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In the not-so-old days, new vehicles came with sealed headlights. According to carIDLaws from the 1940s to the early 1980s required all US-spec cars to have closed-beam headlamps, which was a typical headlamp consisting of an enclosed bulb in a glass lens. When the bulb in any of these units breaks or goes flat, you will need to replace the entire headlight assembly. It may sound tedious and costly, but the benefits are hard to ignore. Glass lenses are more resistant to yellowing, fading and UV damage – but again, they are also expensive to produce and prone to cracking, breaking or being damaged from a mild impact.
From the mid-1990s to the present, composite headlamps with replaceable bulbs have replaced the obsolete sealed beams. Plastic headlamps are more economical to manufacture, easier to shape, lighter and more impact resistant. The first US-made vehicle to feature plastic headlamps with replaceable bulbs is the 1984 Lincoln Mark VII, according to Motorcycle trendand the auto industry has never looked back.
However, plastic headlight lenses lose their clarity with age and repeated exposure to the sun, rain and other aggressive elements, causing yellowing, fading and oxidation. There is an old saying that our eyes are windows to our soul. In automotive parlance, those dirty, tired headlights will rob your vehicle of that coveted “wow factor,” not to mention the safety issues you’ll face as a result of substandard lighting. Fortunately, it is often possible to restore the appearance of a headlight with some effort and the right methods.
DIY Methods To Restore Clear Plastic Headlights
There are specific DIY solutions that we highly recommend when it comes to cleaning or restoring your car’s headlights, and most of them can be done with everyday household items from your closet or garage. Of course, nobody can stop you from ordering commercially available headlight restoration kits online, but most cost $20 to about $100. Plus, using those kits isn’t just a matter of polishing, wiping (it takes time and elbow grease to get it right), and it can be mind-boggling to choose which one to buy, for lack of a better term.
Here are three methods to consider to get your headlights looking like new again, from the basics to the more advanced solutions. The choice of which one to follow will depend on the severity of the fog or yellowing of the headlight lenses. Remember to operate only when the headlights feel cool to the touch. Avoid working on hot headlight lenses to avoid burns or accidental surface damage.
Cleaning headlights with toothpaste
Plain white toothpaste has mild abrasives to clean your teeth. These abrasives are also excellent for removing hazy oxidation on plastic headlight lenses. The toothpaste method works well on slightly foggy or yellowish headlights. For this procedure, you will need a small tube of white toothpaste, a small microfiber cloth, some masking tape, and carnauba wax to seal the finish.
- Start with a clean surface. If the headlights are dirty, wash them with water and car shampoo. Do not rub dirty headlight lenses to avoid scratching or damage.
- Take the masking tape and apply it over the edges of the headlight lenses to protect the vehicle’s paint. Remember that toothpaste is slightly abrasive and can scratch the paint on the fenders or bumper.
- Take a microfiber or terry cloth towel and dip it in a bucket of water. Squeeze out the excess until moist. Fold up the wet towel and apply a bit of coin-sized toothpaste to one side. Firmly rub the toothpaste onto the headlight lens in a circular motion. The idea is to cover the lenses with toothpaste while rubbing. If necessary, you can use more toothpaste.
- Rinse the headlight lenses with water and wipe them dry with a separate towel. If the lenses are still foggy or yellowish, repeat step 3. However, the headlights should be a little brighter than before.
- It is necessary to apply a thin layer of carnauba wax over the lenses after rubbing them with toothpaste. Wax helps to seal the finish and protect the lenses from UV exposure. Apply a thin layer of wax, allow to dry to a haze and wipe off the excess with a dry towel.
Fix foggy headlights with paint polish
If you have a bottle of car paint, you can use it to remove the fog, haze and yellowing in your car’s headlights. Unlike wax, really Polish contains mild abrasives to smooth the paint finish and eliminate minor scratches, swirls, mild oxidation and other imperfections.
- Clean the headlights with water and then tape the edges.
- Take a slightly damp applicator pad or microfiber cloth and apply a coin-sized drop of nail polish to one side. Rub the polish vigorously over the headlight lenses, concentrating on areas of thicker haze or yellowing.
- Before the polish dries, grab a separate dry towel and wipe off the excess. Turn the towel over and rub lightly to see the results. You can repeat step 2 until the desired result is achieved.
- Do not forget to apply a thin layer of carnauba wax after polishing the lenses to protect against the weather and UV damage.
Make headlights look like new with sandpaper
If the toothpaste and polish have failed to restore the near-new brightness of your car’s headlights, sandpaper method would make it happen. You will need 1000, 1500 and 2500 grit sandpaper, some microfiber towels, a small bucket of water and some masking tape.
- Always start with clean headlights. Rinse with water or wash with car shampoo to remove excess dirt from the lenses. Apply masking tape over the edges to protect the surrounding painted areas from scratches.
- Wet sanding is the best choice when working with plastic headlight lenses. Take a small piece of 1000 grit sandpaper and soak it in a bucket of water for five minutes. After soaking, use it to rub the headlight lens in left-to-right motions. Avoid sanding in circular motions. Submerge the sandpaper in water if it begins to dry while sanding. After rubbing, rinse with clean water.
- Grab a small piece of wet 1500 grit sandpaper and use it to rub the headlight lenses in an up and down motion. Then rinse with clean water.
- The final sanding section uses a wet piece of 2500 grit sandpaper. Rub the lenses in side to side motions to minimize scratches and uneven surfaces. After rubbing, rinse with clean water.
- Apply polish to refine the lens surface. Wipe off the nail polish with a dry microfiber cloth immediately after application.
- The last step is to apply carnauba wax. Unlike polish, let the wax dry to a haze before buffing the excess with a dry towel. Remove the protective tape, step back and give yourself a thumbs up!
Don’t be discouraged if the headlights are still foggy after sanding. In some cases, the damage may be too severe for a do-it-yourself restoration job. At this point, it is best to completely replace the headlights.