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How to clean your car headlights

When it comes to washing the car, the headlights aren’t really an area that you generally focus on. Apart from scraping a few dead bugs off, most of us will simply leave the headlights to their own devices. However, for the eagle-eyed, you’ll notice that over time your headlights will become cloudy, regardless of how often you wash them. While a common problem for car-owners, what exactly is it, and how can you tackle the problem? Canstar Blue explains.

How do my headlights get cloudy?

The clouding of your headlights is a gradual process, so you can be forgiven if you don’t notice your headlights starting to yellow or cloud over until the process is well underway. Essentially, the lenses of your car’s headlights will often become ‘foggy’ or ‘cloudy’ through the breakdown of the outer material in a process known as oxidation, which leaves behind a film that not only changes the colour of the headlight, but impacts on its effectiveness to light up the road in front of you.

Most modern headlight lenses are made from durable polycarbonate plastic, ideal for tough road conditions and the stray rock that may flick up, with many manufacturers additionally coating the outer material in a UV film to protect the inner headlight against the harsh Aussie sun. However, even with the UV film, most cars will fall victim to material breakdown and headlight clouding, particularly older cars that are often left parked in direct sunlight. This material breakdown is most commonly referred to as ‘ outgassing’, which can also impact how clean the interior of your windshield.

So now the mystery of your cloudy headlights has been solved, how do you return your lights to their former glory?

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How to clean cloudy headlights

Online forums discussing the issue seem to be just as cloudy as your headlights, with many swearing by home remedies, while others put their faith in products available from vehicle retailers. So what can you use, and how should you be using it? Here are some of the more common methods used to clean car’s headlights:

  • Toothpaste: It keeps your teeth sparkling, so why not your headlights as well? According to many motorists via online forums and websites, attacking your headlights with toothpaste will give you a shiny end result. Simply put a bit of toothpaste on a cleaning rag or towel, and spread in circular motions, before rinsing it with a hose and drying it off with a fresh towel. You’ll have to use regular toothpaste however, as anything with flavour crystals or extras may scratch and damage your headlights.
  • Sandpaper: With the idea to grind away and smooth out the oxidised film left behind, using sandpaper is another common technique recommended. However, you’ll have to be careful when it comes to choosing what type of sandpaper you use, and how hard you go at your headlights, as sanding too hard could scratch the protective layer away and damage your lights. As a result, it’s best to start with a more abrasive sandpaper, before swapping to a less abrasive one for a smooth finish.
  • Cleaning Kit: Readily available at car part retailers like Repco and Supercheap Auto, headlight cleaning kits may set you back a bit more than sandpaper or toothpaste, but may also get the job done better. Often containing special cleaners and sprays, cleaning kits will also come with a cleaning cloth and sanding paper to help you get the job done, with instructions on the box to help you get that shiny end product.
  • Buffer: If you’re looking to really make sure that your headlights are clean, and you’ve got the tools lying around, you could always take a buffer to your car. Working similar to sandpaper, a buffer will smooth out your headlights, as well as polish as you go, to give you that ideal finish. Of course, not everyone will have a buffer in their garage, but who knows, maybe your neighbor will let you borrow theirs?

If you decide to go down the path of toothpaste or sandpaper, it’s recommended that you tape off the area around your headlights to ensure you aren’t scratching off any paint while you’re going to town on your headlights. Painter’s tape will be the best option to consider, as it also won’t peel away your car coating when you go to remove the tape.

How can I prevent my headlights from oxidising?

While there are plenty of ways to return your headlights to their former glory, is there a way to prevent them from oxidising in the first place? Again a subject of debate in online motoring forums, keeping your car out of direct sunlight, or occasionally taking fine sandpaper to your headlights, seems to be the most commonly recommended option for car owners.

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Is cleaning my headlights worth it?

Properly cleaning and de-oxidising your headlights not only gives you a fresher looking ride, but can also make a big difference in respect of your safety behind the wheel. By clearing your headlights, more light is able to illuminate what’s in front of you, allowing you to better keep your eyes on the road when the sun goes down.

Ultimately, it won’t be a process that everyone will have to do, or a process that you’ll have to do often, but could just be the difference between having a safe trip and meeting with an accident.

Photo credits: pathdoc/shutterstock.com, nutcd32/shutterstock.com, kurhan/shutterstock.com, bogdanhoda/shutterstock.com, Aleksandr Kondratov/shutterstock.com, welcomia/shutterstock.com

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