When we talk about automotive maintenance, chances are good your mind first goes to things like oil changes, tire rotations, brake pad replacements, rotor resurfacing and the rest. Those are crucial to drivability and safety, but maintaining the exterior of your car is also important. One often overlooked aspect of that is headlight maintenance.
Maintaining your headlights properly is important for a number of reasons. Safety and visibility top that list. Cloudy, dirty lenses do not allow much light to pass through, which mean that you are not able to see as well when driving in low-light situations. The same problem means that your car is less visible to oncoming drivers and pedestrians, particularly in foggy situations, or in inclement weather.
Cleaning and maintaining your car’s headlight lenses doesn’t really sound like that big of a deal, and when done regularly, it isn’t However, if you let your care lapse, you could find that your lenses have gone from transparent to translucent, and cloudy plastic does no one any good. What should you do in terms of maintenance for your headlights? We’ll walk you through it below.
The first thing you need is the right tools and supplies. You cannot properly maintain your headlights without them. What do you need, though? You can find everything at your local auto part store.
You’ll need a decent sponge, as well as a gentle soap. You can use the same soap on your headlights as you use on the rest of the car, too. Once you have washed them, dry your headlights with a chamois, just like the rest of your car. A coat of wax or clear coat from an automated car wash won’t do any harm, either, and can help prevent your headlights from developing that haze responsible for dimming them and reducing light output.
Wash your headlights regularly – every time you wash your car. Doing this will help ensure a long use life. However, you may notice that your lenses discolor or get hazy over time despite your best efforts at keeping them clean. Don’t despair. There’s a way to get rid of that unsightly, dangerous hazing.
Dealing with Oxidation
To be clear, the haze or yellowing of your headlights is not due to any sort of defect, nor is it due to something you did wrong (as long as you’re cleaning your car regularly). Rather, it is a natural process called oxidation, and it happens because the plastic of your lens is exposed to oxygen in the air. Oxygen is actually pretty corrosive, and it will eventually destroy your lenses. In the meantime, though, you can remove it.
You will need the right supplies for the job. Thankfully, there are headlight restoration kits that you can buy at pretty much any auto part store. They usually contain a couple of different grits of sandpaper, as well as a special type of wax, a polishing compound, and a sealant that will protect against UV ray-related deterioration. It isn’t included in the kit, but you will want some way to protect the area around your headlight from accidental contact with the sandpaper (painter’s tape works well, but you can also use masking tape).
Next, thoroughly clean your headlight lenses, as well as the hood, bumper, and fender areas around them. You want to remove all the dirt and grime. Once you’ve washed them, dry them completely.
When the headlights and the surrounding areas are dry, go ahead and apply your tape. Keep it right at the very edge of the headlight lenses – even a brief brush with sandpaper could be enough to damage the paint on your car.
Follow the instructions included with your kit in terms of which sandpaper grit to start off with. Generally, it goes from coarsest to finest. Make sure the sandpaper is wet, and then begin sanding. Sand in the same direction, and never in circles. The plastic lens also needs to stay wet while you’re working on it.
This is the most time-consuming part of the entire process. You will need to spend around 10 minutes with each piece of sandpaper – a total of 30 minutes sanding should be your goal. With each subsequent sanding, make sure to change the direction – if you used vertical strokes, go diagonal with the second sanding, and then horizontal with the third sanding.
Once you have completely sanded the lens, it is time to polish and wax it. For this part, the headlights need to be dry and clean. Our recommendation is to wash them again, and then rinse thoroughly to make sure that all the bits of sandpaper grit and oxidized plastic are removed. Then dry them with your chamois. Apply the polishing compound that came with your kit and spend several minutes rubbing it into the plastic. Make sure to move your cloth in a circle. Rub it in until the lenses become clear, and then wax the lens.
The final step is nothing more than applying the UV sealant that came with your kit. Use a clean cloth for this, and move your hand in circles once more. Don’t forget this step, though, or your lenses will oxidize quickly. Follow the instructions that came with the kit as to sealant application, although most of them explicitly state you should only apply a single layer of sealer.
Now that you’re done and your headlights are clean and free of haze, turn the lights on and see just how much better they look. If your headlights do not seem greatly improved, they may simply need to be replaced. You can order replacement lenses from a branded dealer or go with aftermarket parts from a parts store.