polishing compound. Now wax the lens thoroughly with a paste car wax. This last step will keep acid rain, dirt and road salt from attacking the plastic, at least for a while.
Apply UV Sealant
There’s a reason we tested only headlight lens restorers with a UV protectant. The sanding step removes any protective layer that was originally applied to the headlight, and if you don’t reapply that shield your lights will haze over again in as little as a few weeks. Some products, such as the ones from Sylvania and Lenz Solution, promise extended protection.
ADJUSTING YOUR HEADLIGHTS
If you’ve removed your lights to clean them, you need to line them up properly after you put them back on. Here’s a quick way to eyeball the aiming.
- On a level surface, park the car a few inches from your garage door or the wall of a large building.
- Use chalk to mark the locations of the headlight beams.
- Back up 25 feet (about two car lengths); the low beams should still be level and pointing straight ahead to within a few inches of the chalk marks.
- If not, adjust the beams by turning the headlight’s two setscrews—one for up/down, one for left/right.