How To Clean Cloudy or Oxidized Headlights
If you like to keep your car looking clean and shiny then you can often be found outside cleaning, waxing...
If you like to keep your car looking clean and shiny then you can often be found outside cleaning, waxing and polishing. All that hard work can really pay off too – until some element of the car starts to let you down and affect the overall car image.
All too often this can be the headlights. When they start to turn cloudy – also referred to as oxidized – it can be a bit of a headache.
For one thing, it can really throw off the carefully crafted aesthetic of your vehicle. For another, many drivers assume that once the process has started, it can’t be reversed. They either leave the cloudy headlights in place (a shame, and dangerous) or they take the car off to the shop for a new set of headlights (expensive!)
Thankfully, it’s often possible to return an old pair of headlights back to their former glory, with only a little know how and some good old elbow grease.
What is it?
The first thing to know is that this is actually a pretty recent problem. Up until about the 1980’s, most carmakers were still using glass to make headlights. In fact if you have a classic car your lights are probably fine, so you can stop reading this guide and go have a sandwich or a beer.
For the majority of cars these days however, they are made of plastic. In particular, it is a tempered, Polycarbonate plastic. Now, this plastic is itself very tough – but it is also porous.
To counter this, the headlight manufacturer adds a special protective film. This does a great job – whilst it lasts! Over time – usually only a few years – this protective film is broken down by the heat of the bulb, by chemical spray from the road surface and by small stone chips thrown up from the asphalt.
Once it’s gone, the UV rays found in sunlight get to work on the porous material of the headlights. This causes the oxidation process we are here to reverse.
Is it Inside or Outside?
The first thing you must do is determine if the oxidation is happening to the outside or inside of the headlight. Outside is simply the result of the oxidation we discussed above. This can be reversed via our handy guide below.
If however the damage is to the inside of the headlight, then this has been caused by moisture entering the headlight installation. This is not an easy repair, in fact in this instance it will probably need to be replaced instead of repaired – sorry about that.
So you’ve sat through the potted history lesson of the materials of headlights. You’ve heard that it is the sun that is damaging them – and trust me, I was outraged too. I will not sacrifice another goat to the sun after this betrayal.
But you may be asking yourself why bother to repair them.
Well, a cloudy headlight is not just an aesthetic issue that affects the appearance of your car. It is also an important safety issue. When oxidation kicks in, the headlight is now essentially a defective part of the vehicle.
It will not allow light to pass through completely, something that will only get worse as times goes by and the damage intensifies. Surely it doesn’t need to be said, but your headlights are a pretty important piece of safety kit on your vehicle. They both allow you to see, and they allow you to be seen by other road users.
It is critical therefore that they work as effectively as possible at all time. Thankfully making sure they do is a pretty simple process.
The first thing you need to is raid the bathroom and get your hands on a tube of toothpaste.
To bring the lights back to their former glory, you are going to need:
- Car Wax or UV Sealant
- A soft cloth
- A bucket of water
- Masking tape
- Some waterproof (i.e. Vinyl) gloves
We bet you’re pretty keen to find out what that toothpaste is for, right?
Well, first things first, stage 1 of this method requires you to:
- Clean. Sorry, it’s hardly the most fun job is it, but unfortunately it’s vital. All those chemicals, water spray and bits of stone we mentioned earlier? They all need to be removed before you proceed to step 2. Use the soap and water, then rinse with a clean cloth.
- Masking Tape. Either wait for the headlight to dry naturally or else give it a good rub down with some clean rags until it is completely dry. Use the masking tape to cover the points where the car’s bodywork is close to the headlight. You don’t want to risk damaging the paint during the cleaning operation.
- Toothpaste. Pop some gloves on if you have sensitive hands because toothpaste can be surprisingly painful on chapped or damaged skin. Grab a clean cloth, wet it and squeeze on some toothpaste – just a dab, not the entire tube!
- Clean again. Using the toothpaste-laden cloth carefully clean the plastic surface of the headlight. Use more water as required to wash away the toothpaste, ensuring it is all removed once it’s done its job.
- Protect. Once dry again, apply either a car wax or a UV protector to help prevent future damage.
Job done! You see, all toothpaste contains mild abrasives. These clean stains and plaque from your teeth – they are also really good at cleaning oxidized plastic products!
Toothpaste is the mildest way to clean. If your lights are more cloudy then you may need to buy and use a dedicated car glass cleaner and car polish, as they both contain more abrasive elements to help buff out the signs of worse UV damage.
The last technique is to take the car to the shop for the pros to do their work. Don’t panic, this isn’t the expensive replacement we mentioned up top! Most mechanics have excellent; air powered buffing tools that they can use on really cloudy lights. It’s more expensive than an at home repair, but it’s definitely cheaper than a complete replacement.
Good luck, and enjoy driving with your now “Mint Condition” headlights!