How to Clean Headlights

There’s a reason that the driver’s test includes a vision test – if you cannot see, you cannot drive. Being able to see and react to road signs, traffic signals, other vehicles, pedestrians and animals, and differing road and weather conditions is critical to making it through your daily drive. At night, because human beings don’t see well in the dark, clean headlights are even more critical to a safe driving experience.

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Typical Headlight Cleaning

car coming out of an automatic car wash
The Car Wash Will Give You Clean Headlights, Most of the Time. http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/photo/car-wash-high-res-stock-photography/105552435

In the interests of cleanliness, presentableness, and vehicle longevity, experts suggest cleaning the exterior of your car once a week. In winter and pollen season, you need to wash your car more often, as your body, glass, and headlights collect more grime than usual.

The typical car wash is usually enough to keep your headlights clean, though you may want to use glass cleaner specifically on your windshield, side windows, mirrors, and headlights. When cleaning headlights with glass cleaner, wait at least 30 minutes for the headlight lenses to cool off, then spray glass cleaner – foam works best if you need to let it soak – then wipe clean with a microfiber cloth.

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Cleaning Bugs Off Your Headlights

car front bumper, grille, and headlights covered in dead bugs
Cleaning Headlights of Dead Bugs Can Be a Challenge. https://www.flickr.com/photos/editor/544324027

In some locations, bugs are a major problem. Because they typically fly three to five feet off the ground, about the height of your grille, headlights, and windshield, a single evening drive by the woods could result in a mess that professionals can only describe as “icky” – that’s a technical term. Given the chance to dry on your hot headlights is a sure recipe for a permanent stain and reduced visibility.

If you catch it in time, some regular glass cleaner and a microfiber cloth might be enough to clear dead bugs from your headlights. Still, a little elbow grease and a stronger solution might be required to get dead bugs off your headlights. There are dedicated bug remover solutions, available at most autoparts stores, and many find degreaser to work well. WD-40 is an old fallback trick, and dryer sheets soaked in water in a spray bottle is another DIY solution. Use only microfiber cloth or bug sponges, because paper towels can scratch plastic headlights.

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What Causes Hazed or Fogged Headlights

car headlights on a rainy night
Clean Headlights Help You See and Be Seen. http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/photo/car-at-night-high-res-stock-photography/93335757

Over time, plastic headlight lenses tend to haze over or take on a fogged appearance, some even turning yellow. Headlight fogging is as much a physical phenomenon as it is a chemical one. Dust, dirt, sand, and rocks area abrasive, and these can pit headlight lenses so finely that they refract light. Similarly, exposure to ultraviolet rays and automotive exhaust causes chemical reactions in the plastic. Exhaust exposure explains why the passenger-side headlight typically hazes over more than the driver-side headlight.

Unfortunately, no amount of cleaning will fix these kind of headlights, which means they’ll have to be replaced or restored. Headlight replacement can cost hundreds of dollars and is a surefire way to restore vehicle appearance and night driving visibility. On the other hand, headlight restoration is an easy DIY solution that can restore light output and night visibility by nearly 100%, but at a fraction of the cost.

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Dangers of Driving with Dirty or Hazy Headlights

chart depicting how headlight fogging affects light projection and night visibility
Aged and Dirty Headlights Can Significantly Reduce Your Night Visibility. http://www.blog.brightlightsnow.com/static.php?page=static120211-133709

Properly-aimed, the typical low-beam headlight illuminates 150 to 200 feet of roadway, and the typical high-beam illuminates 250 to 350 feet. Other drivers can see your headlights from nearly a mile away on a bright summer day, and even farther at night. Clearly, the more you can see at night, the more aware you are of your surroundings and able you are to react appropriately.

Unfortunately, dirty headlights can severely impact your visibility, not only to other drivers, but your own view of the road. Depending on the severity, dirty headlights can reduce light output by up to 95%, reducing projection distance by up to 90%. Driving with dirty headlights could mean you are only able to see 10% of what’s really in front of your vehicle. At highway speeds, it would be impossible to react to an animal crossing, stopped vehicle, or vehicle with no lights. It would be nearly impossible to see anything beyond a few feet in front of the vehicle and perhaps the reflective lane markings on the road.

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Headlight Restoration How-To

woman polishing headlight
Headlight Restoration is 90% Cheaper and 95% as Effective as Headlight Replacement. http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/photo/woman-polishing-car-headlight-close-up-high-res-stock-photography/200145257-001

Choosing a headlight restoration kit, consider the proverb, “You get what you pay for.” Most kits are available from $5 to $50, with varying contents and tools required. Choose a kit with at least the following: a sandpaper disc holder, sanding discs of varying grits, perhaps 800, 1,500, and 3,000, a polishing disc or ball, polishing compound, and a headlight sealer. Some kits may leave out one or another of these parts, but the most complete kits will result in the best results for your efforts and cash. You’ll also need a spray bottle of water, microfiber cloth, dust mask, safety glasses, and masking tape. A variable-speed drill can make this job go easier. Generally, cleaning headlights this way is a four-step process.

  1. Prepare – First, read the instructions thoroughly – watch a video tutorial if necessary. Ensure you have all tools and supplies necessary to finish the job. Using masking tape to mask the body and trim around your headlights. This will prevent you from inadvertently sanding the paint around the headlight. Put on your safety glasses and take your time with each step.
  2. Sand – Starting with the lowest-grit sand paper, wet-sand the entire headlight surface, if using a drill, no faster than 1,000 rpm. Spray the sandpaper and headlight lens often. When you see only white slushing off the headlight and the headlight is evenly hazed, you can move on to the next-higher grit sandpaper. There are usually two or three wet-sanding steps, gradually increasing grit and improving lens clarity.
  3. The last step is usually a 3,000-grit dry sanding pad. After allowing the headlight to dry completely, put on your dust mask, and go over the headlight lens with the sanding pad. Knock the dust out of the pad often, to keep it from clogging up.
  4. Polish – Using the polishing pad and a small amount of polishing compound, polish the headlight. Go over each headlight twice, ensuring you get into every corner of the lens. By this time, lens clarity is as best as it can be.
  5. Seal – Some kits include a headlight lens sealer, which can significantly improve the life of the repair. Apply the sealer with a microfiber cloth. After the sealer dries, remove masking tape and wash the car to remove dust and grime from the restoration process.