What To Do About Cloudy Headlights

AAA Auto Repair Article
By AAA Automotive
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The next time you walk up to your car, take a moment to look at its headlights. If the lenses are cloudy or opaque you have a problem that could impact your health and welfare – and that of others. Cloudy headlights provide significantly less illumination and cause light to scatter rather than being focused on the road, which also creates glare for oncoming drivers. Read on to learn more about this problem and what you can do about it.

The Problem

Most modern headlight lenses are made of clear and nearly unbreakable polycarbonate plastic or a similar material. The lenses are treated at the factory with a special coating that protects them from the ultraviolet (UV) rays in sunlight, vehicle exhaust fumes and other environmental contaminants. In fact, to obtain government approval, plastic headlight assemblies must pass a three-year U.S. Department of Transportation durability test.

What To Do About Cloudy Headlights
Figure 1. A headlight with a clouded lens used in AAA’s research. (AAA image)
In normal use, the life of a headlight’s protective coating depends on the level of exposure to the hazards mentioned above – especially the amount and intensity of sunlight. AAA inspected a representative sample of used vehicles and determined that five years is the approximate timeframe in which visible deterioration of headlight lenses begins to appear.

The Fix

It’s been said that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and that holds true for headlights. Auto dealers and parts stores sell lens treatments that, when applied regularly, can significantly extend the life of the factory protective coating. Think of them as sunscreen for your headlights. To help prevent the lenses from aging, use one of these products periodically per the manufacturer’s instructions.

If the time for prevention has already passed, AAA found you can dramatically improve the performance of deteriorated headlights by refinishing the lenses. Numerous “home remedies” can be found on the internet, such as using toothpaste or insect repellent. These are short term solutions at best, and some can damage the headlights or vehicle finish. The preferred method is to sand the lens to remove damaged plastic, polish the surface to eliminate scratches and restore clarity, and then retreat the headlight with a protective coating.

What To Do About Cloudy Headlights
Figure 2. The same headlight after refinishing. (AAA image)
Auto parts stores sell inexpensive do-it-yourself headlight refinishing kits, just be sure to select one that includes a final protective coating or the lenses will become cloudy again in a matter of months. You can also have headlight restoration done professionally at an auto body shop, an auto repair facility, a detailing service or even some big-box retailer automotive centers. Depending on the auto service provider and the process, costs generally run from $30 to $150.

The Results

Working with badly deteriorated headlight assemblies, AAA found that using a basic headlight restoration kit from an auto parts store provided significant improvements. Light intensity at the headlight’s “hot spot” doubled, the overall amount of light projected increased by 30 percent and glare-producing light scatter was reduced by 60 percent.

Despite the indisputable benefits for nighttime vision and driving safety, AAA survey results found just 20 percent of Americans have had deteriorated headlights refinished. Maintaining clear headlights is a critical component auto care that you can’t ignore. If your car’s headlights are still in good shape, consider using a regular protective treatment to keep them that way. If deterioration has already occurred, see your way clear (pun intended) to refinish your headlights at the earliest convenient opportunity with a do-it-yourself refinishing product or help from a professional repair shop.

Finding Quality Auto Repair

AAA recommends that you plan ahead for vehicle service by finding an auto repair shop and technician you can trust before you need them. AAA.com/Repair provides information on nearly 7,000 Approved Auto Repair facilities that have met AAA’s high standards for appearance, technician training and certification, insurance coverage and customer satisfaction. AAA regularly inspects every Approved Auto Repair facility and surveys their customers to ensure ongoing performance. In addition, AAA members receive special benefits that include auto repair discounts, an extended 24-month/24,000-mile parts and labor warranty, and AAA assistance in resolving repair-related issues.

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