Americans are keeping cars longer than ever nowadays, which means there are also a record number of cloudy headlight lenses cropping up. Bad news, folks: if your lenses are plastic, as most are, then they’ll inevitably develop a yellowish haze over time. This isn't just aesthetically unappealing; it can also be dangerous. But don’t pull an Eeyore when it happens to you and let it rain on your parade. Instead, follow this handy guide to cloudy headlights, which should help you understand and mitigate the problem.
Plastic doesn’t like heat or humidity, and headlight lenses get bombarded with both. In fact, there are a lot of elements out to get the headlights on your vehicle. There’s heat from the bulbs inside, heat from the engine bay, and of course heat and humidity from the atmosphere, depending on climate and season. Another culprit is UV damage from direct sunlight. Road salt is also a yellowing agent, and you can’t discount the effects of years of high-speed collisions with dust, dirt, and insects.
Not surprisingly, cloudy yellow headlight lenses make the bulbs’ job a lot harder. Accordingly, your nighttime and bad-weather visibility will steadily degrade as your lenses age, especially in low-beam mode, which is crucial for urban and winter driving. Moreover, if it’s harder for you to see the road ahead, it’s also harder for other drivers to see your car. Hazy headlights aren’t just a cosmetic issue; they’re a safety issue, too.
If this is your first shot at sprucing up your lenses, we recommend keeping it simple and cheap. A popular do-it-yourself option is 3M’s Headlight Lens Restoration System
, which competes with capable offerings from Turtlewax
and Blue Magic
. The instructions typically recommend a power drill with a sanding disc for best results, but we’ve seen this sort of stuff work wonders with nothing more than a few squirts on a shop rag and some elbow grease.
If you’ve got a more serious case of yellow haze, our best advice is to head to your mechanic to get it sorted out. Body shops sometimes offer professional headlight-cleaning services, and we’ve come across more than a few small businesses devoted primarily to the art of de-hazing headlights. Whatever you do, avoid ordering replacement lenses unless a trusted independent expert says your current lenses are hopeless. As usual, practically any solution will be cheaper than paying for new factory parts and dealer labor.
Short of permanently storing your vehicle in a vacuum-sealed display cube (hey, it’s probably been done), there’s nothing you can do to stop plastic from degrading. You can certainly slow the process down, however, by avoiding salted roads and prolonged sun exposure whenever feasible. It also wouldn’t be a bad idea to rub down your lenses with one of those at-home cleaners on a semi-regular basis, and some companies even offer clear protective films that provide a buffer between your lenses and the elements. Such measures do more than just promote safety―they give your resale value a little boost as well.