How to Clean Oxidized Headlights

How to Clean Oxidized Headlights

Notice some cloudiness on your headlights? That unsightly haze forms naturally over time from a process called oxidation. Noticing and correcting oxidation early on will save you a lot of trouble. This article will explain oxidation and the steps to restore oxidized headlights. 

To clean oxidized headlights: Rinse off the headlight, apply a cutting compound, buff the surface, and apply a protective coating. 

 Tools needed include: 

That’s all you need! Let’s take a moment to understand oxidation before you correct it: 

Science behind oxidation 

You're probably wondering: how does that cloudy, yellow haze appear on a headlight? 

Oxidation happens when atoms (or, in this case, compounds) lose electrons. You see the reaction visually as a flat, opaque covering that coats your headlights' surfaces.

Most modern headlights contain an acrylic compound that is susceptible to oxidation. Years ago, manufacturers switched from glass to polycarbonate acrylic headlights to increase scratch resistance and durability. However, like any material, polycarbonates break down over time. 

The sun's UV radiation plays an essential role in oxidation. Over time, UV rays weaken the bonds of the compound that make up your headlights – creating microscopic cracks on the surface. Other elements also play roles in eroding headlights. Debris like road chips, salt, dirt, and water vapor contribute to cloudiness. Believe it or not, moisture is often the factor that ignites the oxidation process. High moisture content in the air causes water vapor to form inside the tiny cracks of your headlights. This moisture gets trapped within the headlight unit once the air on the outside becomes drier. The result? Murky, cloudy, or yellowed headlights.

Over time, each of these factors leads to headlight damage. While these issues might sound irreversible, they are correctable with a few simple steps. 

Consider removal options

Severe oxidation requires an extra step, which involves sanding. Evaluate the surface of the headlight to check for damage. If your headlights have water vapor inside, you have surface damage and require additional steps for removal. You can find our step-by-step guide to treating heavy oxidation or surface damage here.  

Luckily, most cases of oxidation do not require sanding and will resolve using the processes described below.

Rinse off the headlight 

Before any headlight correction, ensure that the surface is free of contaminants. Buffing with dust or other hard debris lingering on the surface will damage the headlight. Rinse off the headlight with a hose or water bucket.

After rinsing the headlight, dry it with a microfiber towel until the surface is moisture-free. 

Apply cutting compound 

Now that the surface is clean, work on addressing the oxidation. 

Cutting compounds remove scratches or minor paint defects on a car exterior. These pastes contain abrasive materials that polish out blemishes and are also effective in eliminating oxidation. 

Apply the cutting compound to all areas of the headlight. Begin with a conservative amount. The more you use, the longer it will take to thoroughly buff. If oxidation or yellowing is stubborn, you can apply more as needed throughout the next step. 

Buff the surface

You can apply the cutting compound to your headlights in two ways: using a microfiber towel or a wool pad via rotary buffer. A drill will speed up this step but be cautious of the speed and amount of time you spend drilling in one area. Too much friction can melt or deform headlight plastic. Taping off the surrounding areas of your headlight is recommended if you opt for a rotary buffer. 

Regardless of which tool you use, buff the headlight with uniform pressure. Start with horizontal passes before switching to vertical strokes. If there's lingering fogginess, continue buffing the headlight until you achieve full transparency. Once you've covered the entire headlight sufficiently, rinse and wipe off any remaining residue with a clean microfiber towel. 

Apply a protective coating

The surface of the headlight is now clean, but nothing will stop oxidation from reoccurring over time – which is why we recommend the additional step of applying a protective coating. There are countless products to pick from to protect your headlights. For an in-depth look at some of the most common solutions, check out our blog post on several protective products here

Each product has its benefits and drawbacks, but we recommend our Ceramic Glass Coating for those who want long-lasting results without breaking the bank. This glass coating creates a covalent bond with your glass – hardening to create a crystal-clear hydrophobic layer. It'll protect your headlight from UV rays, tree sap, dirt, and other debris. The kit comes with everything you need – no professional tools necessary! 

Like most protective products, this glass coating will not last forever; however, it may protect for up to two years. 

While protective coatings are not a necessity, we highly recommend them. The short application time and long protection period make protectants a viable option to preserve your headlights. 

See things clearly! 

These simple steps should resolve all minor headlight oxidation. If these steps do not deliver the best results, refer to our guide to permanently restoring headlights. Sometimes oxidation can be stubborn enough to require additional corrective measures. To correct minor oxidation in headlights: rinse off the headlight, apply a cutting compound, buff the surface, and apply additional protection. These simple procedures will restore your headlight’s appearance and functionality and – allowing you to see whatever roads you travel.


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